There are (at least) three character archetypes you meet in every true story. In Jungian theory, archetypes are characters who represent certain forces and play a symbolic role in the narrative arc of a story – whether it’s real or dreamt or studied or watched, and these have repeated and looped for ages and aeons – they reside in the collective unconscious. If you combine this with Joseph Campbell’s 12 stage Hero’s Journey, I’ve found that when I analyse literary memoirs that sell well, they do seem to share these key archetypes!
First: What is an archetype?
In Jungian psychoanalytic theory, an archetype is a mental image which we’ve inherited from times beyond our experience, and it’s so repetitive and prevalent as to be present in the collective unconscious. The reason we use archetypes in storytelling is because people have certain ‘expectations’, if you subscribe to Jungian theory. These expectations of what purpose certain characters serve, is what makes for a satisfying story. The reason the story is ‘satisfying’ is because it supposedly carries these collective myths and symbols that represent stages and forces in human experience that have not changed since the beginning of time.
And the only way to find what purpose certain characters serve in your story or experience… is to know what archetypal role they seem to be playing!
I teach the archetypes much more comprehensively in my memoir writing programme (and more than these basic 3), but in this post I want to give you an overview of the 3 basic archetypes you need to wrap your head around to write a true story.
Character Archetype 1: The Hero
The first archetype that is an absolute must that you’ll find in every work of narrative nonfiction. For example, in MAID by Stephanie Land, Land, the narrator, is the Hero and her character undergoes the Hero’s Journey.
In memoir, the hero is the narrator, and the narrator is always you.
General nonfiction such as a how to guide, for example, does not have a hero.
The hero is an archetypal character: a character that serves a purpose.
Now, narrative nonfiction is storytelling, just like a work of fiction is storytelling.
So for example, in WILD by Cheryl Strayed, she was the hero. In EDUCATED by Tara Westover, she was the hero. In A Letter From Paris, I wrote from the perspective of hero’s quest journey. It was the best way I could find to really narrow down the structure of the story and all the characters who played a part in that experience: I looked at people in my life in terms of the ROLE they played in the story – were they a blocking or advancing force? Did they support or advance my story?
And seeing myself as the Hero on a quest meant that I could really break down the journey or the question at the heart of the story in terms of my own character development. The Hero’s quest mimics the journey of self-actualisation, it’s a very inspiring methodology to use to write a personal experience or story.
The reason the hero or the narrator is the hero in narrative nonfiction is because people read memoir to relate to your story and see how great things can be overcome or experienced or accomplished – NOT because they know or even like you. It’s about relatability, and using this character archetype that’s existed beyond time is how you make yourself understandable and relatable to a reader or viewer.
Humans want to relate to a story, they want to see themselves played out on the page, battling these human conditions that every human has, and ultimately coming out on top and surviving, and achieving something or transforming the end. So you need to think of yourself as the hero of the story. And this is why I teach a lot more about the trademarks of the hero, the purpose of the hero, what the hero does, in certain stages of the story, the first act, the second act, a third act, and common misconceptions around the hero in my 90 Day Memoir program.
Can’t think of yourself as the hero? This might help:
If you’re having trouble thinking of yourself as the hero in your story, flip it around and say okay, well, how was I not the victim? If you’re making any proactive choices that are influencing the story, so you are moving the narrative along, you are taking action you are moving, taking action and moving the story along, not just sitting there stewing in your own misery, then you are definitely the hero. If you if you think about that, and you think actually no, I didn’t take any action and nothing changed, then you’re definitely not the hero, you’re a victim. And you need to learn how the hero works and not the ultimate aspects of the hero’s journey.
The ultimate goal of a story and the ultimate purpose of human development is growth, restoration of balance and actualisation
I actually believe that the purpose of the hero in every true story and the reason why people need the narrator to be that hero archetype, is because we need to relate to this path of actualisation and see examples of how we, too, can slay the dragon or overcome the addiction or walk the Camino trail with no shoes – everything is a metaphor and, much like when we dream, every character in a story is an element of our own personality (either owned or disowned, otherwise known as the Shadow in Jungian theory).
