Evolutionary psychology and the Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Archetypes

ArchetypeThis is the seventh 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 want: 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.

Today, we’re going to take a little detour from the archetypes themselves, to discuss the Do’s and Don’ts of writing archetypes.

THE CURSE OF FORMULA

For literary puritans, recurring patterns like archetypes are anathema to quality writing. Some would lump archetypal storytelling with linguistic cliché as Things To Avoid if you want to be taken seriously as a writer.

Notably, the story-pacing “beat sheet” popularized by Blake Snyder has come under attack as a scourge of quality writing. For example, Peter Suderman at Slate blamed the recent trend of spectacular cinematic awfulness on Snyder’s beat sheet. But, of course, others like Stephanie Palmer would vehemently disagree with Suderman, pegging as the real culprit the fact that movies are “incredibly hard to make.”

Well, I might say more about these two in a later post, but for now let me say this … It might seem odd from a guy doing a series on patterns in writing, but I think Suderman has a point.

I am a big fan of Snyder, but I also understand the dangers of peeking behind the veil and revealing the secrets therein. It’s not for nothing that gurus throughout the ages have taught in two tiers, giving parables to the everyday student while saving the mysteries for those with better discipline. What inevitably happens when someone like Snyder uncovers a good descriptive model of how things work, hacks try to reverse engineer it, often in mechanical perversion of the organic phenomenon originally described.

I think Snyder’s analysis is remarkably on point, even if he’s a bit rigid at times. (You have to break into Act Two exactly on page 25?!) But it’s a terrible mistake to use Snyder’s beat sheet, or any archetypal pattern, as a template.

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BASS ACKWARDS WRITING

The problem is that archetypal patterns—including the story forms Snyder described—are best used to analyze a story, not to construct one.

Treating them like a blueprint, you end up not with a living story, but with a monstrous golem of sewn-together narrative and glued-on character that looks only vaguely like a living creature. Just enough to be uncomfortable. It’s like artificial sweetener: tastes kinda sweet, and kinda like an android just pissed in your mouth.

Part of what makes a story powerful is how it shuffles the archetypes, doubling or conflating or reversing them, as we’ve seen with the Companion in Cast Away, the Guru (and Villain) in Unforgiven, and the Rough in Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, and True Grit. None of these very powerful stories use archetypes as cookie cutters. Even the original Star Wars trilogy—which, with Lucas’s cult-like devotion to Joseph Campbell, cleaved as tightly to classic archetypes as one can imagine—added a twist by casting the ancient patterns into “a galaxy far, far away.”

Good stories don’t repeat archetypes or adhere to them, they play with them. And, I would argue, this play is best left to nature.

But how?

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NATURAL SELECTION

Before we discovered archetypes, described them, abused them and treated them like industrial molds into which to pour our narratives, stories simply evolved toward them.

And, yes, I mean this in a strictly Darwinian sense. Someone told a story, either from imagination or real life, and someone else retold it, and so on. Every now and then, a story would lose or gain something in the retelling. A mutation. Then the two versions of the story would compete, and the one better adapted to its environment would have a better chance of survival.

The environment of stories is the human psyche.

The fact that a lot of this natural selection takes place inside the storyteller’s head can be misleading. Yes, storytellers will add elements to a story when they feel something is missing, or subtract something they feel is distracting and wasteful, or realign something they feel was misaligned. But, why do they feel these things? Why should one character portrait or plot twist feel “better” to the storyteller than another?

The same reason they resonate with the audience: the narrative instincts in the human psyche.

When a storyteller is tweaking a story, he or she is essentially providing feedback as a member of the audience who happens to enjoy the privilege of sharing a brain with the storyteller. But, the process is the same: the story is evolving to fill a niche in the human mind.

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THE INDUSTRIALIZATION OF NARRATIVE

Then, at some point, clever smarty-pantses started noticing these archetypal patterns, and talking about them. Describing them, gathering data on them, cataloging and assigning them serial numbers, speculating on their origins in the reconstructed proto-cultures whose languages cautiously demarcate with prefatory asterisks.

With the primitive projection machinery of early cinema, when a story had to hit certain story beats to keep the audience in their seats while the next reel was set up, archetypal plot-points became more mathematics than art. You really did have to break into Act Two on page 25! An assembly line was born.

Then, following Lucas’s blockbuster example, character archetypes became an industrial formula. Books on how to write a screenplay/novel exploded, essentially a sub-genre of build-your-own-business.

Suderman might trace the craptation of film back to the popularity of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! guide to screenwriting, but I think it goes back much further, starting with the linguists and folklorists of the 19th century. Systematic descriptions of storytelling patterns can be used to engineer artificial story processes that stink of artifice and industrial lubricant.

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GREENING THE INDUSTRY

Constructing stories directly from archetype is mechanical, which ignores and perverts the process by which we received them in the first place.

The way to avoid this is to write first, and write wildly. Write with abandon. Only after you’re done with your first draft, go back and look for archetypal patterns. Then, ask yourself what your story is trying to do with them.

To be fair to Blake Snyder, at times he seems to advocate this approach: write first and organize later. But, to be fair to Suderman, Snyder doesn’t drive this home fervently enough, and a lot of people have certainly gotten the wrong idea. You have to write first and write like an animal. (Yes, humans are still, as of the publication of this essay, animals.)

Not only will this approach keep you from writing mechanistic garbage and filling the literary world with industrial pollution, but it might just help you understand your writing style better than you ever would have by pouring your narrative into a rigid mold.

Are the archetypes reversed, for example the Guru is distinctly not wise, the Rough is wimpy, or the Hero markedly unheroic? You might be writing a satire! Reversed archetypes are the side-eye of literature. They’re a sign that the story is disgruntled about something, and trying to cast a cynical light on it.

Are the archetypes doubled, split into multiple characters? You might merely be reacting to the needs of an ensemble cast, where a multitude of character have to share archetypal energy. But, it can also mean that you’re digging into the depths of human psychology to draw sharp moral lines between different types of behavior, because doubled roles often serve to create a contrast that helps us tell right from wrong, truth from falsehood, success from failure. One character does it this way, and another does it that way.

Likewise, conflated archetypes might simply mean you have a small cast of characters carrying the full load of archetypal energy. But, it also might mean that your story is addressing a subtlety of human interaction, trying to teach us (for example) that sometimes the Companion has to be a little Rough to do right by the Hero, or that the Villain can teach us some things better than any pure Guru ever could.

Recognizing your archetypal plot points after the fact can also help you see what your story is really about at its deepest level. When the Companion Gets Dunked, what led up to it? What follows from it? A threat to her freedom? A conversation about love? A moment of self-doubt? Your evolutionarily informed mind is hinting at you about the underlying theme of your story. Listen to it.

But, listen to it only after you let it speak freely, unshackled by the machinery of storytelling industry. Green your process by letting it grow organically before you start pruning and replanting and harvesting.

Let your story say what it’s saying; only use knowledge of archetypal psychology to help it say it more powerfully.

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