Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 9: The Maiden’s Shadow Archetypes

In so many ways, we view life as a story. Within the lifelong journey of this story, the first challenge is that of becoming an autonomous individual—an independent and responsible adult. However obvious that may be, the journey itself cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, although we may all grow up chronologically, the struggle to truly leave childhood behind is one that is often prolonged and even aborted for a great many of us.

Within the model of the six archetypal character arcs, this first initiatory journey is represented by the Maiden. She faces external antagonists, metaphorically (and often literally) represented by the Too-Good Mother, the Naive Father, and the Predator-Groom who would devour her youth and innocence. But she also faces internal danger from the shadowy counter-archetypes that, out of fear and egoism, would prevent her from embracing a new perspective and completing her journey.

For the Maiden, these shadow archetypes are represented by the Damsel and the Vixen. The Damsel represents the passive polarity within the Maiden’s shadow, the Vixen the aggressive polarity.

Before we dig into these important archetypes, I will say a quick word about both of their titles, since both archetypes are currently fraught with controversy in modern portrayals.

The Damsel, of course, represents the much despised damsel in distress—usually objectified within the Hero’s Journey (although not without cause, as we discussed in the Hero’s post, since rescuing the Damsel—as played by any character—is an important moment within the Hero Arc, especially since the Damsel can be seen to represent not just an individual character, but a part of the Hero’s own psyche—as do all characters within any particular journey).

Recognizing how the Damsel has often been reduced to a stereotype is important, but it is also important not to discredit the psychological reality of the archetype itself. In The Heroine’s Journey (which mostly speaks to the Queen Arc), paranormal romance author Gail Carringer points out:

The damsel trope is a profoundly powerful representation of weakness. We authors must be wary of who appears weak or victimized in our books, as the message this sends can detrimentally impact an audience’s sense of self-worth.

An equally troublesome archetype/stereotype in today’s media is what I have (after long deliberation) chosen to term the Vixen. Kim Hudson, author of The Virgin’s Promise, and others use the name Whore for this archetype, but to me this seems a bit much for such a young archetype. Similar to the Damsel, the Whore is a viable archetype—and yet it has been used so often to stereotype female sexuality that it requires the same caution as Carringer gives the Damsel.

It is important to recognize that the comparatively powerless Maiden has fewer resources at her disposal when in her aggressive shadow archetype than do any of the successive archetypes. Indeed, instead of “aggressively” controlling others as she would be able to do in the aggressive forms of later arcs (such as the King/Tyrant), she is only able to use what skills her childhood has so far given her. This often takes the form less of actual aggression with others and more of attempts at manipulation. Inevitably, this shadow archetype is one of the most tragic, since it represents a vulnerable character who is ultimately selling off far more of herself than she is able to get in return from others.

That said, I have chosen not to use the term Whore (although you’ll see it in some of the sources I quote), in case it might be a stumbling block, and have instead chosen the (admittedly also not entirely problem-free) title of Vixen.

Once again with our series-wide reminder: The arcs and their related archetypes are alternately characterized as feminine and masculine. This is primarily indicating the ebb and flow between integration and individuation, among other qualities. Together all six primary life arcs create a progression that can be found in any human life (provided we complete our early arcs in order to reach the later arcs with a proper foundation). In short, although I will use feminine pronouns in relation to the feminine arcs and masculine pronouns in relation to the masculine arcs, archetypal representations within these journeys can be of any gender.

The Damsel: A Passive Refusal to Initiate Into Adulthood

Like all the passive archetypes, the Damsel carries a frozen shard of fear in her heart. As the youngest of the negative archetypes, her fear is largely unformed and unnamed. There is a deep innocence to it. She has depended on others all her life to take care of her, and (unlike the Vixen) she has probably been comparatively lucky in that there were people to do so.

