Char­acter Arche­types and The Universal

Movies are the repos­itory of myth. Therein lies their power. An altern­ative history, that of the human psyche, is contained and unfolded in the old stories and tales. Film carries on this tradition.”

John Boorman, Money into Light, 1985

Every story makes a state­ment of some kind, inten­tion­ally or unin­ten­tion­ally, about the universal human condi­tion but certain stories have a univer­sality that tran­scends differ­ences between cultures, races and even languages. This gives them great power.

Being aware of this connec­tion with the universal and exploiting it can be a source of strength to a writer; a way of adding a truth­ful­ness and reson­ance to the simplest of stories. Examine the heart of the most complex of narrat­ives and you will often find there is a simple but universal tale being told.

Stan­islavski said: “Gener­ality is the enemy of art” but what he meant by that is a lack of differ­en­ti­ation. Human beings are complex creatures and living itself is complic­ated. Good art is based on precise obser­va­tion of that phenomenon. When you see actors doing the kind of gener­al­ised ‘emoting’ (I’m sad, I’m happy, I’m jealous) that is char­ac­ter­istic of a tv soap opera, for example, you know it’s not the actor’s fault. It’s because the script is poorly written and there was no time to rehearse.

On the other hand, it would add nothing to your appre­ci­ation of Waiting For Godot to be told the precise nation­ality or age of its char­ac­ters. These char­ac­ters exist outside of time and place, even though they spring from one artist’s imagin­a­tion and obser­va­tional skills, and that is partly why they are powerful.

The arche­type derives its power from the partic­ular traits that make up universal human beha­viour. An arche­type is an embod­i­ment of certain char­ac­ter­istics that are univer­sally recog­nis­able. The oldest examples of this are the animals that feature in early folk­lore: Brer Fox, Kalulu the Rabbit, Anansi The Spider. These represent not a partic­ular animal but all animals that belong to that species. The concept survives in Aesop’s Fables and in classic children’s books. A child does not need to have Ratty or Mole or Winnie The Pooh explained to them, they accept them the same way that their ancestors accepted them.

Animals came from over the horizon. They belonged there and here. Like­wise they were mortal and immortal. An animal’s blood flowed like human blood, but its species was undying and each lion was Lion and each ox was Ox.”

John Berger, Why We Look At Animals

Stereo­types and Archetypes

These two are not mutu­ally exclusive but the essen­tial differ­ence between them is that a stereo­type is a char­acter that is incap­able of chan­ging, sealed in a glass bubble and unaf­fected by the world surrounding it. Stereo­types are closer in their nature to the sixteenth-century concept of ‘humours’, the notion that people are made up of quasi-chemical substances that determine who they are (really not so different to modern day neur­os­ciences and genetics if you think about it).

Although the word has become pejor­ative in its connota­tions, it has an honour­able lineage that goes back to the early days of theatre and the Commedia dell Arte. Ben Jonson’s comedies feature char­ac­ters based on humours as does much of the frat-boy genre of movies, proving that broad comedy stereo­types are not only still around but also very useful in their place.


One way to explore the universal qual­ities in your story is to look at your char­ac­ters and their connec­tion to the universal archetypal figures found in myths, legends and fairy-tales.

To take a very simple example, you may have written two char­ac­ters: one the head of a company, the other a lowly employee. The busi­nessman wields finan­cial power in the board­room but the employee gets his respect and status from his role as a father and husband at home.

Both have different attrib­utes of THE KING, an arche­type with asso­ci­ations of authority and patri­archy. THE KING is a symbolic figure that is deeply embedded in the psyche of many cultures and there are count­less myths and legends woven around it.

Looking at these asso­ci­ations can open your mind up to ways of connecting with the universal and your audi­ence. They may not under­stand the tech­nic­al­ities of a board­room power struggle but they will under­stand, often at a deeper emotional level, the story of a king deposed by treachery.

(Many writers exploit these connec­tions instinct­ively. For proof look at the number of books, plays and films that are based on, or refer to, clas­sical works, reli­gious icon­o­graphy and folk-tales.)

