Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 22: How to Use Archetypal Character Arcs in Your Stories

And so we find ourselves (almost) at the end of a nearly six-month journey through the possibilities of archetypal character arcs. If you’ve stuck with me through what is by far the longest series I have ever shared, then I hope, like me, you are enthralled and excited by the possibilities that archetypes offer for bringing depth, resonance, and, yes, structure to your stories.

But now what? Now that you’ve studied the six possible Positive Change Arcs within the archetypal life cycle, as well as the possible shadow devolutions and Flat resting periods, what do you do now? How can you apply these archetypal character arcs in a practical way to your own stories?

As with all of story theory, just by learning about archetypes, you have already osmotically collected tools and references that will likely show up naturally in your writing. Indeed, learning the specifics of archetypes only enhances what is already instinctive, since this intuitive understanding is the entire essence and point of archetype. From there, you can, of course, use these archetypes and their arcs to actively plan, plot, and write your stories. The structural beat sheets I provided for each of the Positive-Change “journeys” are a good place to get started if you’re wanting to apply any particular arc to your protagonist.

Today, let’s unofficially close out this series with a short discussion of the more practical side of applying archetypal character arcs to your stories. (Next week, we’ll officially end the series with a “master” summation post, listing the various comparative points of all the arcs and archetypes, so you can use it as an easy reference tool.)

Finding Your Own Character Archetypes

First of all, let me encourage you to make these archetypes your own. Don’t just take my word or the word of the many authors referenced in this series. Archetypes are resonant less because we mentally recognize them and more because we feel them. When we encounter a true archetype (or even just a subjective personal archetype), we feel the resonance deep within us.

When you experience this feeling, pay attention. You’ve almost certainly found something that matters to you and your life, and therefore probably something you should write about.

It’s important to realize that archetypes are not necessarily fixed. The system I’ve presented in this series—as one I personally resonate with—is not the only system. There are many more archetypes than the ones I’ve discussed here. Want a Trickster in your story, or a Femme Fatale, or a Warrior? These archetypes can be explored in their own specificity and mined for equally exciting and important stories.

If this discussion of archetypes has connected with you, then I highly recommend exploring the many books I’ve referenced throughout the series. A few are written specifically for writers; most are not. Most are written for people who are interested in the human experience and in finding leverage points in their own personal development. None of these books present the life-arc system exactly as I have, and almost all of them offer explorations of many different kinds of archetypes.

Here is a quick list of most of the books I’ve enjoyed on the subject (with affiliate links):

More than just reading and studying archetypes, however, don’t be afraid to find them within yourself and your own experiences. Humans resonate with archetypes not because we find them outside ourselves, but because we recognize them as part of ourselves.

I will quote the wonderful Clarissa Pinkola Estés one last time:

I encourage people to do their own mining of story, for the scraped knuckles, the sleeping on cold ground, the groping in the dark and the adventures on the way are worth everything. There must be a little spilled blood on every story if it is to carry the medicine…. I hope you will go out and let stories happen to you.

Remember, Archetypal Character Arcs Are Developmental, But Not Always Linear

Another important reminder is that although the archetypal system we have been studying these past months is presented in a linear fashion, it doesn’t have to be.

Unlike the theory of plot structure and general character-arc structure, these archetypal character arcs are not necessarily found in every story. They are not as strictly “episodic” in the sense that they should be told in a certain order and must be confined to one book at a time. The structures I’ve suggested for each Positive-Change archetype can be used for a single book, but it’s also possible (although of course more complicated) to utilize multiple archetypes within the single structural character arc of one book.

