I smile when I hear someone say, “That movie sounded just like that other one” or “That author stole that idea!” These words usually come to mind: “Well, all stories are derived from one. There are no new ideas, so there must be some similarities between these stories.”
At least, that’s what I was taught in English class. Some authors do take other people’s ideas – that’s called plagiarism. However, I firmly believe that there are no new ideas. It all depends on the way that authors spin these ideas to create their own stories. I haven’t been able to gain enough scholarly know-how to form an air-tight argument to support this theory, but there is one fascinating literary topic that I have been able to study…archetypes.
The literal definition of an archetype is “a typical example of certain person of thing; a prototype.” The idea of a psychological archetype has been traced as far back as Socrates. However, I am more interested in the modern idea of literary archetypes that have been refined by great thinkers like the philosopher Carl Jung and the mythologist Joseph Campbell. These men translated the idea of psychological archetypes, or “a collective unconscious,” and applied them to books.
Literary archetypes are models or reoccurring patterns found throughout all literature. These archetypes move through time and place. They are universally understood ideas. I don’t want to write a term paper on this subject, but I’m going to share some ideas of common literary archetypes. I’m sure that you’ve discovered these for yourself, even if you didn’t know what they were at the time. They come in many shapes, forms, and sizes, but I’ll just touch on a few here:
- The Hero: This character is usually considered the protagonist (simple check: the protagonist is the character that undergoes the most amount of change or growth throughout the story). This character possesses all of the necessary skills to solve whatever problem he faces and he will, eventually, step up to save the day.
- The Innocent: This character is also known as the Dreamer. In classic fairy tales, this character is the spotless and naïve princess who needs to be saved by a dashing young hero. The Innocent character is not tempted towards darkness and can’t understand it, which can make her seem more desirable towards both heros and villains.
- The Villain: The Villain character can take different forms depending on how he is perceived, or interacts with, the hero. This is the character who wants the hero to fail in his quest and wreaks the most amount of havoc on the hero and the innocents in the hero’s world.
- The Mentor: This character can also take multiple forms. The mentor is the character that the hero runs to for help. Whether he is a father figure or an old wizard, the mentor’s aid is indispensable.
- The Trickster: This character is a prime example of a group of characters called “challengers.” While the trickster isn’t always evil, he is most often portrayed as a character who stands in the way of the hero reaching his goal.
- The Rebel: The rebel is a character who is alienated from society or from the cultural norms of the time. He can take many forms (i.e. the hermit vs. the leader of the revolution) and can serve either side, good or evil.
- *Light vs. Dark: This is perhaps the most universally understood, and oldest, theme found in literature. This theme represents the struggle against good and evil. It can be shown either literally or figuratively.
- Old vs. New: This is another classic theme found throughout literature. Think of all the stories where revolutionaries fight about an old government, the environment clashes with civilization, youths rebel against adults – these stories all fall under this theme.
- Rags to Riches: This is the classic pauper to prince story line. This theme does not have to involve the hero or refer to monetary gain. It refers to a sudden and intense reversal of fate. As such, Riches to Rags can also be used.
- Isolation or Alienation: Here is where the Rebel and the Hero are often used to refer to the same person. This theme can be used at the beginning or end of story, or throughout the whole thing. It can represent both good and evil. It is an often used, but complex, theme.
- Call to Adventure: Something bad happens and the hero is called to action. This involves him leaving his normal life or “the ordinary world” in some way. The hero refers to the main protagonist. He will not always be alone, but he will make the next decision.
- Refusal of the Call: Often, but not always, the hero will refuse the call at first. After all, not many people have the drive or the ability to run straight into danger. Something or someone will have to drive him towards the Unknown World.
- (Supernatural) Aid: This is where the Mentor enters the scene. His aide is not always supernatural, but it will help the hero decide what road to take.
- Crossing the Threshold: This refers to the first step that the hero takes on his journey. It may involve something as big as stepping through a portal into another world or something as small as leaving the town limits.
- The Road of Trials: This event encompasses the majority of the book. The hero and his allies meet friends, enemies, and challenges along the way. There has to be multiple setbacks and triumphs involved in this event. The hero cannot reach his goal without enduring some hardship.
- The Ultimate Ordeal: The hero always has one main goal in mind. There is one challenge that his journey has been leading up to. Here is where he makes his final stand with his allies.
- The Reward: After the ordeal is over and the hero claims victory, he receives his reward. The reward isn’t always what he expected, but whatever it is – an object, an idea, whatever – it will be worth the journey in some way.
- The Road Back: This is the book’s denouement. Here the hero has to decide if he wants to return to his old life and then begin the journey if he wishes to.
- The Ressurection: Often, the hero will have to go through one more personal challenge before he can return home. This may involve an unforeseen complication or a change of heart.
- Back to the Ordinary World: The hero and his allies return home with the prize that will fix everything!
**Together, these events make up what Joseph Campbell called the monomyth. Today, we call it “The Hero’s Journey.” **
You see, Joseph Campbell believed that the monomyth wasn’t a magical template. Steps can be removed, moved around, and tweaked. However, it does includes the archetypal events that can be considered the building blocks for virtually any piece of fictional literature. Take a minute and think of your favorite book.
Do you see the elements of Campbell’s monomyth in it? Also, can you think of one classic Disney animated movie that doesn’t follow “The Hero’s Journey”?