But via her very innocent cared-for-ness, she has never been challenged to rise up. Even if the fear is implicit and unnamed, she is afraid of having to fend for herself—because not only has she never done it, she has also probably been discouraged from doing so. In Sacred Contracts, Caroline Myss notes:

The shadow side of this archetype mistakenly teaches old patriarchal views that women are weak and teaches them to be helpless and in need of protection. It leads a woman to expect to have someone else who will fight her battles for her while she remains devoted and physically attractive and concealed in a castle.

Like Rapunzel in Tangled, the Damsel has been told “Mother Knows Best” and “kept safe” through fearsome stories of the wicked adult world.

But as Clarissa Pinkola Estés points out in Women Who Run With the Wolves (which is basically a guide to overcoming the Damsel):

…the reward for being nice in oppressive circumstances is to be mistreated more.

Or as Zora Neale Hurston says in one of my all-time favorite quotes:

If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.

Most of the passive archetypes represent a sort of faux “goodness”—or at least an attempt on the character’s part to avoid being bad. But this avoidance is not active; it is passive. Because it is rooted in fear, it ultimately leads the character to avoid doing the wrong thing by simply… doing nothing. Estés says:

An incompletely initiated woman in this depleted state erroneously thinks she is deriving more spiritual credit by staying than she thinks she will gain by going. Others are caught up in, as they say in Mexico, dar a algo un tirón fuerte, always tugging at the sleeve of the Virgin, meaning they are working hard and ever harder to prove that they are acceptable, that they are good people.

The Damsel is often represented by another familiar archetype—that of the Good Girl, or sometimes Daddy’s Little Girl. Estés again:

It is interesting to note that daughters who have naive fathers often take far longer to awaken…. It can be said that the father, who symbolizes the function of the psyche that is supposed to guide us in the outer world, is, in fact [in this representation], very ignorant about how the outer world and the inner world work in tandem. When the fathering function of the psyche fails to have knowing about issues of soul, we are easily betrayed.

In the beginning, while still a Child, the Damsel’s apparent goodness may seem like maturity. She may be praised for being too “wise” and “mature” to make the seemingly reckless mistakes of the Maiden—which she herself confuses with the unhealthy aggression of the Vixen.

But as time goes on, and life demands she grow up whether she’s ready or not, her true lack of maturity begins to show through. She is not prepared to take care of herself. She lacks both the wisdom and the experience—and, contrary to what she always believed, there will come a day when no one rides in to save her. At the moment when she is truly confronted with the challenges of autonomy, her supposed maturity will leave her defenseless.

The Damsel’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

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Within most Maiden Arcs, the protagonist will almost always start out in a very Damsel-like space. This means that, inherent within the Damsel, is all of the Maiden’s potential. Even if she gets stuck in the Damsel space far beyond what would be chronologically preferable, she is like a seed in the winter ground—all the necessary energy for transformation and growth is still latent within her. Particularly since the Child/Damsel marks the beginning of the entire cycle of life arcs, there resides within her great potential for a Positive-Change Arc.

Equally, however, there is the potential for a Negative-Change Arc. If she stays too long a Damsel, she may devolve into her aggressive polarity—the Vixen. But she may also simply regress deeper into a determinedly “innocent” and “helpless” state, refusing to face life head on and instead relying on Blanche DuBois’s “kindness of strangers” to get through life. But as with Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, this determined refusal to grow will only nudge her down the line of passive, stunted archetypes as she grows older.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes:

The literature of psychoanalysis abounds in examples of … desperate fixations. What they represent is an impotence to put off the infantile ego, with its sphere of emotional relationships and ideals. One is bound in by the walls of childhood; the father and mother stand as threshold guardians, and the timorous soul, fearful of some punishment, fails to make the passage through the door and come to birth in the world without.

The Vixen: A Manipulative/Aggressive Attempt to Avoid the Initiation Into Adulthood

Like all the aggressive polarities, the Vixen possesses at least a little more consciousness than the Damsel. She sees enough to recognize her antagonists, to resent restraint upon her existence, and to take advantage of what power is immediately available.

