Story and life are inextricably linked. To write better stories, we study life. And to live better lives, we study stories.
There are many obvious reasons why this is so. Stories, after all, are meant to be relatively accurate reflections of life. However, the more I study story theory, the deeper the rabbit hole seems to go. One of the most exciting discoveries down that hole has been archetype.
All of story reflects an archetype, and all archetypes contain stories. When we talk about story structure or genre or character arc or even trope, we are contributing to a larger conversation about archetype.
By definition, an archetype may be categorized in one of three ways:
1. A typical specimen.
2. An original model.
3. A universal or recurring symbol.
All three are useful for understanding story. So, no surprise, all are also useful for understanding life.
In a few days, on March 30th, I will be officially launching what has been the most personally important book I have ever written, Writing Archetypal Character Arcs. The book discusses the cycle of six initiatory character arcs that can be recognized in the human life—from the coming-of-age of the Maiden to the adventurous individuation of the Hero to the leadership of the Queen to the sacrifice of the King to the acceptance of the Crone to the final wisdom of the Mage.
It goes much deeper than just that, diving into twelve “shadow” archetypes that create inner obstacles within each transformative arc. It also talks about the importance of the “resting” archetypes that live between each transformative period. And it closes out with a look at the archetypal antagonists that grow with us throughout our life journeys.
It digs into why the Hero’s Journey is such an important archetypal arc, but also offers a more rounded view of mythic stories by exploring a fuller range of the human experience than just this one youthful masculine arc.
I have grown multitudes in the writing of this book, and it is a book I believe will continue to teach me as I progress through my own life arcs.
I know many of you have already grabbed the e-book during its (ongoing) early access here on my site, for which I thank you! You’ve made this far and away the most successful soft launch I’ve ever had. I’ve appreciated so much hearing from so many of you who have already dived into the book and found it powerful.
On Thursday, the book will officially launch, complete with wide release to major e-book sellers and the paperback on Amazon, as well as a super-fun giveaway here on my site! But, first, I wanted to take a moment to tell you not just about the book, but about how archetypes have changed my life. (Plus, if you scroll to the bottom, you’ll discover a surprise giveaway of a signed copy of the paperback! The winner will be announced before the launch.)
My Journey With Archetypes
I have, of course, always been aware of archetypes. I have always derived meaning from story, not just as stories but as Story—thanks to the resonant power a good story can impart simply by coming into contact with someone. I paraphrase from Jonathan Letham’s essay “Letting the Leopards In” in the anthology Light the Dark.
Good writing does not make you feel as if you are reading it for the first time, but rather as if you have known it all along.
When “good writing” strikes its steel upon the flint of archetype, there is a sudden unity of truth between author and reader. It is what Jean Shinoda Bolen described when she wrote:
I had a sense of experiencing something beyond ordinary reality, something numinous—which is a characteristic of an archetypal experience.
At a time, a few years ago, of existential crisis within my own life, when my faith in something greater had been shaken even to the point of doubting there was “anything” to believe in, the question I kept returning to was: “What about the stories?” I knew, deep within myself, that the magic and the meaning I had always experienced through stories, and the patterns found in story form itself, had to be pointing to some bigger.
The deeper essence and awareness of archetype came to me on the wings of Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle’s gently ferocious ode to the power of art, to its ability to create what Carl Jung calls “cosmos out of chaos.” I highlighted and scribbled all over this book, writing what would become the first scrap of my own book Writing Archetypal Character Arcs, which I’ll excerpt here:
Archetypal stories are stories that transcend themselves. Archetypes speak to something larger. They are archetypal exactly because they are too large. They are larger than life. They are impossible—but ring with probability. They utilize a seeming representation of the finite as a mirror through which to glimpse infinitude.
Despite their almost numinous quality, archetypes are a very real force in our practical world. Think of it this way: all the things we imagine actually exist. Aliens. Vampires. Dragons. Fairies. All the memories of our actual reality also exist—in real time—in the same way. Regardless whether these things can be proven as corporeal, they still exist within the human experience and impact it. The deeper the shared belief, the deeper and more meaningful the archetype becomes.
This “archetypal experience” changed everything for me. I knew immediately I wanted to write about archetypes, but something within me understood this was bigger than just one blog post. I would need time to walk my own path, to see where it led, and ultimately to experience some of these archetypes for myself.
Exploring the Feminine Arcs
Even though I knew quite early on that I wanted to explore the power of archetypal storytelling, I didn’t yet know what I even meant by that. I knew the personal inner transformation I was already exploring within myself was about much more than just the mythic journey writers are usually pointed toward. The Hero’s Journey, however important and wonderful in its own right, is only one tiny scrap of the bigger picture.
For me, it turned out that healing my relationship with my own wounded femininity and womanhood, digging up and rooting out some of the deeply internalized misogyny from my culture and subculture, was the first doorway to a world wider than I ever anticipated. When someone gifted me Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s Women Who Run With the Wolves, another archetypal experience exploded within me, and I began to explore the world through not just through the masculine lens I had always adopted but through the deeply vibrant, colorful, and healing perspective of the feminine.
Later, I would read Kim Hudson’s magnum opus The Virgin’s Promise, in which she explores the concept of a feminine partner arc to the well-known Hero’s Journey. Although she posits this arc as an alternative to the Hero—as a coming-of-age arc to be taken instead of the Hero’s Journey—I saw the two arcs as sequential. I knew the Hero Arc needed to be taken within my own life, but now I could also see how the Hero Arc could not, in fact, be undertaken properly unless this “younger” archetype (what I would come to call the Maiden) preceded it.
