This post is part of a series exploring the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell studied hundreds of world-wide myths, finding patterns to virtually any story. This basic framework gives the stories we tell a universal, timeless appeal and resonate deeply with our audiences. This series is not about a “five steps to perfect stories” method, nor does it claim a best way to tell stories. Today, we chat about minor archetypes.
At its most basic, a story has three elements: Character, Plot, and Setting. A person (not necessarily human) doing stuff in a place and time. Characters are what the audience identify with.
The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell titled his work on the Hero’s Journey “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” to show how the same basic hero exists in so many myths and legends. I am going to (boldfaced) steal the phrase, but turn it around to illustrate something else: The hero of a story wears a thousand masks, has a thousand personalities, and lives a thousand lives. People are complex; your main character must be complex too.
We know this. You hear constantly about three-dimensional characters. Let’s take this a step further and say that the secondary characters should also add to your main character. Nothing is by accident; all characters should contrast or attract attention to or counterpoint or enhance the hero and story in some way. In our Hero’s Journey, this is where Minor Archetypes come in. These are timeless types of characters that rise above cultural boundaries and resonate with human psyches.
As we said in “Major Archetypes,”
Archetypes are powerful characters because most anyone can identify with most any archetype at some point in their life. Archetypes are broad types that we all encountered in life, and (whether we like to admit it or not) have portrayed at some point. Each of us has been a Mentor. We”™ve all felt like the Hero going the road alone. We”™ve even been the Shadow trying to hinder another, though we never think of ourselves as evil. Even with minor archetypes, this is true. I”™ve been a trickster, a shape shifter, an ally and (yes) the wicked-step-mother.
In this way, archetypes are psychological functions. They are templates, not rigid, expressions of character.
I will elaborate on how to flesh out archetypes in a story in another post, “Keys to Using Archetypes” in two weeks. For now, it is enough to say that these secondary characters:
- Reflect the hero by bringing out a specific facet of the hero’s character. Such as a child that shows the hero’s protective nature.
- Counterpoint the hero by showing what the hero “could be” if circumstances were different. Also useful for playing with themes.
- Aid the hero, most especially in growth.
The minor archetypes or secondary characters have a relationship with the hero, even if (in the story) they have to connection.
Nine Minor Archetypes
There are endless archetypes to choose from, and mixing and matching create even more. I even showcase some of the more useful archetypes from time to time. Since we are talking about the Hero’s Journey, though, a few archetypes deserve to be highlighted. These are the most common to the Hero’s Journey outside the Major Archetypes (Hero, Mentor, Shadow, Herald). Other, more specific, archetypes serve highly specialized functions (Eternal Boy, Wicked Stepmother, Prince), but are basically variations on the following.
Once the hero accepts the call to adventure and steps into the the unknown arena, they meet with the Threshold Guardians. These may or may not be characters, may or may not be agents of the shadow, and may or may not be intentionally trying to thwart the Hero. They do, however, test the Hero’s will and serves as the gateway to the special world. There is often a relationship between the Shadow and the Threshold Guardians, in much the same way a powerful man will use lesser men to do his bidding. A successful hero will not only defeat or slip past the Guardian, but recognize in themselves a special power.
No hero can navigate the special world and defeat the Shadow alone. Allies can take many forms, and may switch sides randomly. The mentor may be the ally. However, there comes a point when every hero must face the dark moment alone. Allies come in many forms, and often arrive and leave at different parts of the story. Allies, also, need not be characters, per se. Any literary devise that aids the Hero forward fills this function.
The Mercenary Ally is a specialized ally who has not pledged himself to the hero. Instead, their interests align, but only for the moment. Those interests may be money or political gain or tickets to the concert. In any case, the mercenary is usually temporary.
The Sidekick Ally helps the hero along, but in much less practical ways. They keep the hero’s spirit up, drive him forward, and offer tension release (or comic relief). The sidekick is also a great way to introduce profound or heavy ideas in easy-to-swallow ways.
The Sacrificing Ally obviously sacrifices something dear to help the hero. This may be physical (money), emotional (time), or powerful (life).
What makes the shapeshifter such a powerful archetype is not that it changes form (from ally to shadow, for example). The shapeshifter is a deeply complex archetype that shifts the closer you examine it. Like layers in an onion. At first glance, she is an ally. But, as you get to know her more, she becomes a shadow. Even further, a mercenary. Her character has not changed, but been revealed masterfully in stages.
The trickster embodies the desire for change, the energy of instability, and the power of mischief. They cut down egos, put everything in their place, and frame the world in perspective. They can also add a lot of humor. Do not underestimate this archetype.
The lone gunman. The solo combat pilot. The ladies man who seems to need no-one. The island of a person.
My personal favorite is the Redeemed, though this archetype is a blending of ally, shadow, and shapeshifter. The redeemed makes a conscious decision to protect the hero even though their previous actions were detrimental. The most dramatic examples are not to be taken lightly. A genuine, heartfelt transformation speaks to each human being who wants to be more than they are. The redeemed teaches the hero that change is possible and paves the road for their own character growth.
Mix and Match and Have Fun!
As you can see, mixing and matching these basic functions into more specific characters can be a blast. Han Solo in Star Wars, for instance, is an ally, a mercenary, a ranger, and a redeemed. The more creative you get, the further from cliche you will find yourself.