This is the second installment of my Writing Archetypes series, where I talk about certain roles, scenes, and plot points that can be found repeated in many stories. They synchronize stories with the narrative instincts of the human mind, and imbue them with a distinct psychological presence.
You don’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Jungian to recognize that archetypes are a core element in storytelling. You don’t even have to like the term “archetype.” Call them what you like: tropes, memes, patterns, threads, modes, models, Platonic forms, şurôt, whatever.
But, no matter what you call them or why they exist, they do exist, and they have undeniable storytelling power.
During the last installment about the Hero, we learned a little about Companions, Gurus, Villains, etc. Today we explore one of the more obscure character archetypes, but nevertheless one that’s been around since ancient times: the Rough.
You might have heard of the so-called “ally” archetype, sometimes overlapping with the “helper.” Reading about these common story roles, I’m often struck by how blandly functional they are. Most Heroes have plenty of allies and helpers, so who gets to be the Ally and the Helper? They seem almost like catch-all categories for “people who are nice to the protagonist.”
Now, there’s no denying that some ally types are defined largely by the fact that they help the Hero. For example, Samwise Gamgee or R2-D2. Rather than loosely categories these characters as allies or helpers, I prefer to think of them as Companions, which is an old military term. They do more than merely help, they stick by. Think about Sam during the ascent of Mt. Doom or R2’s astromech role during the attack on the Death Star. Companions act as boosters for the Hero by being around when needed.
But, there are other allies who are a bit antagonistic, who act as correctives to the Hero’s naïveté, and not in the positive, teacherly way a Guru does. Because the Hero is going through the story’s transformation, he or she starts out green and needs a cynical counterpoint to help overcome that greenness. He needs an ally who can be a little rough around the edges.
And this is why I like to call this type of character the Rough.
IN THE SCHEME OF THINGS
Despite being two distinct streams of archetypal energy, the Rough and Companion often end up conflated, meaning that one character in the story carries the energy of both archetypes. A classic example is Enkidu, who plays both Rough and Companion to the ancient Mesopotamian Hero Gilgamesh.
Where independent, however, the Rough is almost a mirror of the Companion. Whereas a pure Companion can be almost slavishly attentive to the Hero, the pure Rough is more pushy and tough-love. And, while the Companion is characterized by sticking by the Hero, the Rough often goes through a pair of plot points that I call the Goodbye-Hello cycle, which was hinted at in the introduction to this series as the “Betrayer Makes Good” or “Abandoner Returns.”
How does Goodbye-Hello work? The Rough runs off, either from disgust with the Hero’s perceived silliness or out of crass self-interest, only to return at a critical moment and redeem himself.
Remember how Han Solo left the rebels after getting his reward for rescuing Princess Leia, only to swoop back in during the final battle to save Luke’s skin? That’s the Goodbye-Hello cycle, and it usually starts rolling just after the Guru kicks the bucket at the Dark Night of the Soul moment. Or, as screen-writers would put it, right after “the Mentor dies on page 75.” The way Obi Wan Kenobi goes poof! in a pile of robe right before the Millennium Falcon escapes the Death Star.
Which brings us to the way Rough also acts a like a mirror for the Guru. Both represent experience, relative to the Hero’s inexperience. The Guru is simply nicer about it. In fact, the Guru and Rough often play good-cop/bad-cop, with the Guru emphasizing the Hero’s potential while the Rough points out his or her flaws.
And, the Rough can seem like a lesser Villain. His loyalties and moral standing are certainly in question, and he often openly opposes or betrays the Hero. In the Hero’s story of overcoming adversity, the Rough can sometimes seem to say: “If you think I’m bad, wait until you face the real Villain.”
Get ready, kid. And toughen up!
Age-wise, the Rough usually falls between the older Guru-Villain generation and the younger Hero-Companion generation, typically middle aged. He’s caught between the wisdom of an elder and the drive of youth. Occasionally, the Rough can manifest as a streetwise kid (Huckleberry Finn) or a “dirty old man,” but the point is always the same: he’s not as green enough to play the Hero but he’s not seasoned enough to be the Guru.