Why is this so familiar? As I mentioned earlier, archetypes are images and ideas that are universal. Everyone can understand the hero figure, the struggle of light vs. dark, and the entire hero’s journey. These reoccurring themes are easy to understand, because they are tied to our very existence. Whether authors write what they know people will recognize or whether readers are the ones who pick up a book and make the connection themselves, is question that we will likely never be able to satisfactorily answer. I would say yes to both.
You might still be saying, “I see the connections you’re talking about, but why would you want to label all literature with something as simple as ‘The Hero’s Journey’?” I see what you’re saying. There are millions of variations that authors can make to Campbell’s monomyth, but the connections cannot be denied. I’m going to take this even one step further and say that I like to label all literature with one theme – Good vs. Evil *(see Light vs. Dark from earlier.) That can be even harder to comprehend. Again, why would someone want to ignore all of the differences between various works of literature in order to put them in the same basket?
Why? It’s because it allows me to say what I said earlier: “All stories are derived from one.” I don’t think “The Hero’s Journey” is the smallest building block of literature. The smallest block is good vs. evil. Isn’t that the daily struggle everyone faces in their consciousness and unconsciousness? Isn’t that the simplest concept that is universally understood?
That is why there are common threads between every single piece of fiction. If you can recognize that common ground, then you can step back and understand the archetypes used in literature, and then, I believe, you can fully appreciate the twists and turns that authors incorporate into their own stories. The struggle between good and evil is at the center of every book. It’s the way that an author chooses to show that struggle that makes spending a whole afternoon reading worthwhile.
I’m going to wrap up with some examples of archetypes in literature. And because I am who I am, I’m not going to use traditional examples (Star Wars, The Hobbit, etc.) Instead, I’ve chosen two uniquely different YA books: Eragon by Christopher Paolini and Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. Two very different stories, right? We’ll see!
And I hope that you’ll be able to notice the archetypes in your favorite books now and, perhaps, even use them when you write. Share your thoughts below. Did you find this helpful? Did you learn something new? Or is this information “old hat” for you? What familiar archetypes have you picked up on in books and movies? Have you seen another version of “The Hero’s Journey” in your favorite stories? Would you use Campbell’s template to write a movie-worthy book or would you rather let your readers discover the universal truths in your story on their own?
***Caution: Major Spoilers
- The hero, Eragon, is called out of his normal life when he finds a dragon egg.
- Eragon doesn’t want to leave his Uncle’s farm. Even when the dragon hatches, he hides it in the forest so that he can stay. It is another outside action, the death of this uncle, which pushes him to accept the call.
- The mysterious Brom, who knows quite a bit about dragons and dragon riders, becomes Dragon’s mentor.
- Oddly enough, Brom also acts as the Threshold Guarden as he shepherds Eragon on his journey into the unknown world outside of Palancar Valley.
- Eragon faces many dangers as he journeys towards his goal: the Varden. Along the way, he has to battle storms, environmental hardships, monsters, and the King’s henchmen. He also comes in contact with more allies. He is changed by the knowledge that he can perform magic and the death of his mentor and closest ally, Brom.
- The hero manages to get through every obstacle until he reaches the Varden. The ultimate ordeal is a battle that takes place between Eragon and the Varden fighters and the King’s henchmen. Eragon is forced to go head-to-head with his most dangerous adversary yet, a Shade. He is able to defeat his enemy in the end and ensures victory for the Varden.
- Eragon does not receive riches as a reward. He gains the knowledge that he helped his allies win the battle. On top of that, he wins the personal reward of finding a powerful teacher.
- Since this is the first book in an epic series, Eragon does not make a physical journey back to his home. This physical step of “The Hero’s Journey” is cut out.
- Eragon’s resurrection moment comes when his new teacher revives him from the brink of death. Eragon receives a new purpose in life: to journey into the Elves’ forest to find his teacher . He has become a new person: confident, selfless, a true hero.
- The hero has now fully accepted his role as a Dragon Rider. He sets off to find his teacher with the knowledge he has gained and the hope that he will be able to use it to destroy the Evil King someday.
- Bella is called out of her normal life when she has to leave her mother and move to Forks to live with her father.
- Although she has to move, Bella is reluctant to accept the change. She is also hesitant to make contact with the unknown world, Edward’s world.
- Jacob acts as Bella’s mentor when he informs her about the myth concerning his tribe. This leads Bella to learn the truth about the Cullens.
- Bella steps over the threshold when she makes the decision to trust Edward, even though he is a vampire.
- Bella’s journey involves a series of ups and downs that includes gaining the respect of his family, dealing with jealousy from other guys, and trying to balance her relationships with Edward and Jacob. She does gain real allies along the way in the form of Edward and most of his family.
- The true villain of the book doesn’t arrive until another group of vampires discovers the relationship between Edward and Bella. The ultimate ordeal occurs when Bella and her allies have to destroy a vampire that tries to kill Bella. Bella doesn’t destroy the villain herself, but she does have to face him in an act of selfless bravery and she suffers the most throughout the ordeal.
- Bella’s reward is, quite literally, her life.
- Bella’s journey back to the “ordinary world” beings when she wakes up in the hospital.
- While there, she is physically resurrected. She also undergoes another type of resurrection when she reaffirms her love for Edward. She has become a different person and she will fight for what she wants.
- Bella returns to Forks with Edward by her side for prom. She has not returned to “normal,” but she has managed to combine her world and the unknown world. She has returned with her prizes: her life and her love.