Archetypes are Like Rock n Roll. They’re here to stay.

archetypesby Diana Black

Archetypes are here to stay…

The practice of storytelling is a defining characteristic of Homo sapiens. Why? Let’s take time out for a quick history lesson. As a species, we’ve been around for about 1.5 million years. Going back just 300 000 years ago, we find concrete evidence of ritualized behavior (related to burials) and so there’s
every likelihood that alongside saying ‘Good bye’ to one’s significant others, stories were told. How better to entertain the fireside audience than having certain members of the tribe get on their feet – adorn themselves with make-up and costume and take on a ‘role’ – the hunter, the hunted etc.?

Conflict as a premise started early. If we do the math, that roughly equates to members of 12 000 generations (? 4 gen/100 years) ‘strutting the floorboards’. Equally peculiar, is the notion that by-and-large, we’re still enacting the same dramas; only now they’re ‘gussied-up’ with marginally more
sophisticated plotlines and CGI.

A thrilling drama was back then, a great way to convince the kids not to stray from the fireside and toe the party line, and such stories also serve young and old alike, as a ‘survival lesson’. They resonate emotionally somewhere deep in our primitive psyche. Thus it seems that professional lying and exaggeration have been around for a long time.

While indigenous Australians are arguably the oldest extant human culture on the planet – in existence for at least 50 000 years, historically they only had oral language – it’s hard to cart books around when you have to survive in a harsh environment that demands you go ‘nomadic’. So, the earliest record of dramatic performance in the western world comes from the Greek civilization – just over 2 500 years ago.

While we no longer dutifully attend the festivals supposedly honoring Dionysus, which were really more about receiving the latest regulatory decree from the State (think giant staff meeting) and catching up on the local ‘goss’, drama via film and theatre remains informed by the dramatic structure outlined by Aristotle in Poetics – a treatise of dramatic and literary theory written some 2 350 years ago, which includes characterization.

‘Stereotype’ was explored in another article, so let’s now look at ‘archetype’, especially in relation to character. [It] doesn’t seem to have garnered the same derogatory connotation. ‘Archetype’ (from the Greek archein), is defined as ‘the original’. The Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, considered archetype to be universally and instantly recognizable because it’s rooted in our collective unconsciousness in relation to ideas, situations and character. This makes sense if we’ve been dramatizing characters in specific settings, under specific circumstances for at least 2 500 if not 50 000 years. Old habits, in this case – ‘memes’, die hard.

Classically, characters were identified as: ‘the’ hero, mother figure, innocent youth, mentor, scapegoat, the villain or the doppelganger – the mirrored dark side of someone’s personality.

Now, in the 21 st Century, Jonathan Truby, in Anatomy of Story (an informative read), takes it further. He outlines characters as ‘the’ hero, then, ‘the’ opponent, ally, fake-ally opponent, fake-opponent ally, and sub-plot character/s. Why the distinction? In his book, he explores the notion of the
‘character web’. He makes it clear that it’s not enough to think about who is strutting the boards with whom, but also, the nature of those interactions and within what context – setting and circumstance.

Truby, of course, is not alone in taking dramatic theory to this higher level but what resonated the most strongly – for me at least, was the notion that the web and interplay of characters essentially defines the hero, making it imperative to provide balance, juxtaposition of character and every principal character being 3-dimensional.

Looking at the current offerings on television, can we tick boxes in relation to the above? Is the lack of balance and a fully functional web of archetypal characters responsible for the cancellations?


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer in Larry Brody’s Master Class.