Although utilizing the archetypal character arcs in the order I’ve presented will make for a tidy, resonant, and sensible progression of character development—especially within a series—we all know real life isn’t always so tidy. In The Hero Within (which is specifically about real-life archetypal development), Carol Pearson puts it like this:

The hero’s journey is developmental, but not linear. No rule says that we all have to travel through it, lockstep, the same way others do. The trick is to understand the unique form and logic of your own particular journey. The circular diagram of the sacred wheel … is a two-dimensional model for a three-dimensional process. Actually, it would be more correct to envision it as a cone or spiral, in which it is possible to move forward while frequently circling back. Each stage has its own lesson to teach us, and we reencounter situations that throw us back into prior stages so that we may learn and relearn lessons at new levels of intellectual and emotional complexity.

This is also important to realize when studying archetypes in other stories. The examples won’t always be as clearly defined as they are for the more generalized character arcs that represent Positive-Change, Negative-Change, and Flat stories without specific archetypal grounding.

5 Considerations for How to Use Archetypal Character Arcs

So you’re ready to start writing epic archetypal stories? (I know I am!) What, then, are the best practices for applying these ideas to your own original works?

Creating Character Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

First of all, remember that all of these archetypal character arcs are “built upon” the foundational theories and practices of story structure and character arcs. A solid understanding of these ideas will help you immensely in then layering the archetypes on top.

Second, don’t forget that archetypal language is deeply and purposefully symbolic. None of it needs to be literal. You can use all of the archetypes literally in a fantasy story if you wish, but you can also reach deep into the subtext of a hyper-modern and hyper-realistic story to find and utilize the same archetypes.

1. Identify Central Archetypes in Your Stories

The first step is, of course, to figure out which archetypal arc you want to explore in your story. You can do this in one of two ways. Either you can simply choose to tell a story about a Maiden, a Sorceress, a Ruler, etc., and then start constructing a plot around these ideas. Or you can examine an idea you already have for a story and determine which archetypes are naturally present.

For example, in plotting sequels to my own fiction, I soon realized that the sequels were not (and could not be) another Hero Arc. The protagonist had already covered that ground and the sequels needed to progress the story. Realizing where the protagonist has already been is helpful in figuring out what comes next—and therefore which archetypes are likely to be the most accurate and useful.

2. Consider the Series as a Whole

If you’re writing a standalone story, your considerations will be fewer: you need only choose a single archetypal arc to work with. But if you’re writing a series, you can zoom out to consider the overall arc you will be telling over the course of multiple books.

The archetypal life arcs neatly lend themselves to serial fiction. If you wish to tell the entire life’s journey for a single character, you can easily do so by moving all the way through Maiden to Mage (with maybe some Flat-Arc books in there about the Lover, Parent, etc.).

If you know how large a story you intend to tell and where you want it to end up, you can better make room for all the necessary archetypal beats.

It’s also possible to utilize a single archetypal arc (such as the Hero Arc) across the entire series, interposing the beats appropriately from book to book.

The clearer you are on this in the beginning, the easier it will be to create the necessary depth and resonance (and save yourself a lot of hassle—trust me on this!).

3. Use Central Arcs to Choose and Flesh Out Supporting Characters

Once you’ve identified the archetypal character arc your protagonist will be taking—and therefore the archetype that will define the story—you can also use this knowledge to help flesh out a thematically solid supporting cast.

If you know your protagonist will be following a Hero Arc, then you know your story will benefit from supporting characters who represent the progressed archetypes of the King and the Mentor or the Mage. If you’re writing a Queen Arc, you know your antagonist will have a double layer—both as the Invader who threatens the Kingdom and as the Puppet/Tyrant who must be replaced.

You’ll want to look for two particular types of supporting characters who can be represented archetypally:

1. Important Impact Characters, represented by Flat archetypes, who will know the thematic Truth your protagonist is trying to grasp—and therefore will be able to offer guidance.

2. Antagonists, who are symbolically important in all the Positive Arcs: Predator in the Maiden Arc, Dragon in the Hero Arc, Cataclysm in the King Arc, etc. (At the request of several of you, we will be exploring these archetypal antagonists in another series later this fall.)

