I have previously dealt with the notion of the cliché on this blog, and closely related to that is the notion of the archetype. An archetype is an ideal example of a type, to give the dictionary definition. Carl Jung also made use of the term to define an inherited unconscious idea. Plato’s ideas can also be seen as the original archetypes and in fact the word itself comes from the greek word αρχετυπον. But how do archetypes play into writing and how can they be used to enhance the experience of a player in a game? Are there any dangers to using archetypes that a writer or GM must be wary of?
First of all, let’s dig in a little deeper to see what an archetype actually is and some examples of them. Carl Jung popularised the term when he published his work describing repeating patterns of thought and action that re-appear time and again across cultures and continents. His main archetypes are aspects of our psyche that we all carry within us: The Shadow, the Anima, the Animus and the Self1.
However, he extended these archetypes to describe characters and events that all people appear to recognize independent of their background. His story archetypes are those that I will focus on here as they’re most relevant to writing and game development.
The champion of good. The defeater of evil dragons and monsters and often dumb as a stump. Jung’s explanation is that the Hero battles the Shadow in all of us but is unconscious of the collective unconscious. The hero acts purely out of the need to do good. Notable heroes are Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.
Representing purity, innocence and naivete, the Maiden is often the character the Hero is out to rescue. Notable maidens are Princess Peach in the Mario games and Leia (at least in Star Wars: A New Hope).
Wise old man
The wise old man guides the Hero and through him the Hero gains access to the collective unconscious. Notable wise old men include Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda from Star Wars and Professor Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series.
While there can be both white and black magicians representing both sides of the alignment spectrum, they have in common that they are seeking out fundamental laws of reality to understand how to influence people, make visions into realities, and transform situations.
Symbolizing nature and the nurturing of our selves, the Earth mother is familiar to anyone who has been into or walked past a new-age boutique. In amongst the candles, wind chimes and incense sticks one might find a carved statue of a well-endowed female figure similar to those found amongst ancient settlements.
Witch or sorceress
The classic crone from fairy tales, the witch is familiar to many as the hag with the apple from Snow White or the witch in Rapunzel who is so terrifying that Rapunzel’s father gives up his daughter to her.
The trickster generally hampers the Hero’s progress and generally make trouble. The most notable example of the trickster is that of the demi-god Loki in Norse mythology whose pranks were often the source of the Norse gods’ adventures. Another great example is that of the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear. While on the surface he appears as a clown, he is endowed with great wisdom which he obfuscates with riddles and puzzles.
If you play role-playing games or read fantasy novels I’m sure you recognized some of the characters from that list. Even many of the Dungeons & Dragons core classes can be recast in light of these with Fighters and Paladins standing in for the Hero, Druids taking on the Earth mother role and the Rogue comfortably filling the Trickster seat.
I’ve mentioned the Monomyth or Hero’s Journey before here and that simple framework contains many of the archetypes described by Jung.
It’s clear that these archetypes can be used to give a sense of familiarity to a player or reader and give them anchors by which they can become grounded in a world and in an adventure. In my article on clichés, I suggested that the GM or writer might play with the cliché and use them to lead a reader or player to a conclusion that is wrong. In contrast, these archetypes are so fundamental to our psyche that people encountering them are unlikely to believe any twist that might be introduced. For example, even if a hag is revealed to be a helpful character with good intentions, most readers and players will continue to suspect her and never fully trust the revelation.
Used carefully and sparingly, archetypes can be an enormous boon. However, unlike the cliché, one must be careful not to play around too much with the archetype. As such, it is much easier to overuse them. If you’re careful, the addition of the archetype to your writing arsenal should be a powerful one.
Jung, C.G. & Franz, M.-L. v. (1964). Man and His Symbols, New York; Doubleday and Company, Inc.
Jung, C. G. (1970). Four Archetypes; Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. (contained in Collected Works Vol. 9 part 1)
I helped run a BBS dedicated to the Archimedes computer system called Archetype in the late 1980s, early 1990s.