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Image by Chris Miles

None of us is all good or all bad. If your goal is to craft believable characters in your stories, then none of them should be, either.

When dipping into the vast and brilliant reservoir of material on “The Hero’s Journey” and basic archetypes as a storytelling model with which to create your stellar beings, remember to give them more than one Internal Archetype to wrestle with. Layer the archetypal qualities in your characters as a means to develop and understand their unique perspectives and likely choices.

(No Spoilers): For an example, let’s look at the protagonist in the recent film (2010) “The Warriors Way,” (which became a guilty pleasure): The protagonist is both “Warrior” and “Priest,” quite literal expressions of the archetypes in most martial arts films. Tones of the “Artisan” gave the protag sensitivity (poetic, deep emotion) reflected in the stylistic look/shot choices of the film, and in his storyline choices (respect for purity – save the condemned baby – turn his back on a horrible “blood feud” tradition).

Our Hero takes the higher yet more difficult path and gives up everything in order to try to save The Child (Innocence, Potential, Seed, the Future, Continuation, Hope). As as a Warrior Monk, he is self-sacrificing and highly disciplined, and in the highest expression of that archetype, cannot turn a back to Innocence. We delight as his embodiment of the “Warrior” (Action/Courage in service to some kind of authority, be it King or Clan or an inner sense of morality), moves him forward on his chosen path (character goal/plot line).

The use of the archetypes Priest, Warrior and Artisan for creating the protagonist’s skeleton and flesh, if you will, gives us a character with depth whose choices we subconsciously accept as making sense for who he is in that story. But a key component to this character really working comes from the Artisan, because that element created a character capable of inspiring compassion in us for someone we care about and relate to on some level, no matter how tenuous. The Artisan makes him vulnerable, human and accessible to us after an intense embodiment and expression of the Warrior/Priest, who is not very emotionally approachable. (Imagine a warm conversation with Ripley from the Alien movies). Most people can relate on some level to the messy Artisan who takes leaps based on intuitive hunches and indefinable reasons, the Divine Fool, impossible to control or predict but willing to open their hearts. We relate because we all either embody the willingness to leap ourselves – or we long for the faith and confidence it takes to do so.

I know that some storytellers have intentionally created unsympathetic characters, and I can understand that choice when it comes to purely artistic exploration, or when writing something based on actual events, but personally, the stories I enjoy the most are the ones where I have the means to root for the bad guys on some level, or feel sympathy when they lose, or at least get a sense of understanding why they’re crazy or mean. And I like to see the good guys hesitate with self-doubt during critical moments. Even the good guys have cracks in their armor, and I want to see them because it makes me root for their moments of courage all the more.

Bottom line: Please, don’t create flat characters by modeling them after one archetype. Audiences want flat characters to go away and don’t care how as long as it’s soon. When a fiction writer creates characters that nobody cares about, they’ve got a story nobody wants to hear.

By layering multiple archetypes, you have the potential to create a character capable of inspiring enough mystery and depth to convince us that we will never fully know that character, just as we are limited in our complete understanding and knowledge of each other. This is just one foundational approach for the proper use of multiple archetypes for creating characters whom we want more of once the story is over, characters who arouse our sense of curiosity. There should always be the sense that there is much more to be explored in your major characters long after “The End” and/or “Fade Out” appears.

Too often, we see movies or read manuscript and screenplay material wherein the characters are transparent in how they’ve been modeled after one archetype rather than revealing a deeper understanding and use of this storytelling model by layering multiple archetypes within each character. You can apply a simple, 2-or-3 archetype layering approach right down to the third spear carrier on the left, if you want. When you know each character at least on an Archetypal model level your spontaneous creative choices when blocking out scenes and writing your narrative and dialogue will all be truer to the characters and therefore more believable and emotionally powerful.

