Have you ever gone searching for a particular shirt, or pair of socks, and instead found that favorite pair of winter tights you put away last spring and forgot about until now, when you are staring at them like a long lost love, because it has just gotten cold outside and these will keep your toes from frosting over.
Well, that’s how I felt when I re-discovered archetypes. You know the ones: setting, plot and characters that just keep showing up in story after story. The funny thing is, unless you are a writer or other literary type, you probably don’t notice archetypes, even as you are comforted by their familiarity.
For instance, who hasn’t met the Initiate? (Think any Quest story you’ve ever read or seen, Avatar included) This is “the innocent young pre-hero who must go on a quest, or special training before earning the right to be a hero or protector.” Then there’s the Mentor; “the teachers who counsel Initiates almost the way a parent does. They show examples, sometimes magical, to teach the initiate skills and information. (Think, Gandalf, Merlin, Dumbledore or Rafiki).” There are a whole slough of others, in three different categories, no less. The good, the bad and the neutral. But we’re running out of space and must move on.
Some say there are only seven basic plots, others claim at least 36. I generally find smaller numbers easier to handle, so I’m only naming two. First you have the Quest. The Hero or Initiate must find something that will fix something else. To get to the Thing and prevent/repair the damage, our protagonist must overcome numerous obstacles on the way to the Thing and then he/she has to face more problems on the way back. Lots of room for conflict there. A similar, but different plot archetype is the Task. This refers to “a certain superhuman feat that must be accomplished in order for the hero to reach his goal.” Any of this sound familiar?
The third in this literary trifecta is setting. The entire list is considerable, but one of my favorites and the setting of my current novel is the Garden, although in Rephaim, I think I may have combined it with the Forest/Wilderness. You get innocent, life giving nature combined with some pretty dangerous critters and downright out ugly villains, but there, we’re drifting back into characters. Moving on.
Archetypes have been used, either accidentally or on purpose, ever since the first bard put fingertip to harp string. I have never yet intentionally created an archetypal figure, but my writing has turned out to be full of them. And I am not alone. Every great character in literature fits, at least loosely, into one of the archetypal categories. If they don’t, readers tend to find them uncomfortable, like a boot that may look nice, but doesn’t quite fit. The nice thing is that, in all three categories, even the shortest list provides enough variety to fit whatever story an author wants to tell. So the reader gets something just familiar enough to be comfortable, and (with an author worth their salt) enough of the new and unexpected to keep things exciting.
(Note: All items in quotes were taken from the list accessed by the “list” link above.)