Readers of my books How Stories Really Work, Myth & the ‘Now’ and 7 Secrets of Successful Stories will be familiar with the concept of the Seven Character Archetypes, which I will list here for the sake of convenience:
The Shadow Protagonist
The Submerged Companion
The Emerging Warrior
The Comic Companion
The Wise Old Figure
The more astute readers will have understood that this isn’t just a random selection of figures pulled out of an old text book, nor something drawn from Jungian psychology or some other field: these archetypes are indicators of deeper forces at work in stories. As soon as you recognise that any good story is a fictive progression between binary poles, you will also see that each of these archetypes is a ‘marker’: a point of reference along that binary progression.
‘Fictive progression between binary poles’ is a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? What it means is that a good story is about a movement from Dark to Light (in the case of Comedies or Epics), or Light to Dark (in the case of Tragedies or Ironies): the reader is drawn into a point of view (usually that of a standard protagonist, though not always as we shall see) and pulled along a track leading one way or the other — in fact, what we normally think of as the ‘plot’ is that track, that connecting link between the two poles, and the journey along it is what we call the ‘story’.
If you’re really understanding this, then right about now every piece of fiction you have ever read, seen or listened to might be unravelling to some degree: you’re beginning to see it not as a ‘story’ but as a simple or complex pathway between extremes. What you may have formerly thought of as ‘character adventures’ are starting to take shape for you as motions or episodes along this path, dramatisations of a fundamental progression towards one pole or another.
‘Characters’ turn out to be something quite different from how they may have been first perceived; what happens to them, apparently randomly within a piece of fiction, can be seen to be no more random than a railway train’s progression down a set of rails.
Luke Skywalker’s discovery of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the deserts of Tatooine and his increasing involvement in the Galactic Rebellion in Star Wars is no more random than a marble running down a pre-set track, once you appreciate the fundamentals at work; the same can be said of any protagonist’s engagement in any adventure, once it is closely examined.
Yes, this destroys the magic and mystery of storytelling to some degree. The next movie you will go and see, the next novel you read, the next TV show you sit in front of, will not be quite the same once you see the ‘Matrix code’ which underpins their shape and movement. You’re watching a ‘fictive progression between binary poles’ whether you like it or not. Less successful authors will attempt the same progression and, by making it too simplistic or obvious (or failing to 'stay on the rails' at all), disappoint their audiences, like a stage magician whose curtain fails to hide what is happening behind it; master authors use the same principles with such competence that you re-read their stories even though you’ve glimpsed behind some of that curtain.
But though a story might never be quite the same for you again once you grasp this, it really opens the door to great wonder and awe (not to mention better storytelling). And there’s even more to this, which is what I wanted to touch on here.
You see, the Seven Archetypes given above are not just handy templates to create working characters who will fit neatly and effectively into the engine of any good story — they are, as I suggested, ‘markers’.
Story arcs are composed of movements between these markers.
For example, Luke Skywalker is obviously the protagonist of the first three Star Wars films — he’s the character who has lost the most and whose loss drags our attention toward him in sympathy; he’s the one with whom we ‘identify the most’ (which is a vague expression that actually means ‘the one with the most character vacuums, gripping audience attention). But he begins his story arc low on a scale of markers, almost as a Shadow Protagonist — in other words, when we first meet him, he is working on a farm on a distant planet, part of the general background of an interplanetary Empire, fitting into a grand scheme of things, not at all a rebel. He’s in orbit around the ‘dark pole’, to put it simply. His first inclination, on being invited to move towards the other pole by the Wise Old Figure Ben Kenobi (which is what Wise Old Figures do), is that he can do no such thing — he has chores to do. Only when his losses are catalysed by the death of his aunt and uncle does he make a decision to move in Kenobi’s direction — and even then, he spends some time ‘submerged’, not being of much use, requiring direction from others.
As the first Star Wars film approaches its close, though, we see that Skywalker has moved through a protagonist phase and is on the edge of an Emerging Warrior zone: when he ‘uses the Force’ and destroys the Death Star, he has passed a marker. In the second and third films, he is definitely following the arc of the Emerging Warrior, conquering his internal and external fears one by one until he triumphs over them, becoming relieved of a burden and light-hearted at the end along with everyone else.
Other character arcs take place in the same films: we see Princess Leia, whose overall archetype is Submerged Companion, beginning her role as an Emerging Warrior, falling down the scale in captivity, then re-emerging as she escapes; we see Han Solo, criminal smuggler avoiding the Rebellion entirely when we first meet him, moving up through various bands to become an Emerging Warrior and Comic Companion at the end. C-Threepio and R2-D2 are of course Comic Companions throughout, but even R2-D2 experiences a development arc, moving along a track of events until he comes out of submergence (literally) in The Empire Strikes Back and assists as a warrior in the final conflict.
These things called ‘characters’, then, move up and down the track between these seven markers, and their movements form the basis of what we call stories.
Pick any great work of fiction and you will trace these movements for yourself: follow any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s characters and you will find similar patterns; take any of the great heroes of literature and you will spot similar movements. Macbeth, for instance, begins as an Emerging Warrior, saving Scotland from invasion, but tacks downward to the negative pole of betrayal and death as the play goes on; King Arthur, in T. H. White’s classic The Sword in the Stone, curves up from a lowly servant boy to become rightful King of All England, under the guidance of Merlin. You’ll find countless examples as soon as you start looking, because I have effectively just told you about the ‘Lego blocks’ that make up every great piece of fiction.
The Seven Archetypes are not just models for key characters, but pointers to where each of those characters are going. For more, read my books.