Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Mythology Structure - Part 3

(SPOILERS:  Star Wars)

The past couple of posts I’ve talked about the stages of the hero’s journey structure.  Another important element in the mythology approach is archetypal characters.  Here are the key archetypes (I’ll continue to use Star Wars, written by George Lucas, as an example film):

Hero:  The main character, the one going on the journey.  In Star Wars it’s Luke.

Shadow:  A character of opposite nature to the hero.  Often but not always the antagonist.  In Star Wars it’s Darth Vadar.  Where Luke is naïve and emotional and swathed in light colors, Darth Vadar is worldly, mechanical and dressed in black.  The shadow is meant to be the thematic opposite, but often is also opposite in personality and visual look.

Shape Shifter:  This is a character whose loyalties are unclear.  They may seem at one point to be helping the hero on their journey but at another point hindering them.  They can ultimately be either good or bad.  For some reason the love interest often plays this role.  In Star Wars Han Solo is the shape shifter character.  It is unclear whether he will be there for Luke when push comes to shove or is only out for himself.

Trickster:  This is a character who primarily acts as comic relief.  In Star Wars it’s C3PO. 

Mentor:  The Mentor character helps the hero learn about the special world of the movie.  In Star Wars it’s Obi Wan Kenobi.  Important to distinguish this archetype from an oracle (for more on the oracle and the special world, see the previous post, The Mythology Structure – Part II)

Herald:  The Herald brings the hero messages from the special world or from the shadow.  The herald is not necessarily aligned with either the hero or the shadow.  In Star Wars R2D2 serves this purpose, most notably when he projects the hologram message from Leia and also when he discovers Leia’s imprisoned on the Death Star.

Threshold Guardian:  There can be many of these.  They are characters who challenge the hero’s readiness to move on to the next stage of the journey.  There are several natural thresholds along the journey where you might find these characters – the entry into the special world, entering the innermost cave and the return.  They also crop up in other places from time to time.  In Star Wars the two alien goons at the bar who harass Luke are threshold guardians testing whether he’s prepared to be in that rougher environment.  So are the storm troopers who guard the detention level of the Death Star.

Like the stages, the archetypes in mythology structure are flexible.  Sometimes characters can perform two roles and sometimes a role will be filled by multiple characters.  For example, the mentor often doubles as a threshold guardian, such as a drill instructor who requires a young soldier to complete an obstacle course before he goes off to war.  I would not, however, call someone a mentor just because they give the hero one piece of advice.  Look for what the character’s primary purpose or purposes are in the story.

So how is this useful in the writing process?  Once you identify the archetypal roles your characters are playing look to see if any archetypes have been left out and ask yourself if your story would be improved by including a character to fulfill that function.  And often recognizing a character’s function can give you ideas for strengthening their role.

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