I refer you here to an amazing book: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. This volume, which was referred to a friend of mine by none other than novelist Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi, etc.), who said that it should be on every writer’s bookshelf. Vogler, a veteran Hollywood story consultant and teacher of writers around the world, explains the relationship between myth and storytelling, using the work of Joseph Campbell (The Hero’s Journey) as his guide. In the book, Vogler explains that the same basic plot structure is used for most great stories (The Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), to name a few, the same plot structure that we find in all the major myths.
Vogler talks about character development, as well as plot structure, explaining that all stories use archetypes, and that it’s important for the writer to understand how his characters fit into these archetypal patterns as he thinks about the purpose of each character in the story. Archetypes are recurring character types in literature — the hero, the villain, the wise old man, the damsel in distress, etc. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung used the term archetype meaning types of personality that humans throughout history have shared and that these archetypes have remained amazingly similar throughout time and across cultures.
Not to belabor this, because you’ll have to read the book to fully understand what Vogler is talking about, but I do want to explain the basics of his chapters on character development because I know it will help you immensely to see how your characters fit into these archetypal roles that appear in all great literature. This knowledge will also help you to understand the different functions of the characters in your story. Some of these major archetypes are:
Vogler stresses that you may not actually use all of these archetypes and that one character can embody more than one of them, but that it is really a good idea to think about these classic types when planning your cast of characters.
There are, of course, many archetypes in mythology, but, according to Vogler, they all are variants on these basic ones. Vogler also says that the archetypes in a story can be seen as different aspects of the main character, or even the writer’s personality. When I read this, it became clear to me that the Protagonist and Antagonist in my book about Berkeley did, indeed, represent two sides of my own personality — the side that wants to pursue my goals and the one that is afraid to move forward.
The reason I’m explaining these character types to you now is to save you lots of time and re-writes in the future, so that you can recognize, right up front, the needs of your story. Vogler says that “The archetypes are amazingly constant throughout all times and cultures, … in the mythic imagination of the entire world. An understanding of these forces is one of the most powerful elements in the modern storyteller’s bag of tricks.”
We are aware of the roles of the Protagonist and the Antagonist — they are enemies, fighting each other to the end. But, what about the other archetypes? I will give a brief explanation of each so that you can use them to think about the other characters you will need in your story.
The Mentor is usually a positive figure whose job it is to train or aid the Hero. Vogler explains, “Whether it’s God walking with Adam in the Garden of Eden, or Merlin guiding King Arthur, the Fairy Godmother helping Cinderella, or a veteran sergeant giving advice to a rookie cop, the relationship between Hero and Mentor is one of the richest sources of entertainment in literature and film.”
So, who will be helping your main character to achieve his goal? The Mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be an older person. Friends can also be Mentors. There are even stories where a child mentors his parent. As Vogler says, “Many heroes seek out Mentors because their own parents are inadequate role models.”
The Mentor needs to motivate the Protagonist and help him overcome fear. Sometimes he even needs to give him a kick in the pants to get the story moving.
There are cases where the Hero or Antagonist has no need for a Mentor because he has internalized this archetype that now exists within him. I said before that the Antagonist can be forces within the Protagonist himself. This is also true of the Mentor. But, be careful not to imbue your hero with too many different characters within himself.
The Mentors in my story are Marybeth’s (the main character’s) boyfriends, Danny and Dominic. Danny helps her to evolve politically and to have the courage of her convictions. Then, Dominic helps her to evolve emotionally.
The Threshold Guardian
Threshold Guardians are the characters that keep the main character from moving forward, from accomplishing his goals. These are not usually the Antagonist, but may be his helpers. They may also be just neutral characters who happen to be in the way. These Guardians can also be the obstacles we all face — bad luck, bad weather, and prejudice. They can also be the main character’s inner demons, like dependencies, vices, and emotional scars that prevent him from getting ahead. MaryBeth, the main character in my book, is beset by the guardians of self-doubt and fear of failure. Even best friends can be Threshold Guardians if they are reluctant to see the main character change.
The Threshold Guardian’s main function is to test the hero, and, when he is tested, has to decide how to respond. Will he give up, attack the Guardian, try to deceive him, or befriend him?
Who will be your Threshold Guardians, keeping your hero from advancing? There must be many stumbling blocks along the way before your hero reaches his goal, or else there’s no tension in the story.
The Threshold Guardian in my book is Marybeth herself who, through her confusion and self-doubt keeps herself from moving forward.
According to Christopher Vogler,” Herald characters issue challenges and announce the coming of significant change.” The Herald usually appears near the beginning of the story “to help bring the hero into the adventure.” Up till now the hero has been toddling around, getting by the best way he can. Then, all at once, a new person or a new element enters his life and forces him to make an important change. He must, at this point, make a decision or take an action that will set him on the course of his new adventure.
In the case of my story, the Herald was the main character’s best friend, who invited her to take a trip to Berkeley where she realized that she had to move there. In the movie Romancing the Stone, the Herald for writer Joan Wilder is a treasure map that arrives in the mail as well as a phone call from her sister who has been kidnapped in Colombia.
The Mentor can also act as the Herald, as can the Threshold Guardian. The important thing here is to think about not only who your supporting characters will be, but also the roles they will play in shaping your story.
A word of caution:
Even though you are using these universal character types in your story, it is important that you avoid turning them into stereotypes. In other words, take the basic archetypes and make them your own. For example, take two characters who both act as Mentors. In one story that character could be a devout Catholic Democratic mother, and, in another story the character could be an old, man who is a former Democratic labor leader. Make these characters unique! Make them your own!