Archetypes vs. Stereotypes: A New Look At The Hero’s Journey
Archetypes are one of the most valuable and also most challenging concepts in screenwriting.
To understand how to use archetypes effectively, we have to go back all the way to the source, Carl Jung (famously not a screenwriter).
We have to understand where the concept of archetypes comes from, and how it connects to a larger concept called the Collective Unconscious.
And we have to learn how to tap into archetypes intuitively, rather than just intellectually.
If you are trying to tap into archetypes from a purely intellectual perspective in your screenwriting, there’s a good chance that you’re not actually writing archetypes. You’re actually writing stereotypes.
So what is an archetype? How do they work? How do you write them? How do you connect to the archetypes that live inside of you?
That’s what we’re going to be talking about in this podcast.
As I mentioned, archetypes begin with Carl Jung, and his idea of the Collective Unconscious. To vastly oversimplify this very complicated concept:
The idea of the Collective Unconscious is that there’s a fabric that ties all human experience together. That even though in my waking life, I think I am Jake, and you are you, and we think that we are different and separated, in our dreams we can actually tap into a collective fabric, a shared experience, that makes us human.
Jung believed that there were certain metaphors, certain elements, certain aspects of our dreams that actually mean the same thing to everyone who experiences them.
And by using our subconscious mind, by using the power of our dreams, we can tap into the Collective Unconscious and step into experiences that we’ve never yet had, and parts of ourselves we have never yet met.
In doing so, he believed that we could find the universal tie that binds us all together.
A brilliant professor named Joseph Campbell came along and took Jung’s beautiful concept of the Collective Unconscious to the next level for writers, by creating something called The Hero’s Journey
To vastly oversimplify Campbell in the same way we just did Jung, Campbell essentially realized that if there’s such a thing as a Collective Unconscious, there must also be such a thing as a Collective Story, a universal story.
And if we could learn to tell that universal story, that universal story would speak to everyone. Everyone could go on that same journey together; it would mean the same thing for everyone.
And in that way, it could move us all to a place of catharsis, of meaning, of growth, of connecting to who we are as human beings.
He called this The Hero’s Journey.
You’ve probably heard of The Hero’s Journey if you’ve been studying screenwriting, or any kind of writing.
In fact, Campbell’s work spawned hundreds of disciples, from really incredible theorists like James Bonnet and Christopher Vogler, to more surfacy Save the Cat! kinds of approaches.
Almost every screenwriting book, and almost every screenwriting teacher, teaches archetypes in some way, and they’re all tracking back to Campbell, who’s tracking back to Jung.
Sounds like a pretty good idea, right?
There are 21 steps of The Hero’s Journey, and a host of specific archetypal character types, and these theorists suggest that if we simply find those steps and find these characters, then we’ve got a structure and the characters of a screenplay that will have universal appeal.
In other words, if there are certain kinds of archetypal roles in every life, there must also be certain kinds of archetypal characters in every screenplay: The Terrible Father, The Emotional Mother, The Spiritual Father, The Anima or Animus, The Threshold Guardian, etc. (to use some Hero’s Journey parlance).
And if there are certain kinds of archetypal events that exist in every life, then there must be certain archetypal events that happen in every screenplay: The Refusal of the Call, The Journey To The Innermost Cave, The Return With Boon, etc.
If there are certain kinds of characters and events that exist in every story, then it stands to reason that all we have to do is reach out, grab one of those characters, grab one of those archetypal events, throw it in our story, and we will connect to the universal and tell a story that everyone can connect to.
Wouldn’t that be awesome? Well, sometimes it is awesome.
The archetypes of The Hero’s Journey gave birth to some of the best movies of all time: The Matrix, Apocalypse Now, Star Wars. But the same Hero’s Journey archetypes also gave birth to Jar Jar Binks, Star Wars Episodes 1-3 and countless other boring and predictable movies and TV shows.
So how did the same archetypal elements that led to so many incredible movies also lead to such stereotypical, predictable, formulaic and untruthful writing– sometimes even in the hands of the same writers?
These archetypal elements were supposed to help the writer connect to the Universal Story, the Collective Unconscious, but in many cases seemed to do the opposite.
Instead of connecting us to the Collective Unconscious and taking us all on a journey where we could see the fabric that ties us together, where we could experience catharsis by watching somebody else’s journey, where we could feel on some level, “That’s me up there! I know what that feels like,” even as we watched a character that was ostensibly different from us– these lesser Hero’s Journey screenplays in fact did the opposite!
They alienated us. They reminded us that what we were watching was fake, that we were disconnected, that we were bored.
They came between us and our connection to the Collective Unconscious, that feeling of “That’s me up there! I know what that feels like!” and instead made us feel “What I’m seeing is something completely separate from me. That’s not a person up there. There is something disconnected from the fabric of humanity in what I’m seeing right now.”
If you’re a screenwriter, you know what that feels like in your writing. You know what it feels like to write something and know it’s a bunch of B.S. Even if everybody loves it, you can feel it:
This is not connected. This is not truthful. I know there’s something off. I feel like there’s a wall between me and my character. I feel that there’s a wall between me and my structure.
