The hotshot, the hero and the loathly lady – creativity and archetypes

Tuesday evening took me to the environs of Liverpool Street for another treat from the London Writers’ Café – a workshop on characterisation run by Rowan Coleman, author of no less than twenty-three books under three pen names.  When someone has been published that many times with still not a grey hair to be seen, you know she’s worth listening to.

The workshop was great, the Q&A even better.  Having spent the previous hour and a half poring over exercises to get under the skin of the characters in our various works in progress, an annoying little doubt was niggling away at me: was it really possible to invent an entirely new set of characters for any new project? Or if, as it’s often said, a writer’s characters are all really aspects of him- or herself, does the time come when we exhaust our cast lists and begin to reproduce essentially the same people?

What better person to ask than someone who’s half-way through their twenty-fourth book?

Rowan started by saying that she believed all her characters were unique. Perhaps, she suggested, I should buy all twenty-three of her books and let her know whether I agreed? (That’s a challenge I may yet take up – although if anyone reading this has got there ahead of me, please let me know what you think.) But, she mused, perhaps there is a signature that an author leaves on her characters, something that you might discern if you read all her works back to back. Rowan, it turns out, is a fellow fan of Stephen King, and having done just that with a sizable chunk of his output she thought that was the case.

But what then is that signature? Is it simply that a strangely high proportion of The Master’s protagonists are white men of a certain age with more than a passing interest in creative writing? Or is it something deeper – something about their way of speaking and interacting with others? About their way of looking at the world? And do we, as readers, connect with those characters because, no matter how different we may be on the surface, there’s something there that we recognise in ourselves?

Jung hypothesised that there were twelve primary archetypes, including the hero, the innocent and the jester (Bridget Jones’s Diary, anyone?). But a bit more online digging reveals that’s a long way from the end of the archetype listing: the intriguingly named www.howtofascinate.com tells me that there are, in fact, 49 personality archetypes – which, with the help of their “senior strategists” can be analysed to determine someone’s “Personality Brand”.  I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated…

Then there are the archetypes-within-archetypes: eight hero archetypes apparently (http://www.likesbooks.com/eight.html), and sixteen master villains (http://www.tamicowden.com/archetypes.htm) – well, the villains would have to go one better.

The loathly lady - she was furious when she found the artist hadn't painted her best side.

The loathly lady was furious when she found the artist hadn’t painted her best side.

And that’s before you get to Wikipedia, which lists over 130 stock characters. These include the fabulously alliterative (“loathly lady – a woman who appears to be hideous, often cursed”), the satisfyingly rhyming (“hotshot – also known as ‘badass'”) and the weirdly specific (“Herr Pastor – an authoritarian pastor in an ethnic German congregation”).

What conclusion to draw from this little lot? I’m not sure I know, but I’ve decided on one thing: if, as writers, our characters really are aspects of ourselves, I can’t wait to unleash my inner Herr Pastor.

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15 thoughts on “The hotshot, the hero and the loathly lady – creativity and archetypes

  1. Miranda Stone

    This is very interesting! I’ll definitely have to read up on all these different archetypes.

    Reply
    1. yakinamac Post author

      Yes – and I suppose in a way it’s comforting that there are so many of them. Even if you deal solely in stereotypes, there are lots of them to get through before you start repeating yourself!

      Reply
  2. Sheryl

    I don’t write fiction so, until I read this post, I wasn’t familiar with the concept that some people believe that a writer’s characters are all really aspects of him- or herself. It’s an interesting idea–and will make me look at some stories in a different way.

    Reply
    1. yakinamac Post author

      It also means a writer is very emotionally exposed, I think. Maybe that’s part of the reason I found it so difficult for anyone to read my work at first. And yes, if it’s true, it definitely makes you wonder what’s going on inside the heads of some authors!

      Reply
  3. Dev

    Great post. I seem to remember Levi Strauss doing a lot of scholarly work on archetypes. Possibly unrelated to the jeans magnate…

    Reply
  4. yakinamac Post author

    The struggling writer, waiting for her big break. Oh, and with a devastatingly handsome secret admirer too shy to declare himself. Obviously.

    Reply
  5. jackiemallon

    At the rate I’m going I won’t ever have to worry about exhausting all the characters that are aspects of myself. Well that’s a relief then.

    Reply
  6. yakinamac Post author

    Tell me about it. I’ve got a serious case of The Guilt. This weekend I *will* be productive. And this time I really mean it.

    Reply

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