Archetypes and Story Structure: How They’re Connected

By its very nature, story structure is archetypal. It is a pattern we recognize emerging from story. It is a pattern as big as life itself, and therefore one about which we are always learning more, but it is also a pattern we have been able to distill into specific systems that help us consistently recreate these deeply resonant archetypes in story after story. In studying story structure and character arcs, one of the coolest things I’ve recognized is that these archetypal patterns show up in surprising ways.

We spent a good part of last year studying what I called the “life arcs,” consisting of six primary transformative character archetypes (and eighteen supporting archetypes). These archetypal character arcs can be seen to make up the overall arc of a human life—beginning with the coming-of-age arc of youth and travelling all the way to the final challenges of confronting and embracing the mysteries of Life and Death. Not only do these innate journeys expand the options for archetypal journeys far beyond the beloved Hero’s Journey, they also offer an amazing zoomed-out view of the common pattern of story structure itself.

I referenced this in the original series about archetypal character arcs, but as I’m now working on a book version of the subject, I realized this phenomenon deserves to be examined more specifically. So today I want to highlight two different angles of this:

1. The cycle of the six archetypal character arcs shows us, as humans, how life itself is structured like a story.

2. The cycle also shows us, as writers, how the story structure in any individual book can be strengthened by recognizing that each of the classic structural beats mirrors specific archetypal chapters in life itself.

The Microcosm and the Macrocosm of Story Structure

I like patterns. I particularly like the spiral—a pattern that repeats in infinite expansion. It’s a pattern we find everywhere in life. So why should story theory be any different?

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

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We already recognize that the arc of a story can be found reflected in smaller pieces of the whole. We see it on the level of scene structure, in which each scene creates a mini-story arc, complete with Inciting Event and Climax. We also certainly see it within the structure and arc of each individual act within an  overall story. Indeed, each structural section, chapter, and beat ideally mirrors this pattern to some degree.

But we can also see this pattern projected out from story structure itself onto a larger domain. First, we may see the arc reflected from within a larger series (anything from the obvious three acts of a trilogy to a much longer series). But also, eventually, we can see it in life itself.

The perspective of the archetypal “life arcs” is certainly not the only archetypal system through which to view story or life. But it is an amazingly resonant tool for linking story structure to life and and life to structure. As we’ll explore more intricately below (and as I’ve covered in considerable depth in my series on the subject), each of the six archetypal character arcs directly corresponds to one of the major structural beats in classic story structure.

Graphic created by Matt Gemmell. Click to enlarge.

Most people have heard of the Hero’s Journey, made famous by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. What not everyone realizes is that the microcosm of the Hero’s Journey in fact itself represents the macrocosm of the entire life cycle of arcs. Campbell alludes to this in his original breakdown of the journey, and then dives into more depth in the book’s final section, which goes beyond just the Hero’s Journey as most of us have come to understand it.

He uses different titles from those I found most resonant for the life arcs, so I’ve included the terms I use (with links) in brackets:

Transformations of the Hero:

1. The Primordial Hero and the Human [Child—initial Flat archetype]
2. Childhood of the Human Hero [Maiden Arc]
3. The Hero as Warrior [Hero Arc]
4. The Hero as Lover [Queen Arc]
5. The Hero as Emperor and as Tyrant [King Arc]
6. The Hero as World Redeemer [Crone Arc]
7. The Hero as Saint [Mage Arc]
8. Departure of the Hero [usually signified by Death]

How Story Structure and the Archetypal Character Arcs Mirror Each Other

Students of story have long been able to apply structure to their own lives and use it as a surprising metric for recognizing archetypal moments and cycles. Once you understand the terms, it’s hard not to see Inciting Events, First Plot Points, Moments of Truth, and Third Plot Points popping all over the place.

But more than that, once you factor in the archetypal arcs, you can reverse engineer these life beats into the structure of any individual story and use it to deepen the truly archetypal resonance of any particular beat. For example, when you begin to study the parallels between the Inciting Event in general and the Maiden Arc in the life cycle, both begin to take on deeper meaning.

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Today, let’s take a quick overview of how story structure lines up with the archetypal character arcs.

For the purpose of our study, it is important to remember that each of these six character arcs will build upon the previous ones to create the big picture of one single “life arc.” The partner arcs within the same act are not interchangeable but distinct (i.e., the Maiden and the Hero are not simply gendered names for the same arc) and can be undertaken by any person of any gender. The arcs are alternately characterized as feminine and masculine primarily as an indication of the ebb and flow between integration and individuation. Together, all six 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).