4. Pay Attention to Inherent Archetypal Themes

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

The thematic possibilities within your specific and individual archetypal stories are vast. But it’s important to recognize that each archetype also offers inherent themes. To truly execute your personal themes well, you need to at least know what themes your chosen archetypes are also representing.

Within each of the previous posts in this series, I have discussed the “core” thematic Lie/Truth for each archetype. Although you may choose to raise these Truths differently or to riff off their manifold nuances, at least be aware of the message the central archetypes will share with readers simply by existing within your story.

5. Mine Your Own Archetypal Experience

Inevitably, our stories are stories of ourselves—whether our past, present, or future. So consider how your own journey through the life arcs might impact your stories.

As Pearson says:

The need to take the journey is innate in the species. If we do not risk, if we play prescribed social roles instead of taking our journeys, we may feel numb and experience a sense of alienation, a void, an emptiness inside. People who are discouraged from slaying dragons internalize the urge and slay themselves by declaring war on their fat, their selfishness, their sensitivity, or some other attribute they think does not please. Or they suppress their feelings in order to become successful performance machines. Or they become chameleons, killing off their uniqueness to serve an image they think buys success or just will keep them safe. When we declare war on our true selves, we can end up feeling as though we have lost our souls. If this goes on long enough, we are likely to become ill and have to struggle to get well. In shying away from the quest, we experience non life and, accordingly, we call forth less life in the culture. This is the experience of the wasteland.

Where do you think you are within the cycle? Your age can give you a clue. If you are chronologically within the First Act (roughly, the first thirty years), Second Act (thirty to sixty years), or Third Act (sixty to ninety-plus years), you may not necessarily be on a corresponding life arc, but you will very likely be at least experiencing its call. But, of course, life isn’t as neat as story theory, and you may be (like me) chronologically in your Second Act but still cleaning up loose ends from First-Act arcs.

Not only is this individual archetypal work transformative (personally and socially), it is also deeply insightful for applying archetypes to your writing. Once you can see how you have experienced your own Maiden Arc or Hero Arc, you will be able to tap a vast storehouse of wisdom and understanding in writing these journeys for your characters—even if their stories take place in outer space or long-ago historical eras.

I will end with one final challenge from Pearson, which I think speaks to the incredible potential offered to us by archetypes, both in our writing and in our lives:

Systems theory tells us that when any element of a system changes, the whole system has to reconfigure. Therefore, simply by experiencing your own metamorphosis, you can contribute to the transformation of all the social systems of which you are a part: family, school, workplace, community, and society as a whole.

Thank you so much for joining me on this journey! Next week, we will officially end the series with some summation, comparison, and a compilation of basic notes for easy future reference.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Which archetypes are you most interested in writing about in your own stories? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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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. Thank you for the great series K.M., I will take it not just for my stories, but for life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Aw, that makes my day! 😀

      • K.M. Arcs, not only in writing, but also in watching film. I find myself thinking of characters and their arcs.
        Many thanks

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, movies are a great place to study character arcs and story structure in general. It can be easier to chart all of that in a two-hour movie than it is when trying to hold an entire book in your head.

    • Abigail Welborn says

      I agree! I have so enjoyed all these posts and can’t wait to apply them (or I suppose, apply them with more conscientiousness).

  2. When they say you have to get specific to be universal, I guess they are talking about archetypes? Your character runs a record store but he is really about to embark on a King arc and we recognize that on some deep level?

  3. I added the podcast was near the end before I shared to Facebook and Twitter. Hope don’t mind.

  4. Wow. This has been an amazing series. I’m looking forward to finding ways to integrate what I’ve learned into my own stories. Thank you!

