Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 19: The Flat Archetype of the Ruler

The Ruler represents the Flat or “resting” archetype that bridges the Queen’s rise to power and the King’s eventual surrender of that same power. As such, the Ruler represents the potential period in a person’s life in which he or she is in a position of leadership.

This Ruler might be a literal head of state—Queen, King, President, Prime Minister, etc. Or the Ruler might be a CEO, general, admiral, lead scientist, patriarch or matriarch, captain of a small fishing boat, etc. What is important to this archetype (and what distinguishes it from the previous Flat archetype of Parent) is that the Ruler is not just “in charge” but is the undisputed authority within his or her sphere of influence.

The Ruler is not merely the loving guide represented by the Parent (although in a healthy character, the Parent will of course have been incorporated into this more advanced archetype), but rather someone who has learned the hard lessons of the Queen’s rise to power. Namely, the Ruler understands that the primary challenge of true leadership is that of Order. A good Ruler will understand mercy, but will err toward justice. And as a result, the Kingdom runs smoothly and successfully (at least until the dawn of the subsequent King Arc signals it is time for the Crown to be passed on).

From a causal perspective within the “real world,” the Ruler is one of the most powerful of all archetypes. Perhaps literally or perhaps symbolically within the sphere of any specific story’s smaller “Kingdom,” the Ruler’s word is law. The decisions made by such a character have vast reach and will affect the lives of all characters living within the Kingdom (the “younger” and, likely, the “older” archetypes as well). Right away, we can see what a powerful protagonist the Ruler makes within a Flat Arc—in which the protagonist will not change but will instead enact and offer change to the supporting characters.

The Ruler Archetype: True Sovereignty

 Previous Arc: Queen

Subsequent Positive Arc: Crone

Subsequent Possible Negative Archetypes: Hermit (passive); Wicked Witch (aggressive)

The Ruler represents the height of a person’s power potential. This archetype rests at the very center of the entire life cycle. It is the Midpoint between the Second-Act arcs of Queen and King. As such, the Ruler is a character who has long since overcome the primary challenges of mastering the inner world (challenges which were conquered in the young Maiden and Hero Arcs), but has also (thanks to the Queen Arc) gained a significant amount of control over the outer world. Indeed, it is because of the Ruler’s inner-world control that he or she is able to bring similar order and blessing to the Kingdom.

The Ruler is able to master the Kingdom precisely because he or she has first mastered Self. We can see this validated if we return to the symbolism of the classical Hero’s Journey, in which the young Hero is often called on his Quest because the King/Ruler is sick—and, as a result, the entire Kingdom has fallen under a blight. In short: healthy Ruler, healthy Kingdom. Carol S. Pearson talks about this in Awakening the Heroes Within:

The Ruler creates a peaceful and harmonious kingdom by becoming peaceful and harmonious inside. The belief system—that inner and outer worlds mirror one another—that informs alchemy is also encoded in the grail myths, especially with regard to the King’s relationship to the kingdom.

A Ruler who can bless the Kingdom with this kind of health is someone who has achieved true sovereignty. We symbolically view this character as “the King” or “the Sovereign” precisely for this reason. A worthy leader is a person who has first mastered or gained sovereignty over themselves. Indeed, the hallmark of a negative Ruler—the Puppet (passive) or the Tyrant (aggressive)—is disrespect for either one’s own personal sovereignty or that of others.

The Ruler’s Normal World

Not surprisingly, the Ruler’s Normal World may be viewed symbolically as a Kingdom. It is not necessary for the character to literally rule over a nation. Whatever his or her realm of influence, that is the story’s Kingdom. As Pearson says:

…the Ruler is the archetype of material prosperity.

This does not mean the protagonist needs to be wealthy or even to have a great number of “subjects.” What it does mean is that the Ruler has reached the top of the ladder in whatever his sphere of influence—and he’s happy there. If his Kingdom is Jeff Bridges’s floating school for troubled boys in White Squall, then he is content to rule that Kingdom. He is not ambitious. Although he will always be trying to better the lot of his subjects, he is not trying to advance his own position because, archetypally, he is already at the top.