>>Click here to read more about story structure.

>>Click here to read more about character arc fundamentals.

>Click here to read more about the six “life arcs” and other character archetypes.

First Act

In story structure, the First Act represents the first quarter of the story or roughly the first 25%. It takes place in a familiar “Normal World” that, however great (or not), is constricted by certain limiting beliefs. It is the place from which the character departs. It is the status quo to be changed.

From the perspective of the life arcs, the First Act can be seen to represent the first 20–30 years of the human life—youth, in short. It is comprised of the sequential Maiden Arc and Hero Arc, both of which are focused specifically on the character’s learning how to individuate from the Normal World in which he or she grew up.

Inciting Event | Maiden Arc

In story structure, the Inciting Event is the first important structural beat within the story. It is the turning point, halfway through the First Act, taking place around the 12% mark. It is synonymous with what Campbell called the Call to Adventure, in which the protagonist first “brushes” against the story’s main conflict. The character will not yet leave the Normal World at this point, but she will, for the first time, glimpse the Normal World’s limitations and see an opportunity for growing beyond it.

From the perspective of the life arcs, the Inciting Event equates with the Maiden Arc. This is the first of life’s transformative archetypal character arcs, signifying the character’s coming of age. Represented by puberty and the fraught years that follow, it is a “waking up” from the dream of dependent childhood into the realization that the world is much bigger. The Maiden Arc protagonist will not necessarily leave the physical Normal World within her story, but she will begin to individuate from her authority figures and caretakers, so that she can leave on her subsequent quest.

In the Maiden Arc story Bend It Like Beckham, Jess lives at home with her parents, whom she loves but who do not understand or support her to desire to play soccer (football).

First Plot Point | Hero Arc

In story structure, the First Plot Point is the first of three major turning points. As the threshold or “Door of No Return” between the Normal World of the First Act and the Adventure World of the Second Act, it takes place around the 25% mark. This is where the protagonist fully engages with the main conflict. He leaves the comparative safety and familiarity of the Normal World in a way that, either literally or symbolically, means he can never return to the way things were. Everything has changed; the story is now fully underway.

From the perspective of the life arcs, the First Plot Point equates with the well-known Hero Arc. Also an inherently “youthful” arc, this one follows sequentially on the heels of the Maiden’s individuation and focuses on questions not just of independence but, eventually, of re-integration with a larger community. As he leaves behind all he has known and enters a strange and dangerous new world, the Hero focuses on questions of self-reliance, personal autonomy, and eventually responsibility. Although still operating mostly from the limited perspectives of his childhood, he begins now to confront the increasingly complex “real world” and its demands for him to balance his own needs with those of the greater good.

Uncle Ben's Death in Spider-Man Tobey McGuire

In the Hero Arc story Spider-Man (2002), Peter’s life is radically changed when he witnesses (and is partially responsible for) his beloved uncle’s murder.

Second Act

In story structure, the Second Act represents the middle two quarters of the story, roughly from 25% to 75%. It takes place within the main conflict of the “Adventure World” and is focused entirely on moving the protagonist forward through a series of obstacles toward a final plot goal. These outer challenges will prompt the character’s inner growth and transformation, increasingly broadening the character’s perspective of life even to the point of altering her relationship to the plot goal itself.

From the perspective of the life arcs, the Second Act can be seen to represent roughly years 30–60 of the human life—or, adulthood. It is comprised of the Queen Arc and the King Arc, both of which are focused on the character’s relationship to others and to power. Between the two arcs, the Midpoint and its Moment of Truth changes everything, signaling a shift in focus from “acquiring” in the first half of life to “letting go” in the second half.

First Half of Second Act | Queen Arc

In story structure, the First Half of the Second Act is traditionally a period of comparative “reaction.” Having passed out of the Normal World through the Doorway of No Return in the First Plot Point, the protagonist has already taken a significant step into claiming her personal power. But she is also overwhelmed by the new challenges that face her, particularly since the worldview she brought with her out of the First Act limits her ability to understand and thus succeed in this new environment. Over the course of the First Half of the Second Act, the character will gather tools, resources, and allies that help her expand her understanding and move into a place of competence.

From the perspective of the life arcs, the First Half of the Second Act equates with the Queen Arc. Having returned successfully from the questing of the Hero Arc, the character is now represented by the Queen—a person of significant power and responsibility but one who is focused more on providing and nurturing than actually wielding that power. Her challenge is that of transitioning into true stewardship and leadership of her family/people. She summits in a powerful victory and takes the throne.

