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!
7 thoughts on “How to take your writing to the next level”
Interesting read Jenny. I’d never about tapping into the archetypal layers of my characters but now I can how it could add a totally different dimension. Thanks!
Hi Carolyn – I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 Celia Rees recommended Maass’s book at a writers’ conference last year, and it really got me thinking
What an intriguing post! These archetypal characters are ones we can relate to aren’t they and therefore have empathy with? It is this which pulls us in, I think. And you’re right, this worked perfectly with Friends.
Thank you Abi! It is about empathy but it goes beyond the kind of empathy we feel for ordinary characters and people we may meet, because it’s on a different scale – archetypal characters are individuals but they also express or embody the spirit of their age in some way, or carry the pure power of universal human experiences such as jealousy and parental love, which is what makes them often feel larger than life. So as well as empathising with the character, we are experiencing the mythic quality of his story. I should have put Friends in a different post and stuck with Shakespeare, but I got carried away! With Friends I was thinking about archetypal situations; with Shakespeare, archetypal characters. Messy!
You make it seem so simple, but it’s not.
Fair comment, lyndart – I completely agree. I think, in every area of life, the idea is often simple but the practice is not. The idea just provides a sense of direction and an opening to new possibilities. As William Blake wrote, ‘What is now real was once just imagined.’