How to Write Archetypal Character Arcs

The most powerful stories and characters carry an ineffably dependable quality which we refer to as “archetypal.” And yet the whole idea of specifically “archetypal character arcs” can remain pretty foggy to writers. Archetypes can seem either way too limiting (i.e., the Hero’s Journey and only the Hero’s Journey), or they can seem way too varied to present themselves as a cohesive system.

The How to Write Archetypal Character Arcs series teaches a specific system of archetypal character arcs (in which the Hero’s Journey is the second of six main positive arcs). It takes a deep dive into the “life cycle” of archetypal character arcs, featuring twenty-four primary archetypes. This cycle is grounded upon six Positive-Change Arcs. It also explores two possible Negative or “shadow” archetypes for each of the main archetypes, as well as the “resting” or Flat-Arc archetypes that emerge between each of the six Positive archetypes.

In this series, you’ll also learn:

  • How to tell which archetypes are right for your story?
  • What’s the best way to use archetypal character arcs in a series?
  • How can you choose the right archetypes for supporting characters?
  • How can archetypes help you find your story’s theme—and vice versa?

Viewing fiction through the lens of archetypal character arcs can help you write powerful and pertinent stories. Archetypal stories are important, not just as a tool for writers but as a foundational part of a healthy culture. Let’s dive in!

Go on the journey with your characters! Check out the Archetypal Character Guided Meditations.

Table of Contents

Introduction to Archetypal Character Arcs

Story Theory and the Quest for Meaning

It is not too simplistic or idealistic a statement to say that storytelling—and therefore story theory—is a quest for meaning.

How Archetypes Changed My Life and My Writing

When “good writing” strikes its steel upon the flint of archetypes, there is a sudden unity of truth between author and reader.

An Introduction to Archetypal Stories

Why are archetypal stories so important and what does this mean for you as a writer attempting to channel these deep patterns of existence?

The 6 Positive Archetypal Character Arcs

Introduction to the 6 Archetypal Character Arcs

For a writer, one of the most exciting explorations of archetype can be found within specific archetypal character arcs—or journeys.

The Maiden Arc

As the “youngest” of the archetypal character arcs, the Maiden Arc represents the quintessential coming-of-age story.

The Hero Arc

The Hero Arc is the story of the conquering champion—the ingenuous but perhaps immodest youth setting out to do a great deed.

The Queen Arc

The majestic Queen Arc builds upon the lessons learned in the Hero’s Journey to create an archetypal character arc that offers a worthy sequel.

The King Arc

Although the plot in a King Arc can be absolutely epic, it is a fundamentally spiritual arc–more so than any that have preceded it.

The Crone Arc

The Crone Arc begins the final act of the “life arcs” by presenting an inevitable and imperative Underworld Journey.

The Mage Arc

The powerful and mysterious Mage Arc—the final archetypal character arc—turns its attention to questions of power and surrender.

The 12 Negative or Shadow Archetypes

Introduction to the 12 Shadow Archetypes

Each positive character archetype inherently represents a struggle with related shadow archetypes–one passive and one aggressive.

Damsel and Vixen

Out of fear and egoism, the Maiden’s shadow archetypes would prevent her from embracing a new perspective and completing her journey.

Coward and Bully

The Hero’s shadow archetypes of Coward and Bully are especially important (and cautionary) due to the pervasiveness of the Hero’s Journey.

Snow Queen and Sorceress

The Queen’s shadows have the potential to block her possibility for a positively transformative archetypal character arc.

Puppet and Tyrant

Whether this powerful character brings life to the Kingdom depends on if he is in the grip of the King’s shadow archetypes of Puppet and Tyrant.

Hermit and Witch

If the character cannot powerfully transition into the final act of life, the risk is that of sliding into the Crone’s shadow archetypes.

Miser and Sorcerer

Will the character triumph–or succumb in the end to the powerful temptations of either of the Mage’s shadow archetypes, the Miser or the Sorcerer?

The 6 Flat or Resting Archetypes

Introduction to the 6 Flat Archetypes

Flat archetypes are often seen teaching other characters some of the same lessons they just learned in their own previously completed arcs.

The Child

The archetype of the Child is necessarily an archetype of deep vulnerability and surprisingly powerful impact upon other characters.

The Lover

A deeply nuanced archetype that evolves with us for most of our lives, the Flat archetype of the Lover is inherent and integral.

The Parent

We don’t often think of the Flat archetype of the Parent with the same enthusiasm as we do the Hero. And yet they are intrinsically linked.

The Ruler

The Flat archetype of the Ruler represents the potential period in a person’s life in which he or she is in a position of leadership.

The Elder

The Flat archetype of the Elder provides crucial guidance for enacting important change in surrounding characters.

The Mentor

The final Flat archetype of the Mentor is one of the most significant within human storytelling.

The 12 Archetypal Antagonists

Introduction to the Archetypal Antagonists for Each of the Six Archetypal Character Arcs

A look at the archetypal antagonists inherent within each of the six main archetypal “life arcs.”

Maiden Arc: Authority and Predator

The antagonists for the Maiden Arc can be seen archetypally as both her Authority Figures and a frightening Predator.

Hero Arc: Dragon and Sick King

The antagonists for the Hero Arc can be seen archetypally as both the Dragon and the Sick King.

Queen Arc: Invader and Empty Throne

Usually the archetypal antagonists for a Queen Arc are represented by the Invader in the outer conflict and the Empty Throne in the inner conflict.

King Arc: Cataclysm and Rebel

The archetypal antagonists for the King Arc are the Cataclysm and the Rebel, both of which challenge the King to culminate his rule.

Crone Arc: Death Blight and Tempter

The archetypal antagonists for the Crone Arc are represented as a Death Blight and as the subtle Tempter who would lure her from the Truth.

Mage Arc: Evil and the Weakness of Humankind

The archetypal antagonists for the Mage Arc often manifest subtly—not in obvious “evil,” but in an ordinary person’s weakness.

Putting the Archetypes Into Practice

How to Use Archetypal Character Arcs in Your Stories

How can you apply archetypal character arcs in a practical way to your own stories? Here are five considerations for choosing archetypes.

Master List and Summary of the All the Archetypal Character Arcs

This post is an easy reference that lists comparisons of the archetypal Positive-Change Arcs, so you can see them all in one place.

Archetypes and Story Structure: How They’re Connected

Learn how archetypes and story structure mirror each other in any individual book and can be used to further strengthen your story.

How to Use Archetypes in a Series

Consider the following four approaches to how to use archetypes in a series so you can determine which feels most resonant for your story.

For more on writing great characters, click here for a full list of all my posts on the subject or join my mailing list to download my free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters.

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Go on the journey with your characters! Check out the Archetypal Character Guided Meditations.

Featuring some of my favorite tips on character crafting, this e-book offers a good starting place for understanding the basics of character building, as well as tips for troubleshooting. You’ll discover inspiring quotes from successful authors, writing prompts, and creativity exercises. This information will give you the tools you need to tackle your latest batch of characters.