In Queen Arc story A League of Their Own, when the players learn their league is struggling, Dottie leads the charge with theatrical stunts that bring in crowds, inspiring the other players to do the same.

Midpoint | Moment of Truth

In story structure, the Midpoint and its all-important Moment of Truth takes place halfway through the story at the 50% mark, acting as a fulcrum for both plot and character arc. Here, the character glimpses the great Truth at the heart of his arc and begins to understand the conflict’s bigger picture and therefore how to respond to it in a new and more effective way.

From the perspective of the life arcs, the Midpoint technically occurs between the Queen Arc and the King Arc. I see the Queen Arc as being more properly representative of the Midpoint’s “Plot Revelation,” which allows the character to upgrade her external efficacy in the plot. This can be seen in the Queen’s rise to the throne. Meanwhile, I see the subsequent King Arc as being more representative of the Moment of Truth, when the character’s relationship to the thematic principle alters through the understanding of a deeper Truth previously unavailable to him. This Truth evolves his tactics in the external plot, but more importantly it changes his understanding of the conflict’s overall context and his own role within it.

Second Half of Second Act | King Arc

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In story structure, the Second Half of the Second Act is traditionally a period of “action.” Having benefited from the lessons of the First Half of the Second Act and particularly its Midpoint, the protagonist now understands what to do better than he ever has before. Although still unable to fully relinquish limiting beliefs, he is now able to move through the conflict with much greater efficacy and empowerment. However, this ever-deepening understanding of the thematic Truth challenges almost everything the character thought he knew about himself, his plot goal, and the conflict itself. By the end of the Second Act, he will have to confront his darkest demons and discover whether or not he is honest enough to truly embrace his Truth.

From the perspective of the life arcs, the Second Half of the Second Act equates with the King Arc. The King Arc represents both the height of the character’s temporal power and also the beginning of the end of that power. Confronted with deeper truths about the nature of Life and Death, the King must struggle between his desire for immortality and the practical need to begin releasing his power and passing the torch to the next generation. Now that he has seemingly gained it all, he must begin to let it all go.

In King Arc story Black Panther, T’Challa accepts Erik’s challenge to fight for the throne, willing to sacrifice his body to the mortal antagonist but not yet ready to face the true Cataclysm of the deeper spiritual truth about what brought Erik to Wakanda.

Third Act

In story structure, the Third Act represents the final quarter of the story, roughly from 75% through the end. It moves the protagonist into a final confrontation, both inner and outer, to determine whether or not the plot goal will be gained. Sometimes it will be gained; other times, the protagonist will choose to sacrifice the outer goal in order to maintain inner coherence with her newly learned thematic Truth. Although the story may end with the character’s triumph, the Third Act is traditionally a period of darkness, temptation, and sacrifice, as the character struggles to choose between a Want and a Need.

From the perspective of the life arcs, the Third Act can be seen to represent the final or elder years of the human life—from 70 years and on. It is comprised of the Crone Arc and the Mage Arc, both of which are focused on the final challenges of life, specifically the character’s relationship to old age and death.

Third Plot Point | Crone Arc

In story structure, the Third Plot Point signals another threshold (another “Doorway of No Return” that mirrors that of the First Plot Point) between Acts. It takes place around the 75% mark and is referred to by such dire terms as the “Low Moment,” the “Dark Night of the Soul,” and “Death/Rebirth.” The events of the Third Plot Point emphasize what is at stake for the character now that she is this deep into her journey. So far, she has risked much and gained much in the outer conflict, mostly thanks to the broadening of her perspective into an alignment with the thematic Truth. But now, if she is to succeed in her goals, she must finally and fully reject every last bit of the limiting Lie she has been carrying with her ever since leaving the Normal World in the First Act. The person she was at the beginning of the story must die, and she must now be reborn into someone new. If she can make that sacrifice, she can move on.

From the perspective of the life arcs, the Third Plot Point equates with the Crone Arc. More than any other of the life arcs, the Crone Arc is focused on the struggle against Death. It is the arc of old age as the character confronts the loss of her temporal power and the looming approach of her mortality. Whether or not she can utilize a lifetime of growth in order to make peace with the nature of Life itself will determine much. She will journey to the Underworld and back to discover whether she can come into alignment with the Truths of her life or whether she will give up on herself—and everyone else—in despair.

In Howl’s Moving Castle (which is a brilliant Crone-Arc-within-a-Maiden-Arc), Grandma Sophie treks into the Waste to try to regain her youth, enters Howl’s Moving Castle, and ends up involved in freeing the Kingdom from a malignant war.

Climax| Mage Arc

In story structure, the Climax begins halfway through the Third Act, around the 88% mark. It usually offers a series of scenes in which the protagonist confronts his final challenges. It ends with the Climactic Moment, which decides the story’s conflict one way or another. In many stories, it is a segment of great excitement and tension. But most foundationally it is a period in which the character puts to use all he has learned in the previous sections of the story. Is all that he has learned truly true—or not? Has he truly changed—or not?

From the perspective of the life arcs, the Climax equates with the Mage Arc. Having overcome the terror and loneliness of the previous arc’s Dark Night of the Soul, the Mage has transcended himself into great and often surprising spiritual power. Having successfully learned the lessons of all the previous archetypal arcs, he benefits from a truly broad and wise perspective of life. He moves through his final challenges and faces his final temptations as much for love of others as for himself.

In Mage Arc story The Legend of Bagger Vance, the title character steps back on the last hole of golf to let his student make his own decision about whether he will win the game by cheating.

***

Now, isn’t that cool? I hope this comparison of how story structure aligns with the archetypal character arcs will help you deepen both plot structure itself and any of the archetypal journeys on which you decide to take your characters (or yourself). Happy writing!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever thought of your life in terms of archetypes and story structure? 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. Andrew D Meredith says

    Really looking forward to this book coming out. My wife and I (both authors) are continually talking about these arcs ever since they aired and we’ve been sending any writers we know your way!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Andrew! And, yeah, working with this archetypal cycle has completely transformed how I see so many things. Hope to have the book out later this year!

  2. I’ve thought of my life in terms of archetypes before, but I’ve never thought about how this ties into story structure. As always, this was an interesting and enlightening article.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Recognizing this link between the life cycle archetypes and story structure was particularly exciting for me.

  3. Dear K.M, thank you for your delightful newsletter. You said “I like patterns. I particularly like the spiral.” If so, you may love a book that is an adventure strongly based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and it’s all about the spiral at the same time. Every single page has been illustrated like a medieval book with the corresponding decoration. The name of the novel is The Bottom Of The Spiral. You may download it for free at https://www.academia.edu/41704850/The_Bottom_Of_The_Spiral
    I hope you and anybody here enjoy the book.

  4. This was a good summary that gave me some new insights into the archetypes and plot structure. I look forward to seeing how you meld them together through reverse engineering.

  5. Lew Kaye-Skinner says

    Nope, never did think of my life that way… until this blog post. Makes sense of some things.

  6. You keep blowing my mind with your discussion of archetypes. I look forward to the book! As for your question, I’ve probably thought about the archetypes in my life and in overall story structure in some loose, vague way, but not in the assertive depth of this essay.

  7. Since reading your ideas in ‘Structuring your novel’ , I have sensed there must be a repeating kind of pattern that makes all stories work. The idea of the fractal comes to mind- a simple structure that repeats itself over and over again to create an infinite number of possible complex macro structures. A classic example of this is the snowflake.
    Thanks for your post.

  8. Beth Farmer says

    I’ve enjoyed and bookmarked your series of articles on archetypes. I’m still a long way from understanding it all. I’m delighted that you are putting it into a book and look forward to having it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Beth! Yes, making slow but steady progress on the book. Hoping to have it out by the end of the year at the latest.

  9. This was great. I’m plotting my next script, and I’ve been wrestling with a lot of the structure. Thanks.

  10. I’m struck by two things. One is that we are remarkably fortunate to live in the time we do. As recently as 1980, 40% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty – incomes under $1 per day in 1900 dollars, and if you go back to pre-industrial revolution, that figure goes over 95%. The figure went under 10% just before 2020, though it has inched up thanks to COVID. When you live in that type of poverty, you have very few choices in life, and I think these arcs generally come down to choosing the right thing over the convenient thing. Historically, the choice for most of humanity has been do whatever you have to to survive, or don’t.

    The other thing I would say, is that age does not shut the door on the earlier life arcs. Even a very mature person can choose to take a different life direction that is best expressed as a child or hero arc, and we see many people doing that these days. Frequently people take up new passions and new skills as they reach retirement.