(And, by the way, in case you were wondering, we can know the Jeff Bridges character is primarily a Ruler archetype instead of a Parent archetype because his focus is not on Loving the boys in his charge but rather on helping them become responsible citizens by imposing Order upon them. He’s not protecting them as Children, but demanding they carry their weight as “citizens” within their little floating Kingdom.)

The Kingdom will be a self-contained unit with defined borders. Rulers are not the rulers of everything (unless, of course, they are). Rather, they are finite sovereigns of finite realms with finite borders—and they will recognize and make treaties with other Rulers of other realms.

Whatever the story’s specific Kingdom, it will be a space in which the Ruler can work to effectively impose order and productivity. To whatever degree possible, the Ruler will work to better the lot of the Kingdom’s subjects and keep the system running smoothly.

The Ruler’s Relationship to the Thematic Truth

The Ruler is a very advanced archetype—one that only a few people truly embody, even when they have reached the proper chronological age (although, of course, a Ruler can be represented by chronologically younger characters as well). By this point in the life cycle, the Ruler has successfully learned and integrated many Truths—most recently the Queen Arc’s “Only wise leadership and trust in those I love can protect them and allow us all to grow.” But the very fact that this character is a Ruler—and presumably a pretty good one—means there are many thematic Truths available to be handed down to the Kingdom.

In King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette talk about the Ruler’s potentially vast range of influence as the “central archetype”:

Like the Divine Child, the good King is at the Center of the World. He sits on his throne on the central mountain, or on the Primeval Hill, as the ancient Egyptians called it. And from this central place, all of creation radiates in geometrical form out to the very frontiers of the realm. “World” is defined as that part of reality that is organized and ordered by the King. What is outside the boundaries of his influence is noncreation, chaos, the demonic, and nonworld.

This is a character who is not just brave, smart, and caring, but a character who has integrated all the previous arcs’ lessons into a profound wisdom. Even when the Ruler makes mistakes, this is still a character who has much to offer everyone else—if they are willing to accept.

How the Ruler Creates Change in Supporting Characters

A good Ruler is most likely to interact with the younger Heroes, initiating them on their Quests into adulthood. As with all the “older” archetypes, the Ruler here offers a vital transaction within the life-arc cycle. This transaction represents the ability of all the more mature archetypes to help initiate younger archetypes in their own journeys. As Gillette and Moore point out:

Young men today are starving for blessing from older men, starving for blessing from the King energy. This is why they cannot, as we say, “get it together.” They shouldn’t have to. They need to be blessed. They need to be seen by the King, because if they are, something inside will come together for them. That is the effect of blessing; it heals and makes whole. That’s what happens when we are seen and valued and concretely rewarded (with gold, perhaps, dropped from the pharaoh’s hand) for our legitimate talents and abilities.

A good Ruler may also work to transform an upcoming Queen. This might seem surprising at first glance, since the Queen Arc is usually about supplanting a previously unworthy King. But in reality, the Queen’s transition into leadership need not be so dramatic. If she happens to be fortunate to be successor to a good Ruler, that Ruler will not stand in the way of her rise. When it is time for him to take his own King Arc and step down from the throne, he will pass on the Crown to a worthy successor who he has himself blessed and trained up.

Types of Stories That Feature a Ruler Protagonist

Certain stories about teachers are often Ruler stories (again, those that focus more on healthy Order and maturing their students into adulthood, rather than nurturing the students’ Child capacities). War stories that focus on the burden of command can be seen to feature Rulers (such as Band of Brothers and the Captain America stories in the MCU).

And, of course, Ruler characters are often just that—rulers of countries, kingdoms, villages, galaxies, etc. Flat-Arc stories about monarchs and presidents are almost always stories about Rulers (unless, of course, they are stories about Puppets or Tyrants).