We all know what it’s like to feel that.
The good news is that archetypes can actually help you transcend that feeling of disconnection. But archetypes used in the wrong way can get in the way of that connection.
The problem with archetypes is that archetypes are labels.
And the reason that archetypes are labels is because brilliant professors, who like to study things like archetypes, also like to put labels on things; that is their job.
They need to put labels on things so that we can discuss them. They need to say, “Yoda is a Threshold Guardian,” so that somebody else can argue, “Yoda is not a Threshold Guardian. Yoda is a Spiritual Father.” “That moment is the Return With Boon.” “No, that moment isn’t the Return with Boon!”
(if you get on Reddit, you can watch people fight about this kind of stuff– and you’ll quickly realize none of it has any value to screenwriters).
PhD’s label archetypes so that we can talk about them, argue about them, understand them with our intellect. Writers step into archetypes intuitively, so that we can feel them.
You know intuitively that as soon as you label anybody, a character, another human being, even yourself– as soon as you put a label on somebody or something, you are also putting them in a box, You are by nature stereotyping.
When we put a label on somebody based on their skin color, we call that racism.
When we put a label on somebody based on their gender, we call that sexism.
When we put a label on somebody based on their economic status, we call that elitism.
We know that this is bad. And we know that this is limiting.
We know that when we judge somebody by a box that we put them in, rather than wondering,”hmm, I’m curious about them,” it limits our ability to understand them, connect with them, empathize with them or even see them clearly!
We even know that that limits our ability to do the same thing with ourselves.
If we tell ourselves. “Well, you know, I’m just not that bright.” Well, guess what? We won’t see the possibility in ourselves to actually be that bright. If we tell ourselves “well, you know, I just never pursue the things I really want,” and start to identify with that label, we never will pursue the things we really want.
If you stick yourself or anybody else in a box, you stop seeing the human being, and you start seeing the label. You stop seeing the person and you start seeing the stereotype.
In fact, what you’re really doing when you put a label on another human being is disconnecting from your intuitive connection to the Collective Unconscious!
It would make an incredibly boring book to simply say the truth: that if there is such a thing as a Collective Unconscious, and if you want to connect to it, all you have to do is close your eyes.
All you have to do is use your senses to transcend your inner censor and your own expectations and prejudices.
All you have to do is just notice what you see, feel and hear. And write down exactly that. And look with specificity until you see that thing for real, until you get past your expectations of what that element or person or object or metaphor is supposed to be, is supposed to act, is supposed to look like, is supposed to sound like, is you’re supposed to feel like– and instead just allow yourself to be surprised by the specificity of what is.
And in that specificity, you will find the universal, because you will be connected to the Collective Unconscious through your subconscious mind.
As helpful and as true as that book would be, that would be a pretty short book, and it’s probably not going to get you published, and it’s probably not going to get you your PhD.
But if you are a screenwriter, that simple advice actually might be more valuable than trying to break down The Hero’s Journey into 21 rigid steps, or trying to write an Emotional Mother or a Terrible Father for your character.
(By the way, those are not my terms. I’m not judging mothers or fathers. Those are archetypal terms used by Hero’s Journey people).
So remember: it’s not that the labels are always wrong, it’s that the labels are always limiting. And when we approach our screenwriting through labels, we stop seeing characters and we end up writing stereotypes.
For example, if you think of Billy Elliot, it’s a wonderful movie, a total romp. Billy Elliot himself is a great character. He is not a stereotype. He, like any great character (to paraphrase Walt Whitman) is large and contains multitudes. Which is to say, he’s tapped into the Collective Unconscious.
But if you think of Billy Elliot’s father, you’ll soon realize Billy Elliot’s father is not a full blown character. Billy Elliot’s father is a cartoon character, who exists only to play the role of Terrible Father in the movie.
The man’s entire existence in the script is simply to make sure his son doesn’t become a “poof.”
He does not have a life outside of that; he does not contain multitudes. He is nothing more than the role that he was playing.
In fact, he’s so stereotypical that later Ben Stiller will parody him in creating Derek Zoolander’s father in Zoolander.
This is not a full blown character. This is not a man with clear wants, deep emotional needs, a unique how, who happens to be a homophobe, who happens to be a Terrible Father.
This is, rather, simply a stereotype, a character who exists to demonstrate the box that the writer has put him in.
On the other hand, look at a film like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (check out my series of articles about The Tree of Life).
In The Tree of Life, we see a character in Brad Pitt who happens to be a Terrible Father in the archetypal way but does not come off as a stereotype.
By the way, by Terrible Father, when we talk about it archetypally, we don’t mean a “bad” father, we mean a father who inflicts harm on his children. And because it’s an archetypal role, it means we recognize that alll fathers (and all people), in some way contain the Terrible Father archetype.
Just like all fathers (and all people) also contain the Emotional Mother archetype. Just like all fathers (and all people) also contain the Threshold Guardian archetype and every other archetype. Because by their very nature, archetypes are elements of character that are contained collectively in all of us.
Some of us just tend to express more of one part of ourselves than another.