I went on to study Joseph Campbell’s seminal The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, and Carol S. Pearson’s Awakening the Heroes Within, among many others. My mind was blown. I dug deeper still and realized the classic Three Acts of story structure itself reveal a full lifetime’s worth of transformative journeys. It turned out the Maiden and the Hero were just the First Act.
Exploring the Older Arcs
If the feminine archetypes have been lost in the shadow of the youthful Hero’s spotlight, so too have the older archetypes—the mature relational archetypes of the Queen and the King and the elder archetypes of the Crone and the Mage.
The Crone and the Mage, in particular, fascinated me. After all, story theory tells us the ending is in the beginning. Stories come full circle; it is their nature and their pattern. The early arcs of Maiden and Hero, however thrilling and prevalent, only gain context in view of their ultimate ending.
It became clear to me that these six particular archetypes marked crucial initiatory experiences within the human life. If humanity—or at least certain cultures—were struggling to provide their young with authentic initiatory experiences, then might it not be because relatively few initiated elders existed to catalyze those experiences?
Although the Queen and the King are both important for teaching and guiding the younger archetypes, it is the deep wisdom of the Crone and the Mage who complete the circle by coming to terms with the larger meanings of life itself. They pass the torch on to the young, through their spoken wisdom but perhaps even more crucially by taking their own final archetypal journeys side by side with the Maiden and the Hero.
Once again, I could see how each of these archetypes lined up so perfectly with the important beats of story structure itself. Planted deep within every story is the seed of the entire cycle of life arcs. For example, I could see how, even though I was chronologically at a stage in my own life of “cleaning up” my Maiden Arc and embarking on my Hero Arc, I was also going through a Crone “period,” a Third Plot Point exploration of death/rebirth, approaching the ending of one identity and the beginning of another.
Using Archetypes in One’s Writing
I started exploring these archetypal arcs within my own writing. I started playing around with the arcs in my own stories, exploring what they might look like, leaning into what felt right, learning about them from the inside out.
At the time I was outlining a sequel. For the most part, the first book had taken the classic Hero Arc approach. I knew I couldn’t just repeat that same arc in the sequel, so I asked myself, “What happens after the happily ever after?” I looked to the next sequential archetype, the Queen, and started exploring what comes after the Hero Arc. From there, the mythic journeys for all these archetypes came pouring through me. I stopped writing my novel for a time and went right on exploring the full expression for all six archetypes.
From there, I started investigating even more nuanced archetypes: the shadow archetypes, the “flat” or unchanging archetypes, and the deeply symbolic archetypal antagonists for each of the six main life arcs. Suddenly, I could see these archetypes everywhere—in books, in movies, even in commercials, and of course in my own life and the lives of people around me.
Using Archetypes in One’s Life
I don’t think anyone needs to be told how to use archetypes in life. By their very nature, archetypes come loaded with all the personal revelations one needs. For me, one of the most powerful tools this system of “life arcs” gave me was the ability to examine my own life chronologically and to recognize which transformative arcs I may have already finished, which archetype I was currently working with, and which transformative arcs I may yet be fortunate (and hopefully courageous!) enough to take.
Seeing one’s life through the lens of archetypes provides context and direction. The archetypes provide us the initiatory experiences we need in each new chapter of our lives. The archetypes themselves can offer guidance even when these same archetypes may not be embodied by other people in our own lives. Indeed, the archetypes can help us grow, eventually, into the embodied elders our world desperately needs.
The more clearly we see and embody archetypes within our own lives, the more intuitive our ability to write stories (of all genres) that resonate powerfully with readers. Likewise, the more truly archetypal stories we are able to read or watch, the more gracefully we will be able to navigate through our own triumphs and travails.
The Book: Writing Archetypal Character Arcs
And so I invite you to join me on this epic journey of writing not just better books and films, but also in writing our own life stories with intentionality and appreciation. Below is a description of Writing Archetypal Character Arcs, the book that has been both my companion and my guide during one of the most unforgettable decades of my life.
You can purchase the e-book (epub) right now on my site. Stay tuned for the official launch, happening in just a few days on March 30th. This will be when the paperback releases and when the e-book goes life on major platforms such as Amazon, Apple Books, and more. I will also be celebrating with a big prize giveaway, so even if you’ve already purchased the book, stop back in on Thursday for a chance to win!
In the meantime, scroll to the bottom to enter the drawing for a signed copy of the paperback. The winner will be chosen on the 29th.
Thank you all for co-writing with me this story that is our lives. Happy writing!
The Six Transformational Character Arcs of the Human Life
Ready to take your story’s character arcs and themes to the next level? This latest book from veteran writing teacher and story theorist K.M. Weiland ventures far beyond the popular and pervasive Hero’s Journey to explore six important archetypal character arcs, representing key moments of initiation in the human experience:
- The Maiden
- The Hero
- The Queen
- The King
- The Crone
- The Mage
Found in every genre from fantasy to drama to romance to adventure, these transformational stories are the secret of powerhouse fiction—as shown through a wide variety of real-story examples throughout the book.
Writing Archetypal Character Arcs will teach you:
- The archetypal beats for each of the six journeys
- Which archetypes are right for your particular story
- The best way to use archetypes in a series
- How to choose the right archetypes for supporting characters
- How to use archetypes to identify your story’s theme
You will also learn how to deepen your stories by implementing shadow archetypes (the negative sides of each positive archetype), resting or “flat” archetypes (the fixed stage between each of the main arcs), and archetypal antagonists (the epic antagonistic forces that oppose each of the positive archetypes in their journeys). The Hero’s Journey is just the beginning. Learning about archetypal character arcs will change the way you view stories—and life—forever.
Find the Tools to Write Stories Readers Will Never Forget
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever explored using archetypes in your stories—or in your life? Tell me in the comments!
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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland