I vaguely remembered English course discussions (mind-numbing ones) centering on whether or not (insert protagonist name here) embodied the archetype of (hero, villain, trickster, etc.). Invariably some ass-kisser would bring in the Jungian archetypes (she had clearly taken a 200 level psychology class and wanted to show it) and I would start doodling in my notebook while the conversation took on the quality of Charlie Brown‘s teacher “wah-wah-WAH-wah…”.
So who the hell cares about archetypes anyway? Well, it turns out writers should care, because a study of archetypes can offer tremendous insight into the characters we try to flesh out in mere words. Sometimes books and writer’s guides call them simply archetypes, but there are other versions that exist like personality types, enneagrams, and zodiac signs which can all prove to be the brain jumper cable we require to see our character as a three dimensional person and transmit that understanding to our reader.
But before we go further, what exactly is an archetype? At it’s most basic, an archetype is “a very typical example of a certain person or thing” usually seen as a general label that invokes immediate understanding in the listener or reader (like when someone calls your character a “player” in contemporary romance or a “rogue” or “rake” in historical romance).(New Oxford American Dictionary)
The psychology piece takes it a step deeper as Jungian psychology believes in archetypes as “a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.” (New Oxford American Dictionary) In this school of thought, the idea reigns that we have embedded in our cultural psyche ideas of “the hero” or the “wise old woman.” Jung and some other psychologists believe tarot cards to be an example of people channeling the idea of archetypes and creatively using them to understand their world and their future. This is really rather helpful for writers, since it means that we can spin variations of this theme but often merely have to invoke this archetype in the minds of our reader with a few broad strokes and the reader’s brain will automatically categorize the character accordingly.
When entering into a “literary” discussion of the romance genre, it helps to get an intellectual heavyweight on your side. Jayne Ann Krentz, known to her fans under either her actual name or one of her many pseudonyms – Amanda Quick or Jayne Castle, are two popular ones – is an award winning author who is able to encapsulate the key points of romance in language that ties critics in knots. Try telling the following to the next brandy-swilling snootypants who attempts to suck the fun out of you.
“The thing is, romance novels, like the other genres of popular fiction, descend from a different storytelling tradition — the heroic tradition. They feature the ancient heroic virtues: honor, courage, determination and the healing power of love. Most modern literary critics are stuck in a time warp that dates back to the middle of the twentieth century when the only fiction that was considered GOOD fiction was that which was heavily influenced by existentialism, various social agendas and psychological theory.” (Source: interview with Jayne Ann Krentz)
Krentz knows what she’s talking about. Not only did she get her bachelor’s degree in history and her master’s in library science (whoo-hooo!! fellow librarian!!), but she worked for years in academic libraries. Add in her thirty plus years of being a published author and you have someone who REALLY has given a lot of thought to the genre. (For an even clearer view, take a look at the collection she edited, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance.)
Archetypes have definitely been a piece of this thought process. In a recent interview given to the Popular Romance Project (SUCH a good site with one amazing video interview after another, like Jayne’s, and well-written guest articles, be sure to check it out), she paints with a few words why we love romance so much. It’s (thankfully) not about existential post-modernism or the deeper symbolism regarding the parrot on page 73, but instead about a story that is about two people on a journey, facing their problems with characteristics we can all admire. “[T]he hero and the heroine overcome their problems not with social engineering and not with psychology, but with core heroic virtues and they’re always the same. It’s courage, determination, a sense of honor, integrity, and the ability to love, and that’s at the core of all our heroic archetypes.” Can you even think of a hero that didn’t have, at his or her core personality, these values? Of course you can’t, because we wouldn’t love him or her as a reader.
Popular fiction employs archetypes as much as literary fiction or sweeping Greek epics do, because they are essential to our understanding of story. Noting that no one seems to ask what need popular fiction fills in our mind and heart, Jayne has a theory. “…I’ve, over the years, sort of evolved a Jayne’s theory of popular fiction evolution, which is that it wouldn’t survive unless it served a real purpose for the survivability of our culture; and I believe that it’s in popular fiction that we preserve our society’s—our culture’s—core values.” If those core values are about love and caring, about courage and integrity, then I am incredibly glad that I live in a society that recognizes their importance.
One of the other criticisms I hear of popular fiction is how “unrealistic” it is. Conversely the opposite is praise for literary fiction (which never gets called popular fiction no matter how popular it gets) which is often touted for being gritty and realistic. But Jayne Krentz has a rebuttal for this negative perspective.
“It is not the task of popular fiction to be realistic. It may feel realistic upon occasion…. Popular fiction encapsulates and reinforces many of our most fundamental cultural values. Romance is among the most enduring because it addresses the values of family and human emotional bonds.” (Interview)
Is this the reason women in particular value romance so much? Because we are geared to value those emotional bonds between people, particularly those of love and passion? The “realistic” thing always makes me cranky. No Harry Potter is not realistic, or a girl falling in love with a vampire, or a guy who dresses in black and protects Gotham City with his ginormous wealth and infinite array of gadgetry. Are they stories people love to read? Hell, yeah, and the characters are all archetypes at their core.
With this in mind, understanding archetypes is an important tool in the writer repertoire. There are plenty of books for writers out there that deal with character development, but one that might help is a book by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters. I have so many post it notes in this book, it looks like a pink paper porcupine! After a brief discussion of archetypes and their importance, Victoria Schmidt goes into several female and male archetypes, discussing their overall character traits, their flaws and positive qualities, how other characters view them, and, for many of the archetypes seen as positive, how they could become villainous.
Supporting characters are also given their own mini-archetypes and it’s impressive how as you read, you can’t help but think of characters of books you loved. The last part of the book is spent outlining the feminine and masculine journey our characters/archetypes might take. It really gets the brain juices flowing!
So for writers or would-be writers of popular fiction, don’t underestimate the power of archetypes to help your character development and plot brainstorming. Remember popular fiction is worthy of respect and admiration for the same celebration of human values that literary fiction possesses. By learning about the commonalities between them, we can appreciate all fiction and what it teaches us about being our best selves. Enjoy!