This guest article on archetypes is by Aaron Ryyle. I feel it fits a very nice, typical mould… – Punmaster John
“One cannot afford to be naive in dealing with dreams. They originate in a spirit that is not quite human, but is rather a breath of nature—a spirit of the beautiful and generous as well as of the cruel goddess.” — Carl G. Jung, “The Importance of Dreams”
In the psychological theory of Carl Jung, a psychological archetype is an inherited idea that is derived from the collective experience of the human race. Archetypal ideas and images arise from the unconscious of the individual, but they are rooted in kind of species-memory: the collective unconscious. When archetypes appear in mythology or fiction, they tap into an audience’s unconscious ideas at a deep level, and they provoke characteristic emotional responses that fit certain molds. Archetypes can be powerful tools in your storytelling kit.
Archetype as Pattern and Symbol
An archetype is a a typical character, action, or situation that represents universal patterns of human nature. Characters, themes, objects, settings, or symbols can all reflect an archetype: the Hero, the Mentor, the Quest, the Magic Weapon, the Moon, the villain in a Mask… all follow certain universal patterns.
Every culture has heroic legends or trickster stories, yet the particular forms those stories take are colored by history, culture, and context. Archetypes crystallize around experiences and ideas that are common to human beings as human, yet they are capable of infinite local variations. This means that they can become powerful symbols that can speak to people from a broad range of backgrounds in new ways while still striking common cords.
Archetype as Device
Archetypes work on two levels. First, because they contain echoes of all the other instances the audience members are familiar with. Second, and more importantly, because they trigger recognition in the unconscious—even evoking images from dreams. In fact, Jung documented numerous instances of separate patients dreaming in strikingly similar imagery, then recognizing their dreams images in myth and legend.
Of course, using archetypes means making them your own—your Mentor should not just be Gandalf with the serial numbers filed off. But you can use archetypal characters or places in new ways, always keeping mind that there is nothing new under the sun. After all, the trope of the old man with the beard in the wilderness is so common precisely because, when well-deployed, it can efficiently communicate a whole range of ideas and emotions.
Working with Archetypes
Archetypes can be great idea-generators. (Use your favorite search engine…) Examples of Jungian archetypes that are perfect for role-playing games include:
- The Hero (the fool, warrior hero, lover, superhero, or superhuman)
- The Earth Mother (a woman offering shelter, or nourishment)
- The Journey (the quest for vengeance, or in search of knowledge)
- The Threshold (a gateway or portal to a new world, and new challenges)
- The Guardian of the Threshold (the sphinx, the knight who asks three questions)
- The Shadow (an adversary representing something unknown or denied in the hero’s—or patient’s—psyche)
Remember that an archetype is something that crystallizes around an existential concern or a common experience. Ask yourself: what sort of experiences, ideas, fears, or desires do different archetypes play with? Then look for ways to connect those themes or experiences with your player characters. By playing off your players’ creativity you can create something that really is new, because it comes from your unique group and its unique personality.
The journey in search of knowledge speaks to a sense of need and a fear of the unknown… Why might your characters need a piece of knowledge so bad they would face untold danger to obtain it? What dangers could you dangle over their heads to make them sweat while they get it?
The shadow represents something one or more characters fears or hates about themselves… What shameful things have they done? What might they do given opportunity and temptation? Create an adversary who revels in the hated thing—make the adversary symbolize it—but always keep the adversary in shadow.
Everyone wants to run a game that feels epic and meaningful. Tapping into archetypal images at the table is a great way to help that happen. Using archetypal images and themes with awareness can evoke deep and wide-ranging associations, reaching even into myth, legend, and dreams themselves. They layer the game with a sense of portent. Of course it is crucial to use archetypes with intent, as tools. Judicious intent is what lets you use archetypes as narrative devices rather than unintentionally slipping into clichés or stereotypes.
What archetype would your character fit into? How would you classify your BBEG’s archetype?