    Ok, now my twisted question, and I don’t think there’s a wrong answer to this one. In “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White (the inspiration from a charming Disney animated movie from the 1960s), Merlin experienced his life in reverse, so he didn’t actually seem to be growing older in the story, but he experienced what happened to him at 500 before he experienced what happened to him at 50. Which direction would his life arcs flow in that case?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s an interesting question. I immediately thought of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which the protagonist ages backwards. I haven’t read or seen Once or Future King, but if it’s similar to Benjamin Button, then the character still seems to follow the standard chronological order–just with different insights due to the way the world treats him. When he’s an old man as a boy, he’s still a boy in his own maturity and development level.

      Of course, you have stories like Howl’s Moving Castle, referenced in the post, in which a young protagonist is transformed into the body of an older person. In that story, the protagonist is chronologically following a Maiden Arc, and yet the story itself takes on many of the trappings and themes of a Crone Arc.

  11. You said the first plot point in Act One is the first of three major turning points, equating it to the Hero Arc. Are you saying three turning points in Act One, three in Act Two, three in Act Three? Or first major turning point in Act One, second major turning point in Act Two, third turning point in Act Three? (one in each act) I’m sorry, this seems like such a minor thing but structure is my stumbling block.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’m referring to the three major plot points in the entire book:

      * The First Plot Point (takes place around the 25% mark, divides First Act and Second Act)

      * The Midpoint, or Second Plot Point (takes place around the 50% mark, divides the Second Act)

      * The Third Plot Point (takes place around the 75% mark, divides Second Act and Third Act)

  12. Katie, I am so excited by the new book!!! I really need to listen to this one many times, I am mind-blown but also certain I am missing most of the nuances of this fabulous framework. Thank you so much for sharing all this, and can’t wait for the book!!!!

  13. Grace Dvorachek says

    Wow, what a way to connect all of these! It’s amazing that the arcs themselves combine to make a bigger arc. You’ve given me a lot to think about…

  14. You know how we sometimes prime ourselves, intentionally or unintentionally, to seek out information and/or experiences that enrich us and gives us meaning, and more information presents itself as if it were fated? Well, this post, a German series called Dark that I’m just a few episodes into, plus some other research I was doing leads me to believe that I am currently under the influence of frequency illusion. My frequency of frequency illusion boggles my mind at times.

    I intentionally did not read much about Dark before watching it so I had no idea that it would reference a labyrinth as a symbol for life. You know what else is like a labyrinth? A spiral.

    Imagine a labyrinth painted on the floor. One person enters it and at intervals one more person enters. Everyone walks the same path. You can see the other people as you pass them on your journey. Various stretches of the labyrinth are the stages of life. I haven’t read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, so if this is in there, then I guess I need to go down another rabbit hole. Hmm, perhaps I’ve never left.

  15. Thank you for your insights! You are a great source of inspiration for me. I like the idea of stories reflecting a human life arc. And like you talk about the macro and micro structures, I also like to view stories as humans themselves at any life stage. I think each story has a face, a body, a heart and a soul (each of which representing the story’s acts). The face gives us a first impression, raises expectations, makes us interested in the story or not. The body gives us more substance and information to understand the rest of the story. The heart is the story’s core and holds all the emotion. And lastly, the soul delivers the story’s message or spirit based on everything that has happened before. At least for me this is the simplest way I can make sense of story structure, whenever I get lost in the endlessly fascinating spiral of complex archetypes.

  16. John Browning says

    These topics of structure and conflict are compelling. I personally don’t know how it could be done well without planning and an outline. For example, we have been watching 1883, the prequel to Yellowstone. It has become can’t wait for Sunday for a new 1883 episode. 1883 is very well told, almost as though there was a step back and figure how to tell the whole panoramic story better. I’m really drawn into the story. I watch Tim McGraw, Sam Elliott and Lamonica Garrett deal with issues of leadership and admit I don’t have any idea how I would have done it differently. I watch Tim McGraw and Faith Hill parent and ache for the issues they face. Telling a Western story from the point of view of Elsa, a young woman, definitely required structure. Her soliloguys are poetic. She is transitioning from naive daughter to tough adult. On the most recent episode she was shot through the liver with an arrow. I find myself so drawn into the story that my first instinct was to pray for her healing. Then, whoa! It is set in 1883, 139 years ago, and the scenes are already acted and the film is “in the can”. After the first episode I found the soundtrack on Youtube. Rhythm came over melody as a simple 1 2 3 4, just putting one foot in front of another on the way to Oregon.

  17. It is very informative article I learned a lot after reading your writing. I like your information very much. I hope more posts like this. Thanks.

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