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Characters, Narrative & Mind

By Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator of StoryWeaver

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Archetypes and Character Elements

Excerpt from an upcoming book of mine on story structure:

In the Periodic Table in chemistry, elements are arranged in families in which all of its member elements share certain attributes. While they each have individual differences, a family resemblance between, say, Fluorine and Chlorine is as hard to miss as that in some human family lines.

In a like manner, the character elements can also be organized into families of similar traits called Archetypes. Each archetypal family contains exactly eight elements and, collectively, they form an entire facet of the Story Mind and, by extension, of our own minds.

The names of some of these archetypes are familiar: Protagonist and Antagonist, for example. But that creates a problem. The term archetype has been used by so many others, from Jung to Campbell, that it carries a great deal of baggage. The words Protagonist and Antagonist carry even more. So for Dramatica to come along and try to redefine those terms is to be fighting a lot of inertia and preconceptions.

Still, the traditional archetypes are looking at the same character functions as Dramatica, just through the obscurity of storytelling. So Dramatica is not so much redefining the archetypes as it is clarifying them. With that caveat in mind, let us proceed.

Each archetype exists to portray one of the major facets of our minds in a story. In a sense, each presents a different kind of argument, just as we work out a problem in our own thinking from several directions. Perhaps the two archetypes that most easily illustrate this point are Reason and Emotion.

The Reason archetype represents our intellect and the Emotion archetype, our passion. Certainly Reason and Emotion are two of the largest contributing factors in any decision we make in life. So it stands to reason (and feels about right) that they must be present in any story for its argument to be complete.

Turning now to the best known archetypes, Protagonist and Antagonist, we find that they are heavily masked by the storytelling concepts of Hero and Villain. While a Protagonist can be a Hero, that role is just one set of clothes it might wear. In fact, your Protagonist might as easily be a Villain. (And, in a like manner, an Antagonist might be Villain or Hero, for as we shall later see, both Hero and Villain are not archetypes but Stereotypes, which are over-used combinations of structural and storytelling elements working together.)

When you pare the Protagonist and Antagonist down to their structural bare bones, Protagonist represents our initiative and Antagonist, our reticence. In simpler terms, the Protagonist stands in for that part of ourselves that gets us up out of our chairs to get things done; to accomplish something. The Antagonist, in contrast, is the avatar of our desire to maintain the status quo, or more colloquially, to let sleeping dogs lie.

This fits in well with our common understanding of a Protagonist as the character leading the effort to achieve the goal and the Antagonist as the one who will do anything to stop him. (Note that while it stands for reticence, the Antagonist is not lazy or inactive, but rather exemplifies that counter-force within our own minds that acts in opposition to change: i.e. “If it works, don’t fix it.”)

We’ve just covered a lot of new ground, so let’s pause for a moment to take stock: Groups of elements share certain family traits. When a whole family of elements is represented by a single character it is called an Archetype. Each archetype represents one of the major families of thought that go on in our own minds as we seek to resolve life’s problems.