There is a modern—or shall I say post-modern—trend of being critical of archetypes, that argument being that archetypes stifle and pigeonhole literature and expression because, as we all know, everyone is different, has different experiences, and changes over time. And so we have seen a slow degrading of what constitutes a hero and a villain. However, I cannot help but disagree with this idea. Archetypes can help us understand right from wrong, know good from bad, and in the case of character archetypes, someone who sacrifices for others (aka heroes) is clearly right, and someone who is willing to have others sacrifice for his/her sake (aka villains) is clearly wrong.
Now, for those who are unaware, an archetype, specifically a character archetype, is a model that a character fits. Now, I’ve spoken about the different types of heroes in literature in the past, and now I’d like to touch on a couple different types of archetypes, specifically ones that pose the question of right and wrong and those that confound right from wrong. These character archetypes aren’t typically protagonists or antagonists, they are side characters that point characters in the right direction and tell the truth or, on the other hand, try to befuddle the truth and point the protagonist in the wrong direction. So here’s a quick run-down on three archetypes that you should look for next time you sit down to read a book or watch a movie!
The mentor is a classic archetype. You’ll find that these characters are usually older—much older—and wiser than the protagonist. They have made mistakes in their lives and have much to teach to young, ambitious, and foolhardy protagonists. Can you think of any yourself? In a movie, perhaps, if not a book. Got one? How about this one: Gandalf the Gray, mighty wizard of Middle Earth. He is not the protagonist, remember. We’re looking for supporting characters that fill an important role in literature: individuals who point protagonists in the right direction. And, of course Gandalf is the perfect mentor. He always gives great advice and helps heroes onto the next stage of their journey. As a quick exercise, think of five others from recent movies or books. Go!
I’m talking about this archetype in a specific setting—the court. No, not the courtroom, the court, like the royal court. You’ll have to look in period films and literature that deals specifically with royalty, so as you’ d expect, you will be able to apply this one to more than a few of Shakespeare’s characters. In such literature, there is usually an individual who wows the audience with clever hands and a cleverer tongue. Barbed jokes tend to make the jester a hated character—by other characters. You, however, as a reader, should love the jester, because the really important thing about jesters is that, ironically, it is the jester who tells the truth.
You might be asking, “Why is the jester the one that tells the truth? Why not a priest or, better yet, why not the protagonist him/herself?” Well, for one thing, if the protagonist knows everything already, then the challenges he faces won’t really be challenges. We call these protagonists Mary Sues. Mary Sues, a term that can be used for both male and female characters, are perfect characters that know everything and have the ability to win every battle with the flick of a wrist. These are bad characters because they are uninteresting, single celled characters. The whole point of the jester is to tell the protagonist—and you, the audience—information that helps. Protagonists should be complex and make difficult decisions. The jester simply tells the truth to the protagonist, even if it hurts. There was a perfect example of a court jester in Tigana, a book by Canadian author Guy Gaviel Kay. Unfortunately, I cannot reveal the secret to this court jester, but Kay put a very interesting twist on this archetype; I encourage you to go out and read this book because it is absolutely fantastic, and you can see first-hand what a good jester can do for a story.
Interesting archetype. I say that because you never really know who the masquerader is until the end of the story. Basically, you should feel that, as the masquerader is revealed, a sense of betrayal. You have been misled the whole movie to believe one thing, and then, all of a sudden, everything is flipped on its head as the true identity of the mystery man or woman is revealed.
As you’d expect, the masquerader pretends to be someone else. Most often, these are villainous characters, but you might find the odd hero who masquerades as someone else. The main difference between heroic masqueraders is that you know the identity of the hero, whereas the villain you do not. For example, Zorro. You know who he is. You could make a strong argument that super heroes who have aliases are masqueraders. However, the best use of this particular archetype is for villains. A good modern example would be Loki from the Thor movies. He constantly pretends to be someone else and constantly lies and befuddles others to push his own motives. If you’ve seen The Usual Suspects, you have all that you need to know how effective this archetype can be for villainous characters. When you watch it, do a little research for me and tell me who the masquerader was and at what moment did you feel betrayed?
So there you have it, some archetypes that support protagonists, and another that can be used by either protagonists or antagonists. Contrary to a lot of modern theories, I believe that archetypes are incredibly useful, and that you should keep your eyes peeled for these archetypes when you read books or watch movies. These archetypes help you understand right from wrong and, more importantly, help you glean a life lesson from these stories. If the hero succeeded, why did he succeed? What characteristics did he have that helped him overcome his obstacles? On the other hand, if a hero failed, why? Was he missing anything that led to his failure? It’s important to ask these questions, and archetypes can help us answer them.