Usually, a Ruler story will feature strong subplots about the arcs of the younger characters who are influenced by the Ruler protagonist. But if the story is truly a Flat Arc featuring a Ruler protagonist (versus a Change-Arc in which the protagonist is a younger archetype and the Ruler is instead a supporting Impact Character), the Ruler will be presented as the character with the most agency at all of the important structural beats.

Examples of the Ruler:

Examples of the Ruler archetype include the following. Click on the links for structural analyses.

  • Mr. Knightley in Emma
  • Leia Organa in Star Wars
  • Jack Aubrey in the Aubrey/Maturin series
  • Steve Rogers in the MCU
  • Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Skipper Sheldon in White Squall
  • Dick Winters in Band of Brothers
  • Sister Julienne in Call the Midwife

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the Flat archetype of the Elder.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature the Ruler? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I’m glad you chose White Squall as your example. This alerted me to all the seafaring books I’ve read. The Captain of the Ship is most clearly the Ruler archetype. E. M. Forester does this well in his Horatio Hornblower novels. I just finished a re-reading of the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher (summer brain candy) and it is interesting to see Tavi come into this role by the end of the series.

    I think this is one reason I find Star Trek episodes to be so hollow. They do a poor job following the rules for this archetype. Master and Commander with Russel Crowe highlights the tensions in this role as do almost any naval war book or movie. Thanks for explaining this. It helps me understand why I like certain stories and why others don’t work for me.

  2. As you pointed out, this is a natural for teachers, coaches and war leaders. I think the Robin WIlliams character in “Dead Poet’s Society”, Sidney Poitier (Sir) in “To Sir with Love”, the Gene Hackman character in “Hoosiers” and the Tom Hank’s character in “Saving Private Ryan”. I have to admit that when you started talking about this arc my reaction was “interesting, but nobody ever uses this”, but by the end examples with spewing out of the back of my mind.

    I wonder if the Katie Weiland character in the “Archetypal Characters Arc” blog series would classify as a Ruler… I mean I don’t think there’s a goddess arc I’m unaware of.

  3. Grace Dvorachek says

    I think this is the archetype I’ve been looking for… in my current WIP, based in a fictional medieval country, there is a supporting, Flat Arc character named Adric who impacts both of the MCs. He’s the older brother of King Orwyn, who only recently inherited the throne, and the husband of Eris, a peasant. Orwyn and Eris basically hate each other’s guts. The conflict between them represents the overall conflict between the peasants and the nobles of the kingdom. Since Adric is a disowned prince and now identifies as a peasant, he’s caught in the middle of everything. Plus, he’s the leader of the largest rebel band in the kingdom, which means that he, too, represents all that Orwyn is against.
    The rebels within Adric’s band each hold different feelings for the nobles. Some, like Adric, are only in it because they want to do the right thing. But a few of them, one in particular by the name of Wulf, are strictly in it because they want freedom. This is in direct conflict to Adric’s desire to do things the right way. Wulf wants freedom, but he doesn’t care how he gets it. He constantly defies Adric’s orders to do whatever he wants to do.
    However, it is clear that Adric is in complete control of his “Kingdom.” The other rebels respect him, and obey him without question. Not even Wulf’s defiance or Orwyn and Eris’ hatred shakes his rule on the rebel band.
    After reading this post, I can see Adric as a Ruler, but I’m not completely sure. Could he possibly be a Parent? He does try to protect his younger brother, Orwyn, even though Orwyn denies protection. Yet he also allows the other characters, including Orwyn at times, to make their own decisions and learn from the consequences. Another thing is that the “Kingdom” he rules isn’t the entire World of the story. The real World is an actual kingdom, while Adric’s archetypal “Kingdom” is only a small fraction of that. Would this affect which archetype he’s in?
    Any input would be appreciated… I’m wavering back and forth between the Parent and Ruler archetypes with this character. Thank you for another enlightening post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s possible he represents more of a Parent in relationship to his younger brother, while offering the Ruler as his main personal archetype.

