Heroes and Shadows – Character Archetypes, Part One

Welcome back to AuthorHouse Author’s Digest! Previously, we talked about the “Hero’s Journey”–the voyage the protagonist makes within a story. This is researcher Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth,” his theory that the world’s most popular and enduring stories shared a common structure–a structure which struck a chord with audiences regardless of their culture or the time period in which they lived.


But what about the heroes who move through those stories? Or the people he meets along the way? Today we’ll begin discussing archetypes. These are the common character types that audiences are accustomed to (and expect to find). Even if they don’t realize it, they recognize these characters and welcome them like old friends.


A word of caution, though: writers that adhere too closely to a formula end up with stories that are predictable and unoriginal. The trick is to use these as guidelines, and then to find fresh, new ways to present them… or, if necessary, disregard them entirely.


There are eight archetypes, the first four of which we’ll discuss today. Let’s begin with:


Heroes – the central character in the story, a.k.a the protagonist. Although other characters may have subplots, it is the hero’s story that is being told. Ultimately, it will be the hero’s actions that defeat the enemy and save the day.


Shadows – the enemy, villain, antagonist, or “bad guy.” This is the force the hero struggles against. It need not be an enemy, in the strictest sense. It can also be any type of repression, including a social restriction, prejudice, or ignorance.


Mentors – the hero’s guide or teacher. The mentor often appears in stage four of the hero’s journey, “Meeting with the Mentor,” and gives the hero the extra push he needs to embark on his adventure.


Heralds – Remember stage two outlined in the Hero’s Journey, the “Call to Adventure?” Well, the herald is the one who issues the call. While it will often be a person, it can also be an event.


GandalfIt’s useful to think of the archetypes as positions that the characters fill for a story, but not a position they are permanently assigned to. A mentor in one story may be the hero in the next. In some cases, it’s even possible for a character to be a shadow in one story, but then a hero when the story is told from their point of view (Lestat in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, for example).


Consider Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories. He’s obviously a mentor, but he also serves as a herald, pushing Bilbo and Frodo Baggins out the door and along the road to their adventures.


Next time we’ll introduce threshold guardians, shapeshifters, tricksters, and allies. Until then, we look forward to seeing how you use the archetypes in your stories!


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