If you really believe in the concept of the Collective Unconscious, it means we are all large. We all contain multitudes. Because if such a thing as a Collective Unconscious exists, it is the collective unconscious. It’s the thing that we all share.
As writers, what we’re really doing when we create archetypes is going into ourselves and pulling some piece that already exists, out of ourselves.
We’re blooming life, not by making up something from out there, but by connecting to something that already exists in here.
It might be a part of you that you know really well and love. It might be a part of you that you don’t normally invite to the table. It might be a part of you that you feel shame about. It might be part of you that you are afraid you might become. It might be a part of you that gives you confidence that there’s something good about you or the world. It might be a part of you that you aspire to be.
It could be anything. Your anger might be a way of accessing an archetype. Or your love. Or your confidence. Or your bravery. Or your fear, right? These are all pieces of you that are actually pieces of your characters as well.
So what we do is reach into ourselves, look extremely closely at one part of ourselves, and ask ourselves: what’s this?
In Write Your Screenplay and in my Master Class, (for those of you who have taken those classes), we talk in depth about how to connect to these archetypes through meditative writing, and how to reach them through a concept called the emotional need.
But there are many ways to reach into ourselves, find these archetypal characters that reside there, and blow life into them.
If it’s helpful to you, you can start by using an archetypal term. But don’t try to make your character be that term. Instead, you can ask yourself “what is the Terrible Father in him?” “What is the Emotional Mother in him?”
Or you can ask “what are the unexpressed parts of the character? What are the parts of them that they are not showing?” And we can blow life into those parts– either by finding situations in which those aspects of your character can be expressed, or by allowing them to be embodied by other characters in your screenplay, with whom your main character will interact.
If we go back to Malick’s The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt’s character happens to embody the archetype of the Terrible Father at multiple points in the film; he happens to inflict harm on his children.
Brad Pitt’s character in The Tree of Life happens to be a Terrible Father. But he’s not there in the script for the purpose of being a Terrible Father. He’s actually trying to be a good father.
His goal in life is to make sure that his children get the choices that he didn’t get to have.
He’s not like the coal miner father in Billy Elliot who doesn’t want his son to be a “poof.” He wants his children to be artists! He wants them to get to do the things that he didn’t get to do.
It’s the how– the way that he goes about that– which ends up making him a Terrible Father, who unintentionally inflicts psychological and emotional harm on his children.
So we have Brad Pitt playing this incredible character, who is not playing a stereotypical role. He is large. He contains multitudes. He just happens to be a Terrible Father.
In fact, one of the most painful moments in The Tree of Life, for me, is the scene in which Brad Pitt is simply trying to get his children to kiss him goodnight. That’s all he wants! But in the process of trying to get a kiss goodnight, he ends up inflicting so much emotional harm on those kids.
When you realize your characters are large and contain multitudes– when rather than using the archetype as the limiting belief about the character, you allow the archetype to shimmer and reveal itself.
You tell yourself “I realize this is a big part of the character, but I’m not going to make them the archetype. Rather, I’m going to use the archetype to connect to them.”
Again, you can go through many different doors to achieve that. For example, in Write Your Screenplay, we talk about five different doors that help us connect to archetypes, all without giving a single label.
There are so many ways you can connect. But the goal is not to make something up or to demonstrate that a person is a certain way.
The goal is to simply go inside and focus on what you find there.
Just watch your character. What do you notice them doing that surprises you? What kinds of choices do they make? How do they do it in a way that’s slightly different than any other character? How do you look, listen and feel as you write them with such specificity that you get past the container, the stereotype, of who youI expect them to be, and start to find the specific how of who they really are?
This is the incredible thing about archetypes. When we get specific, we tap into the Collective Unconscious. When we get specific, that’s actually how we get universal.
And when we get general, when we put our characters in a box, when we think more about the label than the how of the character– when we do this to anybody, whether it’s a character that exists in us, another person that we pass in the street or even to ourselves– we don’t just limit who they can be, we also we can be.
We limit what we can see. We limit our own creativity. We limit our own ability to be surprised.
If you are a writer, if your focus is on the label, rather than the archetype, if your focus is on the intellectual, rather than the intuitive, if your focus is on trying to demonstrate a 21 step formula, instead of getting curious about the kinds of things that might happen to this specific character, who wants this specific thing in this specific situation– if you get too intellectual, there’s a good chance that what you’re going to write is a bunch of clichés.
Tapping into the Collective Unconscious does not happen, as Jung points out, at the Conscious Level.
The analysis can happen on the Conscious level, just as, in screenwriting, the revision can happen on a Conscious Level. But the process of connecting happens on the Subconscious Level.
It happens by going inside. It happens by setting aside your expectations, your stereotypes, your prejudices.
It starts by letting go of what you desire for the character to do for you and your screenplay, and instead getting curious.
Who are they? What do they want? What do they need? How are they? What are the obstacles they’re facing? What are the choices that they’re making?
When you approach archetypes like this, it puts you back in the intuitive driver’s seat and allows both you and your character to break out of the cliche.
It allows you to see them clearly. And then, seeing them clearly, to tap into the Collective Unconscious in a way that just might let you see yourself more clearly, as well.
*Edited for length and clarity