      • Grace Dvorachek says

        Okay… it seemed that way to me, but I’m tentative to put two different archetype labels on a character when I might just have an incorrect understanding of the archetypes. I think his relationship to Eris, his wife, is also similar to his relationship with his brother in that he’s protective of them both. So perhaps he’s a Parent to his brother and wife, and a Ruler to the other rebels and peasants. Thank you for clearing that up!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Archetypes aren’t always fixed. This is particularly true for a character who has achieved a more advanced archetype (such as the Ruler) and who can revisit his or her own “younger” archetypes in their proper relationship to other characters’ corresponding younger archetypes. For example, a real-life King would not necessarily interact with his own personal children as a *King.* He would almost certainly interact with them as their father and thus more as the Parent than the Ruler.

          • Grace Dvorachek says

            Hmm… all this is so interesting! I’m learning so much from this series that I’d never thought about before. Thank you again!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            My pleasure! 🙂

  4. This was very clarifying for me to see not only the differences between Parent and Ruler arcs, but also between the King and Queen arcs. Captains on their ships, teachers in their classrooms, this makes great sense of the King with his kingdom. I confess, in my head I thought of my music/drama program as my kingdom. Mr. Escalante in Stand and Deliver is another great example of a protagonist in the Ruler arc.

  5. Usvaldo de Leon says

    Would it be safe to say that a Ruler always leads to positive outcomes? If they are wise and self actuated that seems to preclude a ruler guiding everyone negatively.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I would class a negative Ruler as as shadow archetype and therefore either a Puppet or (more likely) a Tyrant.

  6. Thank you for another great article!

    I still can’t fully understand how to see the difference between a Parent and a Ruler arcs.
    Thor in the first movie returned after his Hero arc or after a Maiden?
    When did he become a Parent and when a Ruler?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Mostly the difference has to do with the scope of the character’s relationship to other characters. A Ruler has greater responsibility over a greater number of people than does a Parent (speaking generally).

      Thor’s first movie was a Hero Arc. The second movie was an aborted Queen Arc, in which he chose not to take up leadership of Asgard. The Parent is never really explored for him. Not every archetype (especially Flat archetypes) needs to be explored, depending on the progression of the story.

      • Thank you for the answer!
        And can a character have two Ruler phases?

        For example in one of the shows I’ve seen such character arc:
        a son rebels against his father-king, is exiled and becomes a king of some outcasts, then he returns to father’s kingdom and slowly starts growing, falls in love, protects his new friends. Eventually he learns the value of love and sacrifice, and soon after that his father decides to retire.

        The character defeats his evil brother during a short war and becomes a new King.

        It seems to me he goes from the Hero’s arc right to the Queen’s but he has two periods of being a ruler.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Most of the later Flat archetypes represent some sort of “rulership” over something. Parents are, of course, rulers of their children, and later Flat archetypes such as Elder and Mentor represent at least a symbolic leadership over younger communities. What differentiates them is *what* they are ruling. “King of outcasts” sounds more to me like a Parent archetype. However, there are, of course, many shades and overlaps to all of these archetypes.

  7. Joan Kessler says

    You already talked about Rick in the King Arc, but in the beginning of Casablanca, is Rick a Ruler before arcing into King?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. He’s the undisputed Ruler of his little world–which is what makes his eventually willing sacrifice, as King, so poignant.

  8. The quote about “They need to be seen by the King, because if they are, something inside will come together for them.” has me seeing Cap in a new light. I had noticed that through the series he builds teams with his leadership (the commando team, makes the Avengers cohesive, and later builds his rogue teams). The thing I hadn’t seen before is that each group needed him so they could see the problems and keep it together enough to fight the bad guys.

  9. Err, think you made an error: It says the Ruler is the bridge between Queen and King but you have the subsequent positive arc listed as Crone.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Ruler is the Flat archetype between the Queen and King Arc. The Crone Arc then follows the King Arc.

      So:

      Arc: Queen
      Flat: Ruler
      Arc: King
      Flat: Elder
      Arc: Crone

      Etc.

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