Unlike the Damsel, her courage extends beyond “doing nothing out of fear of doing the wrong thing.” But this is not to say that she, too, isn’t terrified of growing up and totally claiming her own power—along with its responsibility. What courage she has is not enough to let her brave the soul-changing difficulties of a true Maiden Arc—which would end with her individuating from her authority figures. The result is that, despite whatever power she believes she wields through her rebellion and manipulation, she is just as helpless as the Damsel. Or as Kim Hudson puts it in The Virgin’s Promise:

The Whore believes she must appease or please people and is thereby a victim.

Just as the Damsel is often represented as the Good Girl, the Vixen is inevitably the Bad Girl. She’s mouthy and defiant in the face of authority—but only to a point. Her seeming power and independence, in comparison to the Damsel (and even the Maiden in the beginning), is a facade. As soon as anyone stronger leans on her, she collapses—sometimes out of fear, but usually simply because she isn’t strong enough to fight back.

And so she resorts to sneaky and manipulative methods for getting what she wants. She “sells” herself by devaluing her worthiness and right to mature into a full-fledged Maiden Arc. Instead, she hides behind the seeming power of her rage. Estés observes:

When a woman has trouble letting go of anger or rage, it’s often because she’s using rage to empower herself.

The Vixen is in a hard place. She refuses to fully accept the authority of those who govern her world (and who probably do protect and provide for her in at least some measure), but she also finds herself unable to entirely accept responsibility for herself by fully claiming her personal sovereignty. In The Wounded Woman, Linda Schierse Leonard points out:

…those daughters who have reacted against the too authoritarian father are likely to have problems accepting their own authority.

The Vixen’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

The Vixen offers the inherent potential for a dramatic Positive-Change Arc. Like all the shadow archetypes, she too will probably show her face to at least some degree in any Maiden Arc.

Caroline Myss discusses what she calls the Prostitute as one of four “Archetypes of Survival” within everyone (along with the Child, the Victim, and the Saboteur). She outlines the surprising power of this archetype and the deep potential for growth within it:

The Prostitute archetype engages lessons in integrity and the sale or negotiation of one’s integrity or spirit due to fears of physical and financial survival or for financial gain. This archetype activates the aspects of the unconscious that are related to seduction and control, whereby you are as capable of buying a controlling interest in another person as you are in selling your own power. Prostitution should also be understood as the selling of your talents, ideas, and any other expression of the self—or the selling-out of them. This archetype is universal and its core learning relates to the need to birth and refine self-esteem and self-respect.

Of course, the Vixen also holds the potential for stagnation and even deeper devolution into the shadow archetypes. Instead of using her inherent strength to reorient herself into a powerful Maiden Arc, she might instead follow a tragic Negative Arc in which she becomes even more victimized by the depredations and neglect of her authority figures. One more quote from Estés:

Women who try to make their deeper feelings invisible are deadening themselves. The light goes out. It is a painful form of suspended animation.

Or the Vixen might summon the strength to grow—not into the following positive archetype of the Hero, but rather into the subsequent aggressive counter-archetype of the Bully (to be discussed next week). Leonard speaks of this in an interesting way:

…too often in order to break out of the puella [eternal girl] dependency, they imitate the masculine model and so perpetuate the devaluation of the feminine.

Key Points of the Maiden’s Shadow Archetypes

For easy reference and comparison, I will be sharing some scannable summations of each arc’s key points:

Passive Shadow Archetype: Damsel is Submissive (to protect from consequences of Dependence)

Aggressive Shadow Archetype: Vixen is Deceptive (aggressive use of Dependence)

Positive Maiden Arc: Innocent to Individual (moves from Protected World to Real World)

Maiden’s Story: An Initiation.

Maiden’s Symbolic Setting: Home

Maidens Lie vs. Truth: Submission vs. Sovereignty.

“Submission to authority figures is necessary for survival.” versus “Personal sovereignty is necessary for growth and survival.