THE ROUGH IN HARD-BOILED FICTION
Fans might recognize the Rough from the supernatural noir On the Head of a Pin, because narrator Charles Oliver debates his fate in relation to the archetype.
Now, Chuck is not the most reliable narrator (the book is arguably a drawn-out suicide note) but his take does provide some illumination on how the Rough functions, particularly in hard-boiled fiction. So let’s look at an extended quote from his Rough soliloquy:
And what exactly is a Rough? Call him morally conflicted, semi-civilized, liminal … The Rough has always been there, hanging out with the Hero, ever since Prince Gilgamesh fell in love with wild and bushy-haired Enkidu back in Sumerian times. Maybe the Hero and Rough are not always that close, but Ennis del Mar played a pretty good Rough to Jack Twist in that little cowboy love story where it was the Rough who ended up mourning the Hero instead of the other way around…
Every Hero worth his salt has a Rough. Robin Hood had his Little John. Even Jesus had his wild, hair-wearing cousin Juan Bautista who—just like when Little John confronted Robin on that bridge—greeted the Hero mid-stream. Sure, one was for a beating and the other for a baptism, but are these two things really all that different?
The genius of the hardboiled is to drag the whole story into the roiling water by making the Rough the same guy as the Hero. [Note: That means the two roles are conflated.] Ever notice how it’s raining all the time in noir flicks and detective novels? The City of Angels has never seen as much rain is it does in The Big Sleep; water, water, everywhere and a dark, ravenous sump at the end for your trouble. Why the hell do you think that is? Because the hardboiled Rough is in the middle of the River Jordan the whole time, holding his own head under water …
The hardboiled Rough doesn’t need a Hero getting in the way, with all that Heroic naïveté and silly ideas. The Rough stands alone. You know The Maltese Falcon? It’s not for nothing that Miles Archer gets iced in the hollow between chapters one and two, leaving the satan-faced Sam Spade on his own. And, the best thing about casting Harrison Ford in Blade Runner? We got to watch Han Solo (whose prize was a different Falcon) on his own—as the name implies—without that angsty kid Skywalker mucking things up with his “hokey religion” and daddy issues.
What to take away from Oliver’s rant? In hard-boiled fiction, the Rough gets elevated to the lead, conflated with and swallowing the Hero.
Here’s a side note about the Rough-Hero in hard-boiled fiction: he often forces the negative aspects of the Rough or the naïve aspects of the Hero into another character. In detective fiction where the Rough-Hero is noble, like Chandler’s Marlowe (but not Spillane’s Hammer), there is often a very secondary character who shows up to play the Brute. This displacement of negative Rough energy can shove the Brute character into the Villain camp; in detective fiction they often play the role of bullying cop, like Al Degarmo in The Lady in the Lake. On the other hand, displacement of Rough energy into a Villain can make the Brute somewhat sympathetic, like Moose Malloy in Farewell, My Lovely.
Finally, the greenness of the Hero—which cannot be incorporated into a Rough-Hero conflation—is often channeled through a Companion. Batman, the epitome of Rough-Hero energy, has his Robin to absorb that energy: Companion but also a bit Hero.
A BRIEF NOTE ON ABSENT ROUGHS
So, hard-boiled is the mood you get when you elevate the Rough into the Hero slot, but what happens if there’s no Rough at all?
Well, it happens. But remember, these archetypes are not characters. They’re bundles of energy that different characters can embody. They’re roles, and those roles can occasionally jump around from character to character, just like workplace tasks can be passed around from coworker to coworker.
When the Rough character is absent, the Rough energy will still want to find its expression somewhere. So, look around for it. Does the Hero have a dark side he needs to overcome, a partly grown-up cynical or animalistic tendency? There’s the Rough, inside the Hero. In hard-boiled fiction, the Rough is on the outside, but in other literature he can hide in the Hero’s instincts, addictions, and flaws.
Pay particular attention to the Dark Night and Goodbye-Hello moments, if they’re there. After the Guru “dies” (either literally or figuratively) in the second half of the story, does the Hero suddenly become cynical, even jaded, turning his mind to materialistic, practical concerns ? That’s the spirit of the Rough taking possession of the Hero. Instead of being abandoned by the Rough, the Hero abandons his own quest at the Goodbye point. He “sells out” or simply gives in to “reality.”
