The Mark Blog

AVOIDING ARCHETYPE

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with archetypal characters.  Just to be straight on the terminology:  archetype as in stock characters.  Archetype as in the way Carl Gustav Jung thought of archetypes, represented in people around the world, in the collective unconscious.  To borrow from Dictionary.com: “In Jungian psychology, a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.  Jung defined many of these types.  Examples include the sage, the jester, the magician, the rebel, the lover, the explorer, the hero, just to name a few.” 

In some ways, archetypal characters are important because they help the mind categorize.  The reader may think, Oh! That’s what type of person this character is at their core, Archetypes may help the reader identify the people who populate the page.  Also, since each person has one or more archetypes operating inside them, the reader can identify with the characters as well.  However, the danger in these types of stock characters is that they risk becoming too predictable, too blasé.   Characters need to rise above any sort of label.  Otherwise they’re two-dimensional and fall flat on the page.  You can start with an archetype, but then you need to flesh them out, make them real.  Just like people, characters are individuals with pasts.  Characters rise above stock status when details and specifics are given, and when their actions become their own, not what is expected of them.
                 
There’s a red flag I try to keep in mind.  If a character isn’t surprising me, if I know exactly what they’d say and do in any given circumstance, then I need to examine him or her.  Chances are, I’m relying on their archetype to carry me through the story.  What to do?  Sometimes I do character-building exercises, writing in a notebook.  An example of a prompt is:  What is inside this character’s purse or brief case or satchel?  Why?  Another exercise I’ve used is to write a two-page story starring the character in question, and see where it goes. In telling this story, I imagine the most painful thing that has happened to this person, then write about the character handling this situation.  Lastly, reading any part of The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri always inspires me and points me in the right direction where character is concerned.
                 
Now that it’s summer, I’ve been catching up on my long list of things I’d like to do.  Today I listened to Mark instructor Antoine Wilson interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm.  Mr. Silverblatt observed that the main character in Antoine’s latest novel, Panorama City, plays the role of the sacred fool archetype (also known as the jester).  However, as Oopen, the main character, navigates through obstacles and changes, he transcends this role. It’s a fascinating interview, and I highly recommend it.
                 
Summer reading has been another thing I’ve been catching up on.  Yesterday I finished Middlesex.  Jeffrey Eugenides has a miraculous way of weaving in exposition without crowbarring it into the prose.  Next up:  The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge.  I started it today.   Before I knew it I had read the first three chapters without glancing at the clock.  Crisp, clear writing that’s layered with strong metaphor in an unassuming way.  I found myself rereading parts to see how the writer pulled it off.  After that:  Midnight Rumba by Eduardo Santiago, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, and Hermie Lehman’s Fixing Time by Jeff Radt.  Cannot wait.