Maidens Initial Motto: “We, the clan.”

Maiden’s Archetypal Antagonist: Authority/Predator

Maidens Relationship to Own Negative Shadow Archetypes:

Either Damsel finally owns her Potential by embracing her Strength.

Or Vixen learns to wield her true Potential with true Strength.

Examples of the Damsel and Vixen Archetypes

Examples of the Damsel and Vixen archetypes include the following. Click on the links for structural analyses.

Damsel

  • Paula Alquist in Gaslight
  • Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca
  • Neil Perry in Dead Poets Society
  • Beth in Little Women
  • Celie Johnson in The Color Purple
  • Dora Copperfield in David Copperfield
  • Rapunzel in Tangled

Vixen

  • Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda
  • Pip in Great Expectations
  • Charlotte Flax in Mermaids
  • Cathy Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights
  • Antonio Salieri in Amadeus (among other aggressive counter-archetypes)
  • Lydia Bennet in Pride & Prejudice
  • Abigail in The Favourite

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the shadow archetypes of the Hero: the Coward and the Bully.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature either the Damsel or the Vixen? 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. Julie Wilkinson says

    I have enjoyed your posts about archetypal characters and would love to see them all in book form. Any chance that will happen? Thank you, julie.

  2. When you were talking about the Vixen, my thoughts went to Ariel from `The Little Mermaid.’

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, yes, good one. She ends up a Maiden, of course, but she goes through a lot to get there. 😉

    • I enjoyed reading about these archetypes, and I look forward to reading your book, too. I recognize the Vixen and Damsel archetypes, to a point, in my characters, sisters Ze’Eva and Aysha. They are complete opposites which puts them at odds as adults.

  3. Another great post! Thinking on the Maiden, Ophelia came to mind — as the Maiden who fails, leading to insanity and death. Probably following a dissolution arc? Especially since it’s implied that she had had an awakening with Hamlet, and his own seeming decent to insanity dissolutions her.

    One might then say her brother two, is a Maiden to Vixen arc, the naive student, who comes back with a passion for vengeance. (Fall Arc.)
    Both under the thumb of the Naive Father, Polonius.

  4. Oh, I love coming up with examples. Let’s try these:

    Damsel: Melanie from Gone with the Wind — Frail, winsome, defined by Southern Belle society and having little to her character beyond it. A shadow of Scarlett, the maiden whose story we follow through the movie.
    Vixen: Satine from Moulin Rouge! — Literally a courtesan, but has something of a positive change arc in which she seeks to become a genuine actress and finds true love with Christian, as opposed to the transactional nature of trading her body to the Duke in order to secure funding for his investment in the show, eventually defying him onstage in favor of Christian.

    I’m also interested in the idea of overlaying positive and negative change arcs atop these character archetype transformations. To wit, in a positive change arc, do the shadow archetypes transform from damsel/vixen to maiden, or directly to the next stage, hero? And the flipside: does a corrupted/fallen maiden become a damsel/vixen, or a coward/bully?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good examples!

      Theoretically, you could do just about any combo. But in most Positive-Change Arcs, I think you’re going to see the character moving out of one archetype’s shadows (e.g., Damsel) and then undertaking the related arc (e.g, Maiden).

      But in the Negative Change Arcs, you can do it either way. If the character ends up a passive shadow archetype, it just means they aborted the transformative journey earlier.

      • Yeah, I remember you covering the Star Wars prequels back in the negative change arcs, and as I was thinking today of character archetypes, I wondered if what we’re seeing there is Anakin arcing out of the Hero, but instead of becoming its aggressive shadow (the Bully), it seems like he becomes the shadow of the next stage, namely the Sorceress. Guess we’ll have to wait a couple weeks for the next couple podcasts.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I don’t feel that the prequels are particularly well done. I think perhaps if they had followed a more solid archetypal devolution for Anakin (as the original did for Luke’s evolution), they would have been much less “wobbly.” But overall, I think they follow the pattern you suggest here.

