Carl Jung used the term archetype to describe patterns of personalities in humankind. Drawing on what he termed, the collective unconscious, Jung broke down common types of characters into various archetypes that are found in countless stories. Screenwriters can use these archetypes to create stories of mythic power. In addition, an understanding of character archetypes helps screenwriters understand character in terms of story function. Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, applied archetypical principles to mythology and came up with seven main archetypes found throughout storytelling.
When most people think of hero, they think of a superhero. Superman, Spiderman, Batman are indeed heroes, but the hero archetype is much broader. Archetypically speaking, the hero is a representation of the ego. The essence of mythic hero is not marked by physical strength or courage so much as it is a manifestation of self-sacrifice. The hero archetype is a character who is willing to learn, travel from his or her clan and return to the clan bringing an “elixir” to save the clan. The elixir can be knowledge, a weapon or magic – whatever it is the clan needs to defeat an enemy and survive.
This archetype is a character that helps the hero. Usually this character is a wise, old man who teaches the hero the skills he or she will need to defeat the villain. Often the mentor will give the hero magical items to help the hero on his quest. In Star Wars: A New Hope, the mentor is Obi-Wan Kenobi. He is older, teaches Luke about the Force and gives him a magical item, a lightsaber.
Threshold Guardian Archetype
It’s convenient to think of a threshold guardian as a boss monster in a game. Usually the threshold guardian is the first obstacle faced by the hero as he ventures forth into the unknown world; however, threshold guardians can occur elsewhere as well. Using the game analogy, if you cannot defeat the boss monster on a level, you can’t go forward in the game. You’re stuck at this level until you can defeat the boss monster. Likewise, the threshold guardian serves as a test. If you cannot pass the test, there’s no way you can defeat what lies ahead. Only when you pass the test can you proceed. Usually, the threshold guardian is not the main villain, but a lieutenant of the villain.
The job of the herald archetype is to inform the hero that the world is not in balance. This character lets the hero know that action is needed. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Princess Leia’s hologram lets the hero know of the peril facing the universe. A herald doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a newspaper headline, a television broadcast, anything that informs the hero of the danger facing the hero’s world.
Shapeshifters, as the name implies, change form. Usually shapeshifters are characters of the opposite sex of the hero. Sometimes they are the hero’s love interest. The main function of the shapeshifter archetype is unpredictability. Often these characters start off as one thing and then reveal their true nature. The shapeshifter may seem to be an ally at first, then turn out to be a villain in disguise. In terms of story function, the shapeshifter creates tension and suspense. They also cause the hero to question reality, which is essential for the hero to learn the new skills needed to defeat the villain.
The shadow archetype is the story’s main villain. Rather than use the term villain or antagonist to describe this archetype, the name shadow implies the dark side of the hero. Indeed, often the shadow is the reverse of the hero. The shadow is the ultimate opponent the hero must face; however, the shadow is more than that. The shadow represents the evil lurking within everyone. Often the shadow is the hero, who has chosen not to sacrifice himself for others, but instead is greedily pursuing his or her own objectives.
The trickster archetype is comic relief. The trickster serves to counter-balance a story’s dramatic tension. The trickster often is there to put things into perspective. The trickster also represents cunning as opposed to brute force.
Remember that characters can be more than one archetype depending on the story’s needs. Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back was a mentor (wise, old man), a shapeshifter (originally he pretended to be a befuddled little creature) and a trickster.
Using archetypes can help you tap into the collective unconscious to create stories that resonate with audiences as well as raise your writing to mythic proportions.
Source: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler