The Eight Hero’s Journey Archetypes
Typically a story, be it a novel, film, television show, etc., should have about six core characters. Each character will play a certain role; they will have a certain archetype. Joseph Campbell is the man responsible for the Hero’s Journey. He is also responsible for giving us the eight typical archetypes that your core cast of characters will have. Sometimes a character will embody more than one archetype. Below I cover all eight of Campbell’s archetypes.
The first, of course, will be The Hero. The hero is most often your protagonist. He is the character that the Hero’s Journey will center around. The film Star Wars: A New Hope follows the hero’s journey to a “T,” so I will use the characters from this film to demonstrate the archetypes. That and it’s Star Wars Day (May the 4th be with you). That makes Luke the hero and the protagonist. He is the character that the audience will relate to and, in this case, he’s a likeable one. I touch briefly on the hero’s journey in a previous blog. In another blog I discuss compelling characters, which gives more advice about creating strong protagonists.
After our hero crosses into the new world they must learn new tricks very quickly in order to survive. The character in charge of teaching our hero is The Mentor. The mentor will explain to our hero all about how this new world operates. The mentor will teach our hero how to use innate abilities that they may not be aware they posses. The Mentor will also usually gift our hero with some sort of tool or equipment that will come in handy later in the story. In A New Hope the mentor is Obi Wan. The tool given to Luke is the light saber.
Along the journey our hero will face great challenges, some too great to handle alone. This is where The Ally comes in. The Ally is the companion that helps distract the guards, hack into the mainframe, and carries on clever banter with the hero. Han Solo fits this bill, but so do R2-D2 and C3P0. That’s okay, because sometimes our hero will need more than one ally.
The character that sets the whole journey in motion is The Herald. They normally will appear at the beginning of the story to announce a need for change in the hero’s life. Sometimes the herald can be as simple as an invitation. They are the catalyst that pushes our hero over the threshold and into the journey that the herald would not normally take themself. Often times they will single out our hero. In A New Hope R2 fills that role and actually delivers the message, “Help me Obi Wan. You’re my only hope.”
Every good story needs some comic relief. When things get too heavy, this is where The Trickster comes in. The trickster will also challenge the status quo. Sometimes the trickster can end up unintentionally fouling things up and creating more of a mess. But usually they will provide an outside perspective to help our hero see things from a different point of view. In A New Hope, Han Solo provides the comic relief. As I mentioned above, characters can have more than one role.
Often times along the journey our hero will encounter someone who may, at first, appear to be on his side, but somewhere along the line that character’s loyalties will shift. Or maybe their loyalties will be ambiguous from the start. This archetype is known as The Shapeshifter. In A New Hope, when we first meet Han, his loyalties lie only with himself. He is available to the highest bidder. He later comes around to be an ally for Luke, but it is unclear in the beginning whose side he is on.
Then we have The Guardian or The Threshold Guardian. As you may guess from the name, the guardian blocks the path of the threshold into the new world. They are put there to challenge the hero’s strength, courage, and sometimes wisdom. Sometimes the guardian will pose a riddle that our hero must answer before proceeding. Ultimately their job is to turn our hero away, to keep them from their journey, to convince them to go home and forget their quest. Our hero must find away around or through the guardian. In A New Hope, the role of the guardian is filled by the Stormtroopers. Luke and Han outwit the guardians by disguising themselves as Stormtroopers.
Lastly, we introduce The Shadow. The shadow is the antagonist, the villain of the story. It is the shadow’s job to create conflict. A great shadow will often be a mirror opposite of our hero, but doesn’t always have to be a specific character. Sometimes, as I explained in a previous blog, the antagonist can be society, nature, or even our hero himself. In A New Hope, Darth Vader plays the role of the shadow.
These are the archetypes, as described by Joseph Campbell, that you will find along the hero’s journey. Not all of them need to be used and each archetype does not need to be a separate character. Sometimes a character will embody two or even three archetypes. The archetypes you do need in order to make your story worthy of reading are The Hero, The Shadow, The Mentor, and the Ally. For good measure it is also helpful to have The Trickster and The Shapeshifter, but they are not mandatory. Until next week, happy writing.