On the Subject of: Archetypes

Colourful PersonalitiesYou know those silly little quizzes that make you answer random questions, and at the end you get a shiny new label to add to your own personal personality box? Yeah. I love those.

I can’t help it, it’s a guilty pleasure and I suppose it stems from preferring to think of everything in story terms. I do it in my head a lot, think about the people in my life and what kind of character they would play.

Archetypes are the representations of any number of symbols, statements, and behaviours previously seen and grouped together to form ideas which can be used and replicated. In terms of personality, archetypes are the basis for both proto and stereotypes. These are easily recognisable and widely accepted (for better or worse), making them a useful tool when creating an imaginary world.

If I were talking about archetypes in terms of Psychology I might refer you to the mental model, to the idea that we all carry around a version of the world in our heads – and we simplify everything in it to aid us in understanding our lives and the people in them. I may even direct you to the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism website and all its treasures ($100 a year for the pleasure, however).

Luckily for you (and particularly for me, since I gave it up at A Level), I am not a Psychologist, I’m a storyteller. And to storytellers archetypes are less about the need to understand people’s behaviours and more about representing them and making characters and events believable.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s description of personality archetypes is perhaps the most recognised and he described atypical fantasy characters as well, a few of which are

The hero: Champion; defender; rescuer

The maiden: Innocence; desire; purity

The wise old man: Guidance; knowledge; wisdom

Star Wars was created with these archetypal themes in mind. The hero being Luke Skywalker, the maiden Princess Leia and the wise old man Obi Wan etc. The entire plot of the original films was an example of a Hero’s Journey.

A model of a person, taken from http://www.innovationinpractice.com

These character blueprints have been further expanded in both Eastern and Western cultures. The Chinese zodiac and astrological star signs give us descriptions of people with both positive and negative traits to apply to ourselves. Whether or not you believe in them, they can be a useful tool for getting to know your character.

Planning out my characters for Camp NaNo has been made slightly easier by drawing inspirations from both when their fictional birthday is and what archetype role they play in my narrative.

Below I’ve listed a few cool places to help (and by help I mean map your characters, not procrastinate like I’ve done most of the day, shh).

The Jung Typology Test – The best Jung & Briggs Myers personality test on the Internet, also free. Fun to do yourself, a great way to get some insight into your characters.

ArchetypalCharacters – The TVTropes list of related articles. Be careful not to get lost in the rest of the site.

The Chinese New Year @ chiff.com – The Chinese Zodiac, clickable signs and descriptions for each one. (I was born in the year of the Ox which apparently makes me both stubborn and self-assured – awesome, I’m a tosser).

ArchetypeWriting.com – An excellent source and tailored to helping fiction writers.

Though I’m writing this from a purely genre fiction standing, I’m sure a lot of these archetypes could be applied to literary fiction both low and high as well. Though whether Jane Austen ever mused over Lizzy’s star sign I couldn’t tell you.

So have you ever created a character based solely on an archetype to serve your narrative? Ever done a personality quiz on behalf of one of your protagonists?

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