**7 Basic Archetypes

I primarily use the following seven archetypes for delineating fundamental characterization, as I find that most other archetypes are subtle variations that exist within each of these basic seven themes, depending on how the inherent energies are expressed:

King: Commander, guiding/providing for/affecting many others, yet seeking/needing to learn self-mastery (leaders, business owners, politicians, military commanders, role models)

Warrior: Action oriented, the “doers” of the world devoted to serving/upholding existing systems and/or powers (business people, soldiers, institutional workers, police, martial artists)

Artisan/Craftsman: Acutely aware of and affected by harmony in spatial and human relationships, and seeking to creatively express their observations (actors, builders, entertainers, designers, architects, photographers, artists, musicians, filmmakers)

Sage/Counselor: Agents of reflection, communication and change (writers, visionaries, entertainers, comics, musicians, filmmakers, spin doctors, artists, mentors, all trail-blazers)

Server/Healer: Compassionately aware of and seeking to tend to the needs of others (nurses, doctors, all healing arts, educators, social workers, therapists, religious workers)

Priest/Priestess: Primarily concerned with the spiritual welfare of others (all religious and spiritual fields, especially those who are actively guiding/teaching others)

Scholar/Scientist: Wants knowledge above all else; life-long careers of study and gathering information (workers in research oriented fields of science and other fields of specialized expertise and understanding)

Of course, the understanding of archetypes in human consciousness and in our storytelling is abundantly available through many authors better than I, and is a specialized field of understanding unto itself. You can delve as deep as you like through reading the works of Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell, to name just a few.

Everybody has a sad story, with the scars to prove it, so I also decide what sort of scar/s each of my characters carries, and how they acquired them. (Gotta love back-story). From deciding where each character is at with dealing (or not) with those scars when my story opens, I can determine the state of the character’s Inner Child (another archetype), which comes into play with the character’s sense of confidence, spontaneity and rebelliousness – and that affects how they experience and interact with their entire world.

Armed with this basic information, a writer can move forward secure in the faith that both the character/s and the story will fight them relentlessly (a good thing in this case) if they move their characters away from the natural choices and reactions those characters would normally have, given what the writer knows about them. This is just one way to develop a deeper connection to and keener intuitive understanding of your characters, which thereby allows you to keep them sharply in focus throughout their mis/adventures. In this manner, no matter what you throw at them or how quirky their choices might seem, your characters will sound like real, multi-faceted people and will stay true to the qualities you want them to embody.

**Archetypes taken from the Michael Teachings, as the information has been written and shared through multiple authors and channels, i.e, “The Michael Teachings” by Jose Stevens.

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In watching modern films, editing fiction manuscripts and doctoring screenplays, I’ve noticed a prevalence of the use of “flashbacks” in order to define and explain a character or plot. The danger is when flashbacks become “defeating darlings” that the authors cannot bring themselves to slay, even when it’s for their own good. My work is helping authors of fiction & screenplays create marketable products they can submit anywhere with confidence, so I get an anticipatory stomach twinge when I come across FLASHBACK or a new paragraph with fonts italicized. The reasons are…


FLASHBACKS:

                • Have become formulaic and tired.
                • Are too easily used when a more clever or interesting way of telling your story, or exposing your character’s motives and temperament, is possible. This is especially true with novels, which do not have the strictly-visual-storytelling limitation of film.
                • Too often, flashbacks aren’t used with discretion. Or they’re placed at the wrong location within the story to complement existing “beats,” and so defeat or deflate the story’s tension and pacing.

If a storyteller seeks to lull their readers and viewers deep – and compete with other ink-and-crew-worthy projects vying for money and production – they would be wise to ask themselves a few questions before cavalierly using flashbacks in order to unfold their stories.

Questions to Ask when using Flashbacks to explain Character Back-Story/Motivation:

  • Do you need to explain the character this much, or will the audience/reader “get” what they’re about without the literal explanation of a flashback?
  • Might it be more interesting and engaging if this character surprised the audience/reader with behavior a bit off (or even way off) from what they might assume and expect of the character?
  • Does it serve your story to actively play with your audience/reader’s assumptions about this character by withholding the flashback information? (We are curious about those who puzzle us).

