Every story is a journey. Whether set in a fantastical world or the house next door, all narratives in some way chronicle the universal human experience of growth and transition. A screenwriter’s responsibility is to help guide the audience along this path in an accessible and compelling way.
Enter archetypes. First described by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, archetypes are symbolic images recognized in the collective unconscious of all people. Inspired by Jung’s ideas, screenwriter Christopher Vogler proposed in his book The Writer’s Journey that archetypes, commonly used to describe characters’ personalities, should instead be used to describe influential forces within a narrative. In considering archetypes in this manner, they become effective and malleable tools of craft.
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The Hero is the protagonist of a story. Vogler explains that every other archetype is designed to serve, challenge or otherwise influence this character. Always typified by a search for identity and wholeness, the Hero represents our own struggles, obstacles and triumphs.
Heralds offer the Hero a call to action. Most often appearing at the beginning of a story, they signal the dramatic and psychological need for change, and motivate the Hero to begin his or her quest. Heralds may take the form of events or characters and can be either positive, negative or neutral figures.
Mentors are the Hero’s teachers and protectors. They offer the tools, motivation and advice necessary to help the Hero succeed in his or her quest. Psychologically, they represent one’s higher self, and therefore may help remind the Hero of his or her conscience, or the necessity of working toward the greater good.
The Threshold Guardian
Threshold Guardians represent the common obstacles of life we all encounter. In storytelling, they serve as opportunities for the Hero to test his or her abilities and grow in strength. These archetypes may take the form of lesser villains, natural forces, puzzles or sentinels. When bested by the Hero, Threshold Guardians may sometimes turn into Allies.
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These aren't the only archetypes. Meet Carl Jung's 12 archetypal characters.View Infographic
Shapeshifters are the wizards and femme fatales, friends you can’t quite believe and enemies you just might trust with your life. These characters change constantly in appearance or attitude and serve to fill a story with doubt and suspense. Psychologically, shapeshifters represent repressed qualities in a Hero and the urge to transform. Ultimately, Shapeshifters may prove either useful or destructive, depending on the narrative.
Allies function as the Hero’s companions. They may serve as co-travelers, conversationalists or even characters that help introduce the audience to the world of the story. Psychologically, they represent unused or unexpressed parts of one’s personality and may therefore be able to help the Hero discover alternative courses of action. Allies come in many forms: sidekicks, animals, spirits and servants are just a few.
Tricksters emerge when the status quo needs laughing at. Desiring mischief, these archetypes bring attention to the absurdities of the Hero’s reality. A Trickster’s manifestations are flexible; they may be Allies, agents of the Shadow, independent agents, or Heroes in their own right. Often they serve as comic relief; other times they serve as catalysts, bringing chaos to a narrative but personally remaining unchanged.
Shadows provide the Hero with his or her main and most dangerous obstacle. They may manifest as villains, darker qualities of the Hero’s personality or unrealized or rejected aspects of the self. Psychologically, Shadows represent the internal feelings and forces with the capacity to destroy us if we let them. In facing these archetypes, Heroes confront their worthiest adversaries. The most compelling Shadows know an unsettling truth: they are the real Heroes of the story.
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Additional Sources: Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies