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Humanities LibreTexts

9: Character and Story Archetypes

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  • One of the most insightful and captivating histories on storytelling is Joseph Campbels The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In the book he outlines how all myths and stories are analogies of the human experience and how each character and story archetype have counterparts to your life. The enduring quality of a myth is in its ability to teach and inspire the listener. There are many character and story archetypes yet each story has 5 essential archetypes. In some cases one character can be the vessel for several of the following types, yet these archetypes are always present in stories. The following are an amalgamation of many theories, yet the more you study story structure you will notice how each theory and perspective has many commonalities with its counterparts. The following is my attempt to combine them.

    The Hero

    The hero is your lead character and the character that the audience is meant to identify with and the character is a representation of the audience member. The hero can be any gender, race, species, etc. but each hero must possess several qualities in order to be effective.

    Hero Trait 1: A hero must have a good heart

    A hero or antihero must deep down have a good heart. Even and especially when the character has a jaded past and has been damaged by the world, it is vital that the audience understand and see the hero as good. The audience must see themselves as the character in order to be invested in the story and each person always feels they are good or tries to have good intentions. This is why villains in history have been so scary, because each believed that they were doing just and good things by committing atrocities. You character does not need to be overly good and can be a bad person most of the time, but you need to have at least one small moment where their inner goodness can be displayed.

    Hero Trait 2: A Hero must know they are special, but not know why.

    At the beginning of the journey the hero must know deep down that they are special and were meant to achieve a greater purpose. The problem that the character faces is that they do not know what that purpose is. In their current situation they do not see how they will ever be able to escape and discover who they are, let alone achieve something. The journey of your story is what will make the character’s purpose clear, but at the beginning the audience needs to see the character’s drive.

    In class I always ask my students to raise their hand if they think they are special. Most of the time only a few do. I then ask, “Why did you not raise your hand? Is it because you truly do not believe you are special?” The truth is all people believe they are special and have big dreams, before life kicks them in the teeth. However, you would not have showed up to school, or work, or be reading this book if you did believe you had something to give to the world. Often we try to hide what our special qualities are and avoid voicing our dreams in order to avoid ridicule, but those desires are there in all humans. Each of us feels we have something to give and this has been the case since humans began telling stories. When we need inspiration we look to the stories we were told growing up, when we are broken we look to those heroes who overcame obstacles far scarier than our own. If your audience needs to see themselves in your hero then you need to make sure that this consistent human experience is part of your character’s traits.

    Hero Trait 3: The Hero must be the Chosen One

    Only the hero can defeat the villain. The hero is the chosen one and with that power and responsibility the hero must fight their own battles. Can you imagine a story where you invested your time and love following a hero you thought to be the chosen one and in the end it was someone else and they were irrelevant? You would be furious! I am sure that the writers who did this in the past patted themselves on the back and felt superior to their audience, but that victory was short lived when that story was quickly forgotten. If you spent 8 Harry Potter books to find out that Nevile Longbottom was the actual hero you would never pick up the books again. You invested and identified with the hero, it is your job to tell us how the hero defeats the villain. Now the hero does not need to win, but the hero had better go down trying because that is the human spirit and that will inspire us to keep going on our hero’s journey.

    In life you will have your villians that you will need to overcome. These villains will be your villians and your villians alone. If you are going to be an adult and achieve your greatness you will need to overcome your villians. Sometimes the villain is yourself, sometimes it is a struggle only you have, and heroes fight their battles and victims ask others to fight their battles for them. You are the hero in your life and this characteristic is central to the themes and lessons all stories have shared since humans began telling stories.

    Hero Trait 4: A Hero needs a flaw

    The flaw is an internal obstacle that must be overcome in order to defeat the villain. Often the hero and the villain share this flaw and are examples of how the flaw can shape your destiny and actions. In a true hero’s journey the hero has to grow and mature as the story progresses. The character is following the same structure our lives follow, but in a condensed timeline. Every human being has flaws and internal battles needed to be overcome in order to progress towards our goals, this needs to be present with the main character in the story.

    Hero Trait 5: A Hero needs to have a straightforward and urgent goal

    Aaron Sorkin and William Goldman refer to this as the intention, others refer to it as a goal or need, others refer to it as the super objective. What matters is that the Hero has a goal/desire/intention that helps drive them through the plot and motivates them to keep going. Each scene and the play as a whole are an attempt to achieve this goal for the character. This is connected to characteristic 2 and this goal/need/intention will serve as the characters boon (or Prize) at the end of the journey or will be the character’s downfall.

    The Villain

    The Villain is the antagonist of the story and will come in any form needed and derived from the conflict. In an internal conflict the Villain and the Hero are one and the same. In external conflict the Villain can be nature, another human, a society, supernatural entity, or scientific construction. What matters is the Villain is the primary obstacle in the way of the Hero achieving their goal. The Villain also has characteristics shared throughout all stories.

    Villain Trait 1: The Villain hates the Hero

    The Villain often hates the hero for no other reason than that they are good. The Villain sees the Hero as a threat and because of this, tries to destroy the Hero only to find that in doing so it has prepared the Hero with the skills to overcome the Villain in the final confrontation.