For Screenwriters:

  • Is the flashback there because you’re uncertain what an actor can successfully convey about your character without words or explanations? (Note: It shouldn’t be. Take an acting class. Find local actors willing to table-read all or part of your SP).
  • Can you deliver the same information in a montage with supporting music, or by using other visual allegories and metaphors?
  • Can the character react to something in their environment in such a way that the audience/reader gets a glimpse of the character’s wound or desire without all the “what/where/when & how” of a flashback?

Questions to Ask when using Flashbacks to explain Plot:

  • Will your story work without the flashback? (The first question, this determines whether you might want to look at alternatives for delivering that information, or if you could simply leave it out).
  • Does the flashback contain more back-story than you need in order to maintain audience/reader understanding? (Often, less is more; trust your audience/readers).
  • Is there any other way you can fill the audience/reader in on whatever critical “fact/s” you want them to glean from the flashback, such as: an old file or relic found, a family photo album, a newspaper clipping or old news footage, a hidden government document or a corporate memo floating in the trash at the city dump?

Every way we have of sharing information can be shown in film, so the possibilities are naturally endless for creating feasible plot lines without the heavy use of flashbacks to explain them.

In literature, any information the reader needs to know can be conveyed by the “narrative voice,” so fiction novelists have no excuse for using flashbacks other than stylistic. Overall, I believe flashbacks loan themselves more authentically to literature than to film. Although, as one friend pointed out, some films have used flashbacks exquisitely.

What to consider for Placement of Flashbacks in a Screenplay

If you feel the flashback’s content is essential, and you can think of no other way to reveal that vital information (outside of exposition in your dialogue, which we have faith that you refuse to do), make sure you place the flashback at a point in your story that is already in a downbeat. Flashbacks can deflate present-tension, and when over-used or used carelessly, will serve to disengage your audience. All fiction has a heartbeat; a pulse and rhythm (more on that in an article to come). So if you must use flashbacks, please place them carefully, intentionally, and only after you’ve considered all your options.

Another suggestion would be to find a clever way to use the flashback structurally. Examples might be the movie “Stand by Me,” directed by Rob Reiner; the entire movie is a flashback, as was “Amadeus, (both brilliant works of storytelling and film).

Refusing to dip into the most mundanely used “tricks” of storytelling will help improve your craft, force you to think about your story in ways that you had not, and perhaps give your work the unique edge it needs to succeed. A little flash goes a long way; use it wisely.


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Thanks for checking out my blog.

Herein I’ll be sharing tips on the art of communicating clear ideas through many channels and means.  This includes tips on writing fiction, storytelling concepts, writing screenplays, and some communication strategies gleaned from working for about fifteen years as a copywriter in ad agencies.

For complete information about working with me, please click on the “Critique Services” and “Editing Services” tabs in the header.

Thanks for reading!

The Premise

It’s my belief that, in a very real sense, we create our world through the stories we tell – both to ourselves (inner dialogue) and to each other (confirmation). Make no mistake: THIS IS POWERFUL STUFF!

Storytelling is a phenomenal act with the potential to be full of raw courage and move the world (or at least the heart)  – or make you lighten up for a moment and forget your own tragedies. All the Archetypes are here – in every one of us. That is why seeking/using/hearing stories is so instinctual, why we know it in our guts when we have something good – or if it doesn’t ring true.

Storytelling is empowering. We can tell whatever stories we want, which makes us the Creators here in this world that we all live in, as well as the worlds within that eternally come along for the ride.

I will be updating and posting with an eye toward quality, not quantity, and promise to keep my articles informative, quick and hopefully helpful.

Collaboration is a joy to me, which is why I do what I do, so don’t hesitate to connect. Browse around, leave comments. I’m happy to reply to messages.

Email inquiries to:  abmonfort@yahoo.com

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