Archetype is a word with Greek roots. Approximately translated, it means “original pattern”. Writers often deal with archetypes as an aspect of evaluating or crafting their characters. Just like the Seven Types of Story, archetypal characters are not carbon copies of one another. But they can benefit from the template of all those who have gone before them.
Psychologist Carl Jung was instrumental in articulating the idea of subconscious archetypes.
Carl Jung understood archetypes as universal, archaic patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious and are the psychic counterpart of instinct. They are inherited potentials which are actualized when they enter consciousness as images or manifest in behavior on interaction with the outside world. They are autonomous and hidden forms which are transformed once they enter consciousness and are given particular expression by individuals and their cultures.Wikipedia
There are three categories of archetypes in the Jungian system, and they are events, figures, and motifs. All of these are relevant to telling stories.
Here are just a few examples, because the list below is far from complete.
Separation from parents
Devil / God
Wise old person
Good vs evil
Union of opposites
Certain archetypes cross boundaries of category, but delving completely into them is beyond the scope of this blog post. As an example, “the shadow” could invoke an idea that is deeply personal – representing one’s dark-side, if you will – or it could summon the idea of a threat to the world. It could also be a number of other things. The “union of opposites” could be a motif, but it could also be an event.
Having multiple interpretations goes along with the entire concept of an archetype. When something can be identified with on a fundamental level, it resonates. An audience will be able to fill in details that you, as a writer, don’t need to spell out. Archetypes capture ideas and emotions that are deeply powerful. While it is still up to you to drive home the impact of your story, using archetypes can lay the foundation.
To cite a popular example, archetypes are used heavily in A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones), specifically in regard to the Seven-Faced God. The seven aspects are: the crone, the warrior, the smith, the mother, the father, the maiden, and the stranger. The Mother represents mercy. The Father is depicted holding scales of justice. The Smith is the idea of creation. The Stranger is death, but also the unknown. They seem almost obvious as deities. That base resonance also captures the idea that although there are nature-centric Old Gods, the New Gods are more of a celebration of man’s mastery over the world.
There are multiple instances in ASoIaF where a character invokes the new gods, and I’ve found myself mentally archiving them as a certain aspect or another. Jaime Lannister as the Warrior. Sansa as the Maiden. Mellisandre as the Crone. This helped me, as a reader, fundamentally understand the characters I was reading about. It also told me a lot about how the characters look at one another, which is equally important.
G.R.R.M. is not the first author to use archetypes to define the system of religion in his fiction, although his are definitely notable in how prominent they are in his character’s everyday lives. I’ve also encountered god/goddess/religious archetypes in the Dragonlance series, and in Raymond E. Feist’s Magician series, just to name a couple others off the top of my head.
In fiction, aside from religious icons, archetypes are often embodied in the protagonist and antagonist as well as the bare-bones essentials of the conflict driving the plot. If you are ever been asked what a story is about, the best way to describe it in a timely manner would be to invoke an archetype. For instance, the first book I ever edited is a redemption story. That’s just one core word, but it says a lot, which is the entire idea of the power of an archetype.
As an exercise, what are the fewest number of words you would use to describe the protagonist of the last book you read? What about the inciting incident in your current WIP – can you capture it in five words or less? I’d love to hear what you come up with. The comments are always open.