  5. I’m going to attempt to work in some boys. In the early Harry Potters, I think Malfoy may map to the vixen and Ron to the damsel (particularly in the Goblet of Fire).

    One thing I want to mention, and it’s not because I don’t think you understand, but because I think of it is an underused type of character, particularly in fantasy. Kindness can be heroic as well as a form of passivity. I’m sure there are fictional references which are eluding my feeble mind, but I think of Ghandi and Martin Luther King as pretty much everything you could want in real world examples. Ghandi’s life would be particularly interesting to map against the arcs because he had so many different struggles, and I think you could show a progression with it. And of course, there was a man from Nazareth whose life was steeped in heroic kindness.

    • Those are some interesting real world examples.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree, although I think mastering “passive” kindness is actually a tremendous skill and, indeed, could be interpreted as part of the powerful “magic” wielded by more realistic (versus fantasy) Mage characters—such as those you mention.

      • FWIW, Ghandi hated being called pacifist. He maintained that his approach always involved active resistance. In my current NIP I have a character that I think I subconsciously loosely based on Ghandi and I’ve seen that I can strengthen the character in revision by tightening the correlation.

  6. I love me some archetypes, more please!

    I was thinking of how the Maiden is about individuating the ego, then natural shadows to the Maiden might be the two forms of the Narcissist. The covert narc is clearly a Damsel in Distress type, playing up or even making up everything they go through, to be seen with the lens of victim-hood, in order to get their codependent pair to feed their ego needs. While the overt narcissist is more of the charming manipulator, totally masking their shattered ego despite whatever dubious success they have in getting other to feed them with compliment or submitting to their whims. Both unfortunately all too common in the real world!

  7. Peter Moore says

    I would like your opinion of a Maiden character who experiences severe trauma early in her character arc. In my story, this event push my protagonist into a negative arc, creating a duality of a damsel and a vixen, becoming both dependent and predatory. She requires these traits in order to become strong in her new, darker world. The innocence of the maiden remains, but is hidden deep inside where she isn’t aware if it (though others catch glimpses). She does progress through subsequent arcs, but always with at least one strong shadow archetype.

    Unfortunately, I think this is all to common a coping mechanism for victims in real life — and there are a lot of them. Their ability to move forward is itself a powerful and heroic story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Part of the power of archetypes is their simplicity. But, of course, in real life things aren’t always that simplistic. Most people don’t follow the arcs perfectly, and for many of us, shadow issues from earlier arcs aren’t always cleanly resolved. You might find this post of interest, in which I talk about how to use the Karpman Drama Triangle (Victim-Hero-Villain) as another tool to create solid character arcs. Basically, it talks about how a character can rise out of these “coping” roles into more empowered alternatives.

      • Peter Moore says

        Thanks. I could fill up your entire comment section with how the drama and empowerment triangles apply to my story. I’ll just say that I have characters, including this protagonist, who move between different positions of the triangles throughout a three to four book series. Some do so by choice. Others, such as this person, by necessity. But she never plays the victim. She views herself as victimized and uses whatever tools she can find to grow out of that experience. However, since her big lie is that vengeance is her overarching goal, she does embrace the darker sides more readily than the positive ones. So you’d have to consider her an antihero and/or ‘gray’ hero type of protagonist. I have been told by reviewers that she is worth rooting for.

  8. Usvaldo de Leon says

    I don’t have a good understanding of how a male vixen might work in a more general sense. If a character is funny, say, and is trading on their humor to get through life situations, would he be considered a Vixen?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I see Pip in Dickens’s Great Expectations as a good example. He’s ambitious and willing to do whatever his “patron” wants, but he is fundamentally disempowered and unwilling to take full responsibility for his own growth.

      • Usvaldo de Leon says

        This is (so far) the only example to my mind where the sexist language obfuscates rather than enlightens. And yes, per the article, the alternatives are worse, lol.