    Villain Trait 2: The Villain wants to possess or destroy the Heroine/Goal/McGuffin

    The Villain is the antagonist of the story because it seeks to possess or destroy something of great importance to the world of the Hero. The Villain is singular in its pursuit of the Heroine/Goal/McGuffin and possess such a threat to the world of the story that the audience is compelled to root for the hero.

    Villain Trait 3: The less we know about the Villain the better

    The audience does not need nor do they care about the Villains backstory. They are content with the knowledge that the Villain is evil. The more backstory you give to your Villain the more sympathetic you make them and you risk the audience identifying more with your Villain than your Hero. You want the villain to seem scary, powerful, and invincible so that the audience learns the lessons of self development and courage the journey is reinforcing. Neil Gaiman said “Stories are important not because they teach us that dragons are real, but that dragons can be defeated.” Remember that the villain represents intense struggles we, as the audience, will encounter in our lives and it is important to have us identify with the Hero more than the trail we will later face.

    Villain Trait 4: The Villain has to destroy something precious or do something truly terrible to solidify the audiences hatred.

    Even though the audience will be content with the knowledge that the Villain is evil, you will need to have the Villian do something truly terrible to reinforce the audience's hatred of the villian. The action the Villain takes will also serve as a defining moment for the Hero where failure to defeat the Villain no longer becomes an option and the final confrontation must happen. The more the audience hates the Villain the more they will root for the Hero.

    One of the best speeches concerning stories that I can remember comes from the film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Towards the end of the film the hero and his sidekick are exhausted and running from both humans and monsters that have tried to kill them. The Hero looks around in the middle of a battle and sees the carnage all being caused because of his journey. He sits down in the middle of the battlefield and decides to give up. His sidekick sits down next to him and says “It’s like in the old stories, the ones that really mattered. The heroes were fighting against villains that were so powerful you thought that there was no way they could win. But they kept going and in the end they did win. Those are the stories that stuck with us. Those are the stories worth telling.”

    The Heroine/ Goal/ McGuffin/ Stakes

    This archetype goes by many names, but is crucial for the plot. The Heroine/ Goal/ McGuffin/ Stakes is the noun (person, place, or thing) that the characters are fighting to protect. What are all of the characters fighting to save or protect? This could be a house, legacy, the world, a person, a document, etc. Each character cares about this noun and it is the driving force behind the conflict. You must be able to clearly identify it or you will need to raise the stakes of your story. If the characters do not know what they are fighting for neither will your audience and you will lose them. Ask yourself what is the conflict over? What are the characters fighting to save?

    This ties to your real life in that each of us has unique things we treasure and strive to protect. The conflicts in your life that will shape you will have this treasured item at stake and these stories help to prepare us both in strategy and experience for the trials to come.

    The Sidekick

    The sidekick is the friend or helper on the hero’s journey. The sidekick helps the Hero overcome the Villain and saves the Hero at least once on the journey. The Sidekick is brave, loyal, and has all of the characteristics of the hero except one. The Sidekick is not the chosen one. However, the Hero can only defeat the Villain with the help of the Sidekick, but the Sidekick would lose if ever to encounter the Villain alone.

    The Sidekick is a representation of the friends we encounter on our life’s journey. As a Hero you are going to face Villians that only you can defeat and save things that you care about. In your journey you can defeat any Villain you encounter, and achieve any goal you set, but all stories teach us that you can never accomplish anything alone. You will need friends. You will need friends who help shape you into the Hero you will become and also pick you up when the world has crushed you. However, your Villians are your Villains and your Villains alone. Your friends cannot fight your battles for you, merley support you in your endeavor, for they have their own Villains in their personal stories they must defeat.

    The Mentor

    The Mentor is the Teacher in the story. The Mentor helps the Hero unlock their true potential. The Mentor does not fulyl train or prepare the Hero for the Villain, because the journey does that. The Mentor’s purpose is to help the Hero discover their potential so that it can be developed. Once the Hero’s potential has been unlocked, the Mentor will encounter a barrier that it cannot cross. In some stories the teacher cannot leave the school, a trainer cannot enter the ring, in religion God cannot come down from the heavens, and in some stories the mentor dies. The barrier is important because if the Hero has a Mentor that is more powerful than themselves, then there is no reason to step up and become the Hero. The Mentor is removed from the story so that the Hero has no one to hide behind and no choice but to step up to the Hero’s challenges.

    The Mentor of the story represents the influential adults in our lives that help prepare us for the obstacles ahead. In life, your teachers do not follow you outside of school, your parents will kick you out of the nest or will eventually die, and you must step up and become the guiding force in your own life. You will take the lessons you garnered from them and use them as you navigate your path, but each story attempts to prepare you for this step along the way.

    Playwriting Activity 1: Identifying Archetypes in Stories

    • Choose a film, play, book, and TV Commercial and identify the archetypes of each story. Which characters and entities served each archetype? Did any characters fulfill multiple archetypes?
    • Find a friend or partner and discuss your findings. Do you both agree with your findings? If not discuss and see if you can discover a new perspective that you both agree on.

    PLAYWRITING Activity 2: Creating Archetypes for your story

    • Choose a theme, conflict, and setting from the previous activities and create a Hero, Villain, Sidekick, Heroine/Goal/McGuffin, and Mentor that will help you tell your story.
    • Find a friend or partner and discuss your findings. Do you both agree with your findings? If not discuss and see if you can discover a theme you can agree on.
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