What is the difference between a good story and a great one? Why do some characters stay with you for a couple of weeks or months, and others for a lifetime?
It’s all about archetypes.
Your characters are first and foremost individual people with their own personal histories, hopes and personalities, but beyond that they are also part of something bigger – a family, a country, a culture, each of which will also have its own history, values and aspirations.
At the deepest level of collective consciousness, we share a common humanity. People in every time and place know what it is to feel anger, pride, distress, delight; we all have archetypal relationships, such as those between children and parents,siblings, lovers, enemies and friends.
Great stories tap into these archetypal layers. Their characters have a larger-than-life feel, because they embody more than their own personal story, and yet they feel completely convincing because we recognise in them something universal in ourselves.
Shakespeare’s characters have this archetypal quality. King Lear is more than a foolish old King at the end of his reign – his story resonates on deeper levels, as a story of political power, every when and where; on the deepest levels it’s a story of family dynamics and the process of growing older.
Lear’s daughters, likewise, show us different aspects of the universal experience of shifting power within the family, when children grow up and become effective in the world just as their parents begin to lose their effectiveness.
King Lear is like the very embodiment of an old man’s folly; in the same way, Lady Macbeth seems to embody the pure spirit of ambition and Othello the spirit of jealousy.
You can find an in-depth exploration into what gives fiction universal appeal in Donald Maass’s wonderful book, ‘Writing the Breakout Novel,’ which is addressed to experienced writers who may not yet have achieved great sales.
Among other things, Maass invites us to consider our characters as part of their social and historical moment, not in a secondary way, but keeping this archetypal dimension in the forefront of our mind.
What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate – Donald Maass
I’ll finish with a more recent example that springs to mind – the phenomenal success of ‘Friends.’ On the individual level, we’ve got six main characters each with their own life experiences.
On the cultural level, the series hit at the moment when young people no longer stayed in the family home until they were married and ready to make a home of their own, but could enjoy a transitional time of sharing with a pseudo ‘family’ of their own contemporaries.
On a universal level, ‘Friends’ is a story of every person’s first steps into the adult world, now and back through the ages; when parents no longer provide, and we have to find out who we are and how we can cope without them.
August is going to be ‘archetypes month’ here in the House of Dreams, so sign up for email reminders if you don’t want to miss anything!