        • The ‘Vixen’ or ‘Whore’ titles are assigned with women using their sexuality. I was pondering your question and Katie’s response of the male (or non-sexual) equivalent and though of Mr. Burns’ assistant Smithers on “The Simpsons.”

          Smithers is best described as a sycophant (who’s later revealed to have an attraction towards Mr. Burns, but during a long walk in the woods I came up with the generalization of this.

          When someone doesn’t see themselves as capable of providing for themselves and they curry favor with someone they see as a customer or patron.

          “What can I do to get their attention, or make them happy, so that they’ll return the favor and give me what I don’t think I could otherwise get on my own?”

          Insincere flattery, sexual favors, lie, steal, cheat…whatever they think the other person desires and can be used to manipulate them.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            “Insincere flattery, sexual favors, lie, steal, cheat…whatever they think the other person desires and can be used to manipulate them.”

            Exactly.

            And, yeah, I’m not entirely happy with the term Vixen. I think there’s probably a better alternative, but that was the only one I came up with that seemed to check enough of the boxes.

          • Usvaldo de Leon says

            @Joe, this was fantastic and helped me understand. Thanks for clarifying.

  9. Joe Long says

    A long time ago we talked about the different personality types, which is how each person is wired to interact with the world around them.

    Then, as writers, we use the relationships between people, such as buddy, mentor and love interest.

    The first half of this series detailed the stages of life, and the current series is how people handle these stages, which I reckon ties back to their type of personality. Some is nature, some is nurture, but often presents obstacles that need to be overcome, and is easier for some people than others to change their personal arcs.

    So in many ways this is less about writing itself than understanding our characters as people.

    In my work, I see Hannah as a typical maiden while Joe is the damsel, flipping the traditional genders. The regular characters that surround them represent different character types to compare and contrast. One of Hannah’s weaknesses is insecurity, which leads to jealousy. She definitely does not trust her brother’s girlfriend, the vixen Susie, around her own man. Susie doesn’t have as much screen time but has her own arc, and Joe is much better at being her hero because he doesn’t have a romantic attachment to her.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very true. I think most of us tend to err toward and struggle with either the passive side or the aggressive side of the counter-archetypes. It can be a lifelong struggle throughout all of the progressive arcs.

  10. Great guidance!

  11. Another wonderful break down. I can play in the shadows with more confidence now. And I agree, some of the names that have been assigned to them are unfortunate, but we’ll move on.

  12. I’ve been reading through Steven Covey’s 7 Habits…I find this archetype series very interesting in light of his presentation of the maturity continuum…an individual with healthy maturation would begin dependent, then mature to be independent, then mature out of that to become interdependent (an understanding that we all need each other). A failure to mature ultimately results in unhealthy codependencies of taking from each other (“I get what I want by letting you get what you want”) instead of giving to each other. This archetype series has lined up with that surprisingly well.

    I think in some ways our culture has stagnated in the Maiden arc–especially for women–by worshipping independence (especially independence from men). We tend to think individuation is the ultimate goal and ultimate happiness…But we miss out on so much when we refuse to mature into a loving interdependency where both parties freely give to each other. Feminism says that men are the problem…no, a refusal to mature (by both men and women) is the problem. It’s sad to get stuck in the maiden arc when there is so much more to life!

    • I guess I meant that culture has generally stagnated as Maidens, which would technically be in the Hero arc.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        This may be why we see such a predominance of Hero Arc stories (to the exclusion of other arcs), as well as why we are experiencing a growing dissatisfaction with it.

  13. Loved this podcast. Didn’t understand the Maiden arc in the previous one, or maybe I didn’t want to. I understand it so much better having gone over the Shadow archetypes. As someone with a developmental disability, I feel like I’m stuck in the Maiden/Damsel archetype, beating my head against the Independent Adult wall. It’s not a fun place to be. Thank you so much for this series! It’s helping me as a writer and a person.

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