And, instead of the Rough racing back in (like a Hero) at the critical moment, it’s the Hero himself who comes to his senses, remembers his principles, or gets his second wind at the Hello point. In both points, the Hero takes over where the absent Rough cannot.
SOME POPULAR ROUGHS
We’ve discussed a few well-known Roughs, like Enkidu and Han Solo. Let’s take a look at a few more:
Yes, Rizzo is the Rough in Grease, although Danny also carries a lot of the Rough energy, which is typical for the male lead in a romance.
Note that Rizzo is the one who arranges for Sandy to bump into Danny at Rydell; as the female Rough, she acts as agent for his Rough energy. And, like a lot of Roughs, Rizzo threatens to steal the show.
As a side note on type-casting, Stockard Channing’s First Lady Abbey Bartlet in the series The West Wing often played Rough energy off the President’s more bland Hero archetype. In the season four episode “Game On,” the President and his advisers dither back and forth about his choice of necktie for an upcoming television debate, finally settling on a “lucky” tie after laborious deliberation. With the broadcast literally seconds from airtime, Abbey steps up to her husband, flatly states that she hasn’t done enough to prepare him for the debate, and cuts his tie in half with a pair of scissors, sending him and his advisers scrambling for a replacement as the clock ticks down.
Now, that’s Rough!
Jack Sparrow : Rough in Guru’s Clothing.
Speaking of Roughs who steal the show … Oops, you thought Jack was the Hero of those movies? Not a chance. As we discovered in the first installment of Writing Archetypes, Will Turner is the Hero of the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and Jack Sparrow is his Rough.
But, as I said in the previous installment, Pirates is a deceptively complex story. You might protest that Jack is in fact Will’s Guru, since he introduces Will to the role he must grow into: piracy. This is where the trilogy gets tricky, because the Guru has a unique set of characteristics that argue against Jack. (We’ll dive deeper into them when we examine the Guru.)
Jack is the one who mirrors Companion Elizabeth as a real pirate contrasting against her childhood pirate fantasy. He is definitely more “tough-love” than Elizabeth when it comes to Will’s pirate destiny. And, where she “sticks by” Will by assuming his name, Jack tries to deny Will’s identity to the Villain Barbossa. His Goodbye-Hello cycle begins when Will conks him on the head, saying “I’ll not be your leverage!” which is a clever reversal in which the Hero abandons the Rough for being (seemingly) too materialistic.
Jack also acts as a lesser Villain, a nicer pirate than Barbossa. He’s definitely the Rough of the tale, even if he does channel a bit of the Guru energy.
Aragorn and Boromir : Good Rough v. Bad Rough
Aragorn gets along so well with Guru Gandalf that it’s hard to see any good-cop/bad-cop mirroring there, although Gandalf is significantly more hopeful about Aragorn’s heritage than he is. Aragorn’s Roughish cynicism is aimed largely at himself, and humans in general.
Enter Boromir, whose worldly and cynical strategizing comes into direct conflict with Gandalf’s otherworldly strategizing. Boromir as Rough is a good example of archetypal doubling: he plays off the negative aspects of the archetype while Aragorn stays firmly within the good aspects.
It is Boromir who leans toward the Villain, eager to take the Ring for his own, and it is Boromir who betrays the Hero when he tries to take the Ring from Frodo, only to later redeem himself (Goodbye-Hello!) by defending Pippin and Merry. Perhaps because Tolkien was unwilling to endow Aragorn with the brutish aspects of the Rough, or because a larger cast often requires archetypes to be split, Boromir adopts the Rough crumbs brushed off of Aragorn’s table.
True Grit : The Rough in Satire.
This story is a bit tough to parse, because the presumed generational breakdown between the Hero Mattie Ross and her two adult allies would put Deputy US Marshall Rooster Cogburn in the Guru role and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf in the Rough role. However, Cogburn is so rough a character that he seems to absorb a lot of the Rough energy. It leaves the presumed Rough, LaBoeuf, playing almost an anti-Rough simply to provide character contrast.
How can we positively distinguish the Rough from the Guru in these muddied waters?
Well, in many stories, there’s a Philosophical Banter plot point, where the pragmatic swagger of the Rough butts heads with the superstitious caution of the Guru. In Star Wars, it’s the classic “ancient weapons and hokey religions” scene aboard the Millennium Falcon, where Solo expounds on the superiority of having a blaster by your side. In The Lord of the Rings, this plot archetype is expressed during the Council of Elrond, with Gandalf’s rebuke of Boromir’s proposal to use the Ring against the Enemy.
In True Grit, this archetypal moment takes place at the first campsite. LaBoeuf mocks Cogburn’s superstitious practice of laying a rope around himself to keep out snakes, and Rooster laughs off the idea that Texas Rangers drink out of hoofprints. The clear dynamic between the Rough’s practical braggadocio and the Guru’s superstitious caution are laid out as plain as day.
Or night, as the scene would have it.
Also, remember the part about the Hero and Rough meeting in the waters? Sometimes, as with Little John and John the Baptist, this means a literal waterway. But occasionally, as with Han Solo and Aragorn, it’s a tavern … that is, a “watering hole.” Will Turner doesn’t meet Jack Sparrow in the waters, but rather in the fires of the smithy, an intriguing reversal of the elemental imagery in a world filled with both water and drinking. However, Jack does later submerge Will (in an upside-down boat) as his baptism into piracy.
Where does Hero Mattie meet our prospective Rough LaBoeuf? First in passing as he smokes a pipe on the boarding house porch, and later (again, with lit pipe) at the foot of her bed. Another fire reversal! As in Pirates, the baptism comes later, when she crosses the river on Blackie to follow Cogburn and LaBoeuf. In this scene, it is LaBoeuf who tries to instill discipline in the Hero through roughness once she arrives on the other side, while Cogburn is more gentle despite his outer veneer of Roughness.
And, where does Mattie meet Cogburn, this Guru in Rough’s clothing? Over water? In perfect satirical fashion, as he is hidden inside an outhouse. When they meet formally, inside the courthouse, Mattie shows him how to properly roll a cigarette, telling him that his “makings” are too dry. Foul water or no water at all: Cogburn’s not the real Rough.
Another clue to ferreting out the Rough in True Grit is in the Guru Dies/Goodbye-Hello cycle. Although Cogburn doesn’t literally die, he does “bow out” of the quest spiritually, overcome by whiskey and a trail gone cold. At this point, LaBoeuf (who has been driven by Rough-like monetary gain all along) decides to leave physically, and refuses to take Mattie with him. However, he shows up later at a critical moment, like a good Rough should, to save Mattie from Tom Chaney.
Other clues to LaBoeuf’s Rough-hood include the fact that he is the nomad of the story, having traveled all the way from Texas in chase of a bounty. Unlike Heroes, who tend to be unwittingly pre-involved in old Guru-Villain feuds (often by family ties), Roughs tend to get dragged into those feuds by self-interest. Han Solo is a good example of this tendency, while Jack Sparrow is an exception, being already involved in intrigue with Barbossa alongside the Turners long before he meets Will. True Grit‘s LaBoeuf, like the exemplary Rough Han Solo, gets wrangled into the long-standing animosity between Rooster and Lucky Ned through the bounty on Tom Chaney’s head.
Ultimately, the key to understanding True Grit‘s odd trio is to note that the story is satirical, at least in the original novel by Portis and the Coen Bros film adaptation. Satire tends to overturn our expectations, so we end up with a Hero who seems not to change (because she’s narrating somewhat unreliably from a point long after the story ends), a Rough who perhaps isn’t as rough as he thinks he is, and a Guru who doesn’t know as much as he should. As the story plays out, Mattie leads us to believe that she is the one who taught the Guru some lessons and impressed the Rough with her handiness, even though unavoidable events tell a different tale, like her gun misfiring and losing her hand to the winter-wakened snakes foreshadowed by Cogburn’s superstitious rope trick.
Recognizing the tendency of satire to reverse and obscure archetypes, we can see that the relatively fancy LaBoeuf is in fact the Rough of Mattie’s adventure.