Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 5


Well, well, well.  You all thought I was finished, did you?  But, as I’m sure you’ve learned, in a good story the Hero go through a death and a rebirth!  And so, my dear readers, this is not the end of this series.  Not yet!

Today, we’re going to discuss the Archetypes.  Archetypes are the basic character types that appear repeatedly in stories throughout history just as the Monomyth is the basic structure of stories.  The most important thing to understand regarding archetypes is that each one is not a stiffly defined set of rules that a character must adhere to. Instead, think of archetypes more like a drawer full of character traits that can be pieced together to make a complete character.  Just because our Mentor is our Mentor doesn’t mean she can’t have attributes that are more often related with other archetypes as well — even the villainous ones.  Like the stages of the monomyth, you can mix and match, reorder and repurpose all of the archetypes.  And like the stages of the monomyth, the more you understand their purpose, the more adept you’ll be at utilizing them and the more fun you can have with them.

In going through the stages of the monomyth, we’ve already encountered three of the archetypes — the Hero, the Mentor, and the Threshold Guardian.  But, according to Vogler’s breakdown, there are five more.  So let’s look at those.

Herald — This one is fairly straight-forward.  The Herald is the character that provides the catalyst for the Hero to launch into adventure.  It could be simply relaying news of war, death, or change.  It could be a challenge or declaration.  It could be a prophecy or an omen.  Or a million other things.  And already you should see that archetypes mix and match on their own.  Think of Star Wars. Darth Vader is the first Herald in the story for the audience — he makes it known from the opening what the major threat is and sets things in motion by kidnapping Lea.  But R2D2 also becomes a Herald, a more useful one, by bringing Lea’s message to Obi Wan and setting our heroes into action.

Shapeshifter — The Shapeshifter is most often referring to the character that changes purposes throughout the story either literally or figuratively.  As the name would imply, the character often (but not always) goes through a physical transformation as well.  So we have the kind, old woman who gives Snow White the gift of an apple.  The old woman, of course, later shapeshifts into the witch and the sweet gift is actually a curse.  We also have Cadel from David’s Winds of the Forelands series — an assassin who “shifts” into a traveling musician when it suits him best.  And there’s even Gollum who physically shifts from an average hobbit into a twisted creature but also shifts mentally within himself many, many times, becoming both servant and enemy to Frodo.  And since I’m sure many of you (including Faith) are thinking about Jane Yellowrock, I’d say that though she is obviously a literal shapeshifter, her connection to this archetype is limited to that.  Her compass points the same direction throughout — kicking butt and saving the day.  She is foremost the Hero.  Leo is far more of a Shapeshifter in that we don’t often know (at first) if the things he does are good or bad for Jane, and he tends to change his purpose as it suits him.  In Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader adds Shapeshifter to his list of archetypes when he turns away from evil by saving his son and then literally revealing his true face.

Shadow — This is the darkness in the story that haunts and challenges the Hero.  Shadows create conflict and are a major spice to any tale.  The most obvious Shadows are the villains of a story.  So, Darth Vader is a Shadow.  But any character can have a bit of Shadow in them and doing so often makes characters far more interesting.  Jane Yellowrock has a Big Big Shadow named Beast.  Not that Beast is evil.  Shadows are not always bad things.  But Beast puts demands on Jane that are often dark and at odds with her desires, so she must literally argue with herself to deal with the Shadow inside her.  Misty’s Kestrel has numerous shadows to deal with — her crew being one that constantly causes her problems.  And, in her pirating world, being both a woman and a magic-user become serious Shadows at different times.

Ally — This one is pretty self-explanatory.  This is the character that aids the Hero (or the villain).  Robin to Batman, Watson to Holmes, Dog to his Boy.  And yes, Darth Vader is an Ally to the Emperor (and in death, he becomes an Ally to Luke).

Trickster — This archetype serves a few key purposes and falls on the shoulders of a character that causes mischief.  That mischief either sets in motion serious change for the story or is simply comic relief.  All the hobbits journeying with Frodo are tricksters at one point or another.  One could argue that AJ’s Will Hawthorne is a bit of the classic Trickster Hero — a character who uses humor and mischief to save the day (and his own skin).   But this is one part that ol’ Darth Vader does not partake in.  He’s never comic relief, and he doesn’t play in mischief.  He does cause serious change but it’s not through pranks, tricks (not traps), or other such deeds.


Like the monomyth stages, this is merely an overview of the archetypes.  Each one has nuances and purposes larger than I have room to discuss here.  Especially because each archetype encompasses not only the physical actions of a character but also the emotional content the type provides to the story.  For those interested, I once again recommend both Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.  But at the very least, make sure to learn the lesson of Darth Vader — one character can be many archetypes.

Oh, and tomorrow’s David’s birthday!  So, feel free to wish him a Happy Birthday as he reaches the age of *cough cough*.


12 comments to Writing Theory — The Monomyth Part 5

  • Stuart> Great post! But there’s one I feel like you left out–and maybe it is because it isn’t a monomyth archetype, though it feels that way to me: “the victim/rescuee.” Maybe this fits in the “herald” category, Except that it usually has elements of other characters, sometimes as an ally, or even a shadow or trickster. They often appear in classic stories as “the girl (scantily clad and sexually vulnerable is semi-optional) who needs to be saved.” The Damsel in Distress, if you will. Of course it need not be a woman (for example, in Faith’s second book, it’s Molly’s kids, right?), but it has to be someone or something that the hero has to save–the essence of the quest, I guess, in literal form. (I.e., save the princess = save the kingdom and the world, or whatever.) Are these characters just elements of the monomyth arc, or do they reach the level of Archetype?

  • pea — During revisions of this post, I see now I cut some important information. See, the Archetypes I describe are the most common, but they are not the only archetypes to be found. There are many, many more. Vogler points out that in fairy tales, for example, we come across Fairy Godmothers, Wicked Stepmothers, the Hunter, the Wolf, and even, yes, the Princess. What separates the ones in this post is that they appear most often whereas other archetypes are limited to certain sub-genres — such as fairy tales. More specifically to your example, I think the Damsel in Distress actually falls most in line with a combination of Herald and Ally — granted, she’s an ally in trouble, but an ally nonetheless. And that’s part of the point of the post, too — that most characters are combinations of the archetypes, and that the archetypes presented tend to cover the most ground.

  • I have a few questions where the answer is probably obvious, but just to clarify: So the Shadow might not necessarily be a character? And can there be more than one ally?

    This has been a great set of posts, Stuart. Thank you.

  • Great addition to the series, Stuart. That Darth Vader fellow is a ubiquitous guy, isn’t he? He gets around. Seriously, great examples. Examples make abstract concepts so much easier to envision.

  • Stuart, when I first started writing, it was all by the seat of my pants. I had no idea that writing had a strtucture or how cultural roots give it body and shape and form. Thanks for this series. Studying an art form makes it clearer. And thanks for the JY comments. Beast makes a great … um … shadowy ally.

  • Laura — The Shadow can be a character or an aspect of a character. The tornado that sweeps Dorothy off to Oz, however, is not the shadow. That’s an event occurring in a stage of the monomyth. As for Allies, there often are more than one. In fact, that’s true of all the archetypes. Again, think of Star Wars. Darth Vader is a Shadow character, but so is the Emporer, so is Jabba the Hutt. And Luke has many Allies — Obi Wan, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Lando, Lea, C3PO and R2D2.

    Ed — Thanks. And look at that, ol’ Vader made it into this comment . . . twice!

    Faith — I, too, didn’t learn any of this until after many years of writing. I sometimes wonder if my writing career would have progressed any faster if the Internet had existed as it does now back when I began. The exchange of information and the ability to connect with other writers has changed the whole process for me. Glad you’re enjoying the series. I suspect that my next post really will be the conclusion, but you never know.

  • Unicorn

    In case I forget tomorrow: HAPPY [impending] BIRTHDAY DAVID!! May the following years have many, many magical words in them! 😀
    One of my characters starts out as a minor Shadow, an irritating, demoralising presence that only makes things worse for my hero. Midway through the story he becomes a tremendous Ally. Does that mean he’s also a Shapeshifter?
    So the archetypes apply not only to the way a character influences the story, but to the character’s feelings and personality? If so, wouldn’t it be interesting to put a character with, for example, typical Mentor traits into the narrative role of the Hero?
    Thanks for the post. I will definitely do some more research on the Monomyth.

  • Unicorn — It’s possible that your character is a bit of shapeshifter. I would think it depends on how you handle the change within the story, on how much weight you lend those moments of change. That kind of thing. As for a Hero who is also his/her own Mentor — the first thing that comes to mind is Tom Hanks in Castaway. The bulk of his heroic adventure occurs alone on an island where he must learn for himself how to survive and what’s truly important. Wilson is an ally but hardly a mentor. Perhaps you could argue the island itself is a mentor but I don’t buy that. I’m sure we can think of other examples though.

  • Razziecat

    This is fascinating. It makes me look at my characters in a whole new way. I do both space opera and fantasy. Among my “space” characters is one who fits the Trickster profile, but I never thought of him that way until reading this post. In one of my fantasy projects the Herald and the villain are the same person, and both the heroes have a major touch of the Shadow about them, in ways that both conflict with and complement each other’s Shadow. I hadn’t realized how fluid these Archetypes can be.

  • I’ve been wanting to learn more about archetypes, as my writing is built on (reconstructing) them. I could say I have several of the unsurprising ones–my hero and anti-hero both have inner Shaddows, etc–but it would be more interesting to say I just realized a character I refer to as my “Italian punk opera nerd” is probably the Mentor. Cool.

  • Razziecat — I think a lot of stories have the Herald and the Shadow mixing together. It can help streamline a story.

    DuskRose — “Italian punk opera nerd” who is probably a Mentor? That sounds like quite a mix. Should make for an interesting story.

  • Stuart, this is a great series of posts.
    I mentioned Belgarath the sorcerer in a comment a while back because I’d selected him as favorite character.

    Belgarath in Pawn of Prophecy, is clearly the Herald, delivering stories and later information that propels Garion from the farm. He’s also Mentor, to both Garion and Polgara. Ally is an obvious choice throughout the entire Belgariad and Mallorean, and at times he’s a Trickster, when and Kheldar go off looking for information. The diversity of a character often makes them that much more interesting.

    I’ve often heard in writing circles, when an author has a large cast of characters, to look at combining them into fewer, more complex characters. I wouldn’t be surprised if Belgarath was an attempt at such a combination.