The path of the story follows the path of personality development, if you use the 12 stage hero’s journey, which is another reason I love it and use it so much!
Character Archetype 2: The Enemy
Okay, now we’re going to talk about the second character archetype that you will find in EVERY personal story, true story, literary memoir or narrative nonfiction, and that is the enemy or the villain.
You cannot have a story without a villain, an enemy, a blocking force or a challenge of some kind, and you don’t need to think about this as being a person.
The villain could be an act of God, it can be an act of nature, it could be an accident, it could be something that you witness, there just needs to be a force of struggle, problem, conflict, something that poses a block or a challenge to the hero, otherwise, there is nowhere for the story to go and no ‘driving force’ to the story. The central conflict is the engine that keeps the whole story running! And the villain is a key factor here. The character archetype of the villain is really there to show you how strong and highlight the growth path of the Hero to the reader. Their purpose is really to expose the contrast in morals or physical strength or something else, to keep the reader engaged in the story.
There are so many smaller purposes to the villain / the enemy or the blocking function in your story on a chapter and scene level, but the ultimate purpose is to force the hero to grow.
And this is why I think that writing your memoir is such an internally, rebalancing and empowering process is because it helps you to see how actually everything has been for your greater good and your greater growth. Even those blocks, even when your house fell down, or you were in that car accident, or you went through that shopping divorce, it was ultimately for your greater good. And if you work your way through the hero’s journey, and the major archetypes of the hero’s journey of which the villain or the enemy is one, you will get a better understanding of that as you write your book. I explore more detail in a the Enemy Vs Hero archetype and plot purpose, where they typically show up in my memoir writing programme.
Character Archetype 3: The Ally
There’s one last archetype I really have to mention, because no story exists without this archetype. And I just think it’s really, really beneficial to think about how this archetype plays out in your life, even if you’re not writing a literary memoir. And that is the ally. An ally can be a bird, a cat, a friend, a message, an email, a key that you find an object, and Ally is basically something that helps you progress in your goal. And often the ally shows up, I go much more into detail in this in the 90 day my program, but an ally will help you to, let’s say, your if you if you look at Wild by Cheryl Strayed, she had many allies in that very, very difficult journey, which she did across the Pacific Crest Trail. Animals and elements of nature can be allies. So being saved by a rainfall or being saved by even a dry spell, is an example of an ally in your journey.
And the reason I think it’s really psychotherapeutic to think about archetypes that are playing out in your journey, is that it helps you to see that you’re ultimately always being supported, doesn’t matter what your challenge is that you’re writing about. It doesn’t matter what experience you have had, there have been allies. If you can’t find an ally, I don’t think you’re really looking at your story properly.
The three archetypes mentioned above are just a few of the character archetypes you find in memoir and compelling true (and fictional!) stories, which I teach in much more detail in my signature program, 90 Day Memoir.
But hopefully this gives you an idea of exactly why I’m so passionate about teaching the hero’s journey and these archetypes for narrative non nonfiction. The reason they work so well is because it’s very satisfying to read and work of a personal story where the narrator is playing this hero, and where the other characters are clearly identifiable as these certain archetypes because otherwise.
That’s the whole thing about story and compelling story structure. It’s satisfying to the reader. And if you watch blockbuster Hollywood movies, you know, those typical rom coms or even action movies, they all use these archetypes and it’s because they signal us on a very unconscious level. It’s all about myth and the collective unconscious, they signal to us, the viewer or the reader of the story, that things are going to be balanced out. And it’s almost like a musical score, the way that they play out throughout the story structure.
To learn more about the Hero’s Journey & the archetypes in personal storytelling and using these to draft or revise a compelling memoir manuscript to the high standards of traditional publishing, head over to my memoir writing class and sign up to watch the replay.