Diana Black has More to Say About Archetypes

archetypes cult

by Diana Black

As mentioned in a previous article: “Archetypes Are Here to Stay” – storytelling in one form or another and the ‘characters’ created therein, have been around for a very long time. Homo sapiens, radiated out of Africa into Europe by around 700 000 years ago, into Asia by 400 000 years ago and then onto remote island-continents like Australia, at around 80 000 years ago. So, we’ve had ample time to hone the craft. Important to note, we’re all related – thanks to our common ancestry way back on that African savanna.

“So what!” you say? Well, it’s interesting to note – and Joseph Campbell did, that archetypes within ‘stories’ in whatever form and across cultures, are essentially the same: – Hero, Villain, Messenger etc. Did story-telling and generalized archetypes in the form of memes, go along for that ancient ride? Hard to say, but recent brain research has provided important implications for us as writers – although we intuitively knew it all the time – the way the human brain thinks and responds, regardless of cultural nuance is essentially the same.

Story-telling could have been passed down through the generations as memes but that for us, is now inconsequential – the human brain seems ‘hardwired’ to be receptive towards storytelling and able to recognize archetype.

This is great news folks! Take just about any country in the world and the viewing audience – regardless of cultural diversity, will have in their noggin, a common ‘garden-variety’ brain with which to ‘get’ the story we’re telling AND, easily recognize ‘the’ Goodie, Baddie, Fool, Lover etc.

Here in the United States, perhaps the most culturally diverse nation on Earth, we could safely assume that everyone has access to a ‘little box’ and across a variety of media platforms. These lovely and willing recipients have the potential to make or break the longevity of a television program via the ratings. So, we had better get on their good side and ‘deliver’.

While we’re busy with that, let’s also be mindful of the fact that everyone viewing our fabulous TV program is adhering to an archetype profile – via their own personal ‘life-script’, which is partly why they’re able to identify and empathize so easily with at least one of our characters.

We know as writers that the character is intimately associated with the narrative arc/plot – via the choices they make (you made them do it – don’t blame them). Why? Their choices will drive the story forward and in a specific direction. That choice they’ve made (and continue to make) is largely dependent on, or at least strongly influenced by, the nature of that character type – the archetype. Circular, huh…

So if we were to line up the usual gang of archetypes and present them with a specific event/ scenario, their response is likely to be somewhat different. For example: arriving at the scene where a baby is about to be murdered or, finding an overstuffed wallet lying unattended on the side-walk. Being of a particular ilk – in terms of character not cultural persuasion, they’re likely to behave in a specific manner (make a choice) that is most likely, predictable.

If we have two characters in the scene, ‘Character B’ must quickly learn to know and understand how ‘Character A’ thinks and once known, is counting on ‘Character A’ to react in a certain way (make a choice). That will make ‘Character A’ predictable and thus all the more easily manipulated.

The audience (recall they’re an archetype too) is dependent on that knowledge/understanding of the character archetype on their little screen and tee-hee…we can fuck with them. We can lull them into thinking that under ‘this’ specific circumstance such-and-such is going to happen. For the devoted
viewer this is a source of great comfort and validation because that’s what they would do under that specific circumstance.

As the writer, we’re stroking the viewer’s ego – making them feel awfully good about themselves or pleasurably guilty. We’ve helped them along in this by ‘setting up’ the character as per archetype – via past episodes/events in which their ‘characteristic’ behavior is established.

When the character doesn’t deliver in line with archetypal behavior, the viewer is surprised – hopefully delighted, but they’re likely to raise immediate questions…wtf? Why did that happen? What made the character do ‘that’? Hopefully, the viewer will be intrigued enough to invest in further viewing to try and determine the answer/rationale. For the actors amongst us, try it in the audition room – the CD is probably going to love it.

But what if we introduce character ‘unpredictability’ just a tad too often? If there’s not a strong rationale for doing so – alluding to sub-textual complexity in relation to that character, the viewer may no longer be able or willing to identify with that character and dismiss them. Hopefully they will ‘latch on’ psychologically, to another character. Worse-case scenario they lose interest in not only following the character/s, but the entire series…Yikes!

So, can you recognize the archetypes in your own TV Pilot? The Hero (possibly tragic) of either gender should be bleeding obvious as should the Villain who, according to Jonathan Truby – Anatomy of Story, defines the hero and is just as important. What about the others – ‘the’ Mentor, Joker, Guardian, Messenger, and again according to Mr. Truby – ‘the’ Mother, Father, Warrior, Magician/Shaman, Artist, Lover, Rebel, Friend, ‘Fake-Friend’ Opponent, and ‘Fake-Opponent’ Friend?

Are they, if present in your script, behaving true to form – with just enough surprises to spice up the viewing experience but not too many that the viewer is going to get pissed off? A table-read exclusively with professional actors can help determine this prior to pitching.

If you haven’t written a TV Pilot script yet, choose a current television program, don your analytical ‘hat’, and in the Aussie vernacular, “have a go, mate” and map out the character web. Then, for that same episode, remove systematically, one of the archetypes.

If they were missing, how would their absence change the nature/plot of that episode? What if the character was removed entirely from the series? Which one/s appears to be essential and which don’t?

Happy dissecting!


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