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Archetypal characters in the Hero’s Journey

This entry is part 13 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)

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As I mentioned yesterday, the Hero’s Journey started with Joseph Campbell looking at heroes across mythology. He found that not only do heroes have a lot in common, but so do other roles in their stories. Again, Christopher Vogler adapted this for writers in The Writer’s Journey, so we’ll be using his terminology.

The Hero is our protagonist. The audience identifies with him (or her). He grows in the course of the story, and is involved in most of the action. He has a character flaw, of course (if he were perfect, could he grow? And would he be interesting?) This flaw is often the flipside of his biggest strength—his optimism means he has false hope, love of family means he won’t sacrifice his dad’s to save the world, etc. But he must be willing to sacrifice when we get to that climactic point of the story.

The first archetypal character he usually meets is the Herald, the character who issues the call to adventure. His challenge announces a coming change, that all is not well in the Ordinary World. He also gives the Hero motivation to go on the adventure.

The Herald doesn’t have to actually be a person—in Lord of the Rings, it’s the ring; in Harry Potter, it’s the letters; in Star Wars: A New Hope, it’s Luke’s aunt & uncle dying. (You could try to argue it’s meeting R2-D2, but remember that R2 bore a message for someone else).

He usually has a Mentor who teaches him. Often, the Mentor gives him a useful gift as well as motivates the hero into accepting the call. (Technically, the mentor doesn’t have to be a person either—and I don’t just mean disembodied voices and Force ghosts, either. It can be anything that teaches the Hero and prepares him for the coming tests.)

Along the way, the Hero encounters Threshold Guardians who block his path. These obstacles are tests for the Hero—have his skills developed enough? The guardians may be working for the good side or the bad side, or no one at all (but it’s hard to make someone who makes trouble for his own sake believable for very long, you know?)

The Trickster is often a sidekick. He often balances the drama with comic relief and brings things into perspective.

The Shape-Shifter can be his or her own character—or it can be combined with another character type. As the name states, he’s not what he appears to be. Revealing his “real” self can create big change in the story—but they may or may not be evil. They may switch sides, but they may become good. In fact, in a romance, the romantic leads are often Shape-Shifters because they must change to enter into a relationship. (Heck, even the Hero might be a Shape-Shifter, since he has to learn and grow throughout the course of the story.)

The Hero may encounter a rival—someone who’s competing for an intermediary goal, or the girl, etc. But it’s the Shadow that is the true villain. He tests the Hero’s true abilities and worthiness, and forces the Hero to rise to the challenge. He’s often a shape-shifter, appearing beautiful, elegant or good.

Added by Iapetus999 (Andrew) in the comments:
The Ally (AKA the Sidekick, the Best Friend, the Brother-in-Arms, the Faithful Companion, the Loyal Troops, the Partner in Crime (or do-gooding), the Guardian Angel, the Band of Brothers, the Knight in Shining Armor, the Merry Men, the Faithful Steed…) The Ally is a person the Hero trusts. He’s someone the Hero can turn to when the chips are down, to provide him with wisdom, to provide him with humor or a shoulder to lean on, to lend him an ear, to prepare him for battle, to do all the little and big things a Hero can’t do for himself. He may be too tired from the fight, too engaged with the enemy, or just on a pig-headed mission, so the Ally needs to watch his back. We can’t all be Heroes, but we can all be Allies.

And nothing is complete without a few examples, right?

  Harry Potter Star Wars IV-VI
Hero Harry Luke
Shadow Voldemort Darth Vader
Mentor Hagrid, Dumbledore       Obi-Wan
Herald Letters the deaths of Beru and Owen
Shape shifters Literally: McGonagall Leia, Vader/Anakin, Obi-Wan
Trickster Fred & George Han, C3PO, R2-D2
Threshold Guardians      Neville, Fluffy Stormtroopers
Ally Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley Han Solo, Princess Leia, and the Droids

What do you think? How do you see these archetypal characters, either in others’ works or your own?

Image credits: superhero—Stefanie L.; shadow—Michal Zacharzewski

Series NavigationA quick overview of the Hero’s JourneyThe Hero (and Heroine)’s Journey–Hero’s Journey in romance
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6 Responses to Archetypal characters in the Hero’s Journey

  1. Iapetus999 says:

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around these. I understand Hero, Mentor, Shadow, and Threshold Guardians, but the others are a bit harder. BTW I think you’re missing Ally ;)
    Also note that these are the Mythological Top Eight…but there are actually hundreds of archetypes. The Mother. The Father. The Child. The Devil. Santa Claus. The Gambler. The Stud. The Whore. All of these archetypes are common in fiction.
    I think the points he’s trying to make is that these are the most generic archetypes, but I sort of get lost when I think of all the different kinds of characters that are out there. The other thing to note is that there’s not a one-to-one assignment of archetype to character. It’s a matter of degree. One single character can be a Hero and a Mentor. A Shadow can be a Threshold Guardian, and then turn into an Ally at some point (which would make him a Shape Shifter).
    This is why I get a little lost with Archetypes. :)

  2. Jordan says:

    Yes, there are hundreds of archetypes, and as you mention, they’re as broad as “mother, father, child,” as you mention. But I did say these were the archetypes in the Hero’s Journey. ;)

    Oh, yeah, you can definitely combine the archetypes in characters (note how much overlap there is in the Star Wars list). Shape-Shifters are especially slippery that way. (Really, to call Shape-Shifters an archetypal character of their own is a cop out. Most characters change in some way in the course of a story.)

    I don’t have any notes on the Ally. I mean, it seems fairly straightforward, but would you like to expound upon that role?

  3. Iapetus999 says:

    Jordon asked me to add Ally to the list:

    The Ally – AKA the Sidekick, the Best Friend, the Brother-in-Arms, the Faithful Companion, the Loyal Troops, the Partner in Crime (or do-gooding), the Guardian Angel, the Band of Brothers, the Knight in Shining Armor, the Merry Men, the Faithful Steed…
    The Ally is a person the Hero trusts. He’s someone the Hero can turn to when the chips are down, to provide him with wisdom, to provide him with humor or a shoulder to lean on, to lend him an ear, to prepare him for battle, to do all the little and big things a Hero can’t do for himself. He may be too tired from the fight, too engaged with the enemy, or just on a pig-headed mission, so the Ally needs to watch his back. We can’t all be Heroes, but we can all be Allies.

  4. Iapetus999 says:

    Allies:
    Harry Potter: Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley
    Star Wars: Han Solo, Princess Leia, and the Droids (well, R2D2. C3PO is clearly a trickster.)

  5. Jordan says:

    Thanks, Andrew! But I’d bet you can definitely be both a Trickster and an Ally. Sidekick and comic relief. Quel awesome. (For some reason, Dirk Pitt’s Al DiGiordano come springing to my brain in that list.)

  6. I would have thought that Darth Vadar was a rival and the dark side of ‘the force’ was the shadow.

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