Other well-known arche­types in this category are THE QUEEN, THE PRINCE and THE PRINCESS (look at fairy stories and at the Tarot deck for further examples) but there is one that belongs in a special category of its own …

THE FOOL or the Forces of Chaos

The ancient Greeks conceived drama as a struggle between Chaos (person­i­fied by the Greek god, Dionysus) and Order (repres­ented by Apollo, god of music and math­em­atics). In a typical plot, dramatic interest was created by the forces of Chaos (or conflict) but Order would always prevail and the status quo would be restored by the end of the play.

THE FOOL, another name for The Trick­ster or Guizer, is one of the oldest arche­types in the world. He can be found in African folk­lore; in the Norse pantheon, as Loki; and different versions of him exist in pretty well every human culture. THE FOOL is magical, unpre­dict­able and some­times dangerous but, more than anything else, he person­i­fies Chaos.

FOOL arche­types abound in films and can be found in both his ‘Holy‘ (Forest Gump, Chancey Gardener in Being There — and Robin Williams in his most irrit­ating roles) and ‘Demonic‘ forms (Norman Bates, Hannibal Lector and Frankenstein’s monster) More often than not he acts as a cata­lyst in the story, upset­ting the apple cart and causing change around him.

For that reason he is tremend­ously useful — many great films are built around a FOOL character.

(Read this about “The Ship Of Fools”)

Il Piccolo Diavolo 1988

In the Italian comedy, Il Piccolo Diavolo or The Little Devil, a Cath­olic priest played by Walter Matthau exor­cises a demon who takes over the body of a little man (Roberto Benigni).

The demon is a small one, more of a mischev­ious child than a fright­ening devil, who spreads chaos wherever he goes – a perfect example of the Fool arche­type used for comedic effect.

(See also Zorba The Greek 1964 for an example of a ‘Fool’ arche­type that has a life-changing effect on the protagonist)

The Primal Struggle

Hamlet is a play that abounds in arche­types – The King, The Queen and The Prince to name a few – but it also is a story about a mythic struggle, a clash of forces. That struggle takes place within a family, between two families (the house of Polonius and Hamlet) and even­tu­ally between two nations (England and Denmark).

SonsArche­types tend to reach towards this kind of epic scale of conflict because this is how their true dimen­sions are explored. Stories about the conflicts within dynasties and between tribes are as popular now as they were in the days of Sophocles and Eurip­ides. Recent examples include The Sopranos, Game of Thrones and Board­walk Empire.

Sons of Anarchy, which is about a Cali­for­nian motor­cycle gang, starts off with almost the same set of char­ac­ters as Hamlet. Gemma (Gertrude) is married to Clay (Claudius) who is the leader of the gang and the step­father of Jax (Hamlet) but might have had some­thing to do with his real father’s death.

The storyline works through this family conflict but also involves epic battles with other motor­cycle gangs, with drug dealers and white suprem­acists, and even with the IRA and crooked FBI agents.

Simply copying a classic play would not have been enough though to sustain Sons through five successful series and so the drama has been developed into a powerful story of loyalty and betrayal, feuds and bloody revenges with an epic feel to it that Shakespeare would surely have approved of.

Char­ac­ters in revolt

Of course, it can be just as effective, in certain situ­ations, to write a char­acter that rebels against the archetypal role they are assigned. In the words of play­wright David Edgar:

…You could define melo­drama as a genre in which role, office and char­acter completely accord: the hero behaves entirely hero­ic­ally, the prince royally, the servant loyally and the villain dreadfully.

But in great drama, the most memor­able and indeed the most mean­ingful moment is when the char­acter departs from and even chal­lenges his or her role; when the old man is brave, the lackey eloquent, the page gives sage advice, and the cleaner behaves like a prin­cess (or, indeed, the other way round). It is the char­acter – unpre­dict­able, irre­press­ible – who declares unilat­eral inde­pend­ence from the tyranny of the preordained.

David Edgar, The Guardian, 11.7.2009

Read the rest of this article ‘Making A Drama” David Edgar (DOC)

© David Clough 2010

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