  5. Grace Dvorachek says

    Has it really been almost six months? I guess time flies when you’re having fun…
    Because I’m currently in the middle of a story, and not beginning one, I’ve mostly been identifying the archetypes in characters that already exist. This has helped me discover more about them than even I knew about. It’s as though I never created the characters… I’m just the one who is presented with the task of discovering them and showing my findings to the world. These archetypes have been extremely helpful in that process.
    Thank you for this series–I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it frequently during my writing journey.
    God Bless!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, that’s how I did a lot of the research for this series. Recognizing how I was already using archetypes in my own writing helped me understand their journeys.

  6. Thank you for this series. I will reiterate my wish for you to collect these posts into an omnnibus, but even as-is the series is remarkable. At least I can bookmark this post so I can have all the resources at hand to pass along to other writers as a resource. Exploring these archetypes have given me so many ideas for tackling a sci-fi saga marinating in my imagination right now. The Queen arc looks especially promising for the purpose.

    Thanks again!

  7. This has been a great series! I love reading about archetypes, but this has helped me both with planning my own book and with appreciating my favorite stories (as we speak, I’m rereading Robin McKinley’s Deerskin and realizing it’s a stellar Maiden arc after reading your series). Thank you for sharing this with us!

  8. This has been great. I think one of the challenges for an author is to think of how to apply this within a given character’s personality type and circumstances. So, for a very open person, it might be totally appropriate to hope on the boat to Troy and have the big adventure. A more conscientious character may feel duty bound to stay home to take care of someone or just to get the harvest in. One if these is obviously a more interesting story, but its not obviously a better life. And when it comes to great overarching truth, well, Robert Palmer said it best, “It Takes Every Kind of People”.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. Every character has their own story. It’s just that every story is different.

  9. Self-help articles, especially on the Internet, nibble around the edges of their subjects.

    Your series on archetypal character arcs dives unabashedly into detailed content that teaches us authors about profound issues. The stages ring true on many levels and have helped me mature my current characters into more meaningful people.

    Your modesty becomes you, but your performance proclaims your insight. This series works on many levels, some of them related to authorship.

    Thank you for this immense effort. The writing community is moving up in a big way. We owe you a huge well done.

  10. It would be interesting to analyse how a character evolves throughout a series such as Harry Potter or say the Star Wars trilogy to see how your ideas work out in practice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. I’ll keep it in mind next time I watch the series.

      • I’m curious– does Luke Skywalker undergo three different kinds of archetypal arcs in each of the original SW movies (the original trilogy, i mean– not counting those terrible Disney things). Or does he just have one big hero arc?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I see one big Hero Arc. His entire journey in the original trilogy is an inner struggle between Power and Love.

  11. this has really helped me give better shape to my characters – i understand them better and hopefully my readers will too. Thank you so much for all your work in this – it’s been incredible to have such an insight

  12. David Snethen says

    This has been the most fantastic series for me personally!

    When I first started writing my current WIP, I started looking on YouTube and other platforms to enhance my characters’ stories. My goal was to make believable characters that would make other people fall in love in spite of their flaws, maybe even BECAUSE of them. This series is the course I’d been seeking since the first day. I’m currently starting over and much of the original episodes seem more lucid. Thank you so much for all the hard work you have put into this! You are my superhero!

    The only trouble I have experienced in the past several months is that in the older posts, you have shared a glimpse of what you go through as a writer in your own daily life. I have found that not necessarily as a path to emulate but as a peek into another world. It gives me hope, not that I will follow your path but that one day I might find my own path to pursue my writing dream. It has therefore given me a source of encouragement and motivation to peer into your life, even if it might only be a superficial version of it. Therefore, I hope that in whatever you choose to continue your community that you bring this aspect back to your podcast.

    God bless you, Ms. Weiland, and thanks again for your excellence!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, David! So glad you enjoyed the series. And thanks for the feedback about the old intro to the podcasts. I took the year off from fiction this year, so found it hard to come up with writing-centric news to talk about. But I may bring it back in the future. All the best!

      • David Snethen says

        So I see in others’ comments that you will be making this a book. That’s good. I was going to print out all the transcripts and highlight the important bits (which is like most of it).

