Archetypes for Writers: Developing Complex Characters

A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984

Jean Shinoda Bolen on Greek mythology

Author and Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D. explains the idea of archetype as a “predisposition that contributes to our personality, helping define our strengths, difficulties, and meaning.”

She says the common forms “are based on the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology. People are complex, there is a pantheon of these archetypes in each of us. They act from within us, and the more we know of them, the more conscious we can be about ourselves, the better.” [She is author of Gods in Everyman; her quotes are from myth & story : page 2]

Jennifer Van Bergen – exploring a whole secret life

In her article Archetypes for Writers, Jennifer Van Bergen writes about exploring these “underlying pre-existent patterns, or archetypes, in people’s behaviors and actions. Eventually, you see not simply the behaviors themselves but an entire ‘secret life’ going on, and from that you begin to discern a whole ‘invisible world’ where these secret lives interact, interweave, and form into stories.”

She says by “working at the archetype level.. your writing will never be the same.”

Her book Archetypes for Writers: Using the Power of Your Subconscious, according to summary by the Writers Store, notes it provides a step-by-step method, using specific exercises and coupled with detailed, in-depth explanations of the meaning of each step, to enable writers to find the characters they already contain within themselves but do not know exist or know how to access or develop.

Carl Jung

Archetypes, as the Wikipedia entry says, “have been present in mythology and literature for hundreds of years. The use of archetypes to analyze personality was advanced by Carl Jung early in the 20th century.

“The value in using archetypal characters in fiction derives from the fact that a large group of people are able to unconsciously recognize the archetype, and thus the motivations, behind the character’s behavior.”

The valuable shadow

Jung also developed ideas about exploring and using our personal shadow – “the negative side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the contents of the personal unconscious.”

He said the shadow “also displays a number of good qualities such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc.”

Many writers and other artists realize how valuable it can be to explore and make use of these concepts of archetypes and the shadow self.

Another book on this topic is Psychology for Screenwriters, by William Indick, PhD.

[In her review, Rev. Marie Jones writes: “For any writer struggling to create powerful and believable characters, it is imperative that you understand the psychological aspects of why people do the things they do, why they behave in the ways they choose to, and what inner drives propel them towards potential greatness. The hero’s journey talked about in myth and story has a structure based upon archetypes, themes and patters of human behavior that any writer can come to master when creating the perfect screenplay, and this book by screenwriter and Assistant Professor of Psychology William Indick is a priceless guidebook for navigating the interior of the mind.”]

Wes Craven – consciousness is painful

For example, director Wes Craven (the image at top is from his movie A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984) said in an interview that during the years while writing the film, he was reading “a lot of Eastern sort of esoteric knowledge. There’s a Russian philosopher who wrote about levels of consciousness and equated consciousness with being awake – which I did throughout this picture.

“His theory was that consciousness is painful. To know really what’s true, to know the truth in any given situation, is painful, often uncomfortable, and it’s not pleasant. So most of us, most of the time, will go out what he called ‘doors.’ He listed sex, eating, sleeping, being out in a crowd; today you could add television and drugs. Those things ease the pain of consciousness.”

Craven adds that the hero – an archetypal figure – is “the person that remains conscious, remains awake, up to the point where it’s so painful you want to kill yourself. Most people, if they get near that level, turn around and go the other way; some people actually kill themselves, and some people break through to a sort of clarity where they’re truly conscious. That became the framework for the film.” [Quotes from page the shadow self : page 3]



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