        I’m currently on leave in the Army and finally getting to read Dreamlander for the first time. Pray that I can finish it next week before I have to leave for my son’s USMC graduation. God bless!

  13. I have purchased all of your books and if you were to turn this series into a book, I’d purchase that too. Thanks so much for a very intriguing and engrossing series on archetypes. I have read or plant to read all of the books you listed on archetypes and could read dozens more because it’s such a fascinating subject.

  14. Olga Oliver says

    The BOOK you promise is the greatest news. About halfway through this six months I had an accident and had to cease the balance of your interesting project. Please start a pre-sale list for the BOOK. I’m researching the best words for begging. . . please . . . the BOOK . . . the BOOK.
    Olga Oliver

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sorry to hear about your accident. But, yes, I’ll be starting work on a book this fall with the intention of publishing it next year.

  15. Your generosity to share your extensive knowledge about character arcs is commendable. I sure hope that the old adage of giving and receiving fulfills itself over and over again for you. I have benefitted from this journey, not only as a writer, but as a human too, if you can make the distinction. Let’s go forth and become better at our craft.

  16. In your previous introduction to Flat Archetypes you wrote “None of the Flat archetypes we will be discussing are naturally negative—although the already-discussed shadow archetypes are often, in themselves, relatively static. The passive negative archetypes in particular tend to remain stuck in their own fear and complacency. These characters can be used as protagonist or antagonists within Negative Flat Arcs—in which the protagonist changes supporting characters for the worse”

    So I’m curious: What if a story is about a shadow archetype arcing to a Positive-Change Arc, e.g. a Snow Queen arcing to a Queen Arc…can the shadow archetype character hold a “Truth” but have taken a negative action (or inaction) which caused them to become the shadow archetype and thus “relatively static”? Then, once prompted to arc into the Positive-Change Arc, utilize this Truth to help their world/supporting characters change? This makes me think passive negative archetypes could become a protagonist in a Positive Flat Arc.

    I realize in order to arc to the Positive-Change Arc, they’d be learning some kind of Truth. So a Snow Queen arcing to Queen would learn Responsibility. But I wonder what that in-between period would be like regarding Truth vs Lie while sitting static as a shadow. Can they hold a story “Truth”?

    That was a bit long-winded, but I hope it makes sense 🙂

    Either way, I’ve been really enjoying reading this series. Thanks a bunch for providing a great resource to learn from!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely. The related shadow archetypes are always present as representatives and temptations within a character’s Positive Arc. The protagonist will usually have to confront at least aspects of the passive shadow in the beginning of the story (i.e., holding her back from taking the journey) and then face the temptations of the aggressive shadow later on.

      A Queen Arc story might begin with the character a Snow Queen. Then, as she begins to positively arc out of her passivity and into empowerment, it might at least briefly show her Sorceress or Tyrant capabilities until she learns to wield her new transformation in a positive and healthy way.

      However, you have to be careful with the latter, since if the character too fully embodies the negative archetype and then switches back in too short an amount of time, the rapid changes between archetypes can give readers whiplash and undermine the character arc’s credibility.

  17. Dan Caldwell says

    1) Ahh – Shadows from Plato’s Cave

    2) You are a true Mentor/Teacher born-

    3) Taking Pearson’s Spiral a step further.
    Perhaps a character, under various pressures and sub-optimal choices,
    can ‘fall’ into almost any of the other archetypes
    and may, or may not, get back on her original archetype path.

    Dan Caldwell

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks! And, to #3, I agree, although there are almost always opportunities to course correct as well.

  18. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Mosque_of_Samarra

    If you click on the link, there is a wonderful image of people making a journey up a spiral minaret in Iraq. Years ago I wrote a story about a Western woman who went to live in a Muslim country, and made her own journey of discovery and personal growth. I called it ‘The Minaret Path’.

    Your mention of the journey as a possible spiral, not a circle, reminded me.

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