One of the most common questions I receive is how to use archetypes in a series. The short answer is: however you want! Archetypes are endlessly adaptable. However, there are several important considerations to keep in mind. Most have to do with understanding the shape of the story you’re going to be telling over the course of your series.
Archetypes are universal symbols. Story itself is archetypal. Plot structure is archetypal. Genres are archetypal. And, of course, characters are archetypal. I have written in-depth about what I call the “life cycle” of archetypal character arcs. This system is centered around six archetypes that represent initiatory transformations within the human experience:
- The Maiden (coming of age and individuating from the tribe)
- The Hero (integrating power with love)
- The Queen (assuming leadership roles)
- The King (learning to sacrifice and surrender one’s power)
- The Crone (grappling with mortality)
- The Mage (transcending attachment and the need for control)
In my book Writing Archetypal Character Arcs, I outline structural beat sheets for all these journeys. I also deeply explore the two shadow archetypes attached to each arc (one passive, one aggressive), the “flat” archetypes that live between each of the transformations, and the archetypal antagonists who frame the theme of each arc.
Recently, I released a series of six Archetypal Character Guided Meditations, which I designed as a tool to help writers access their own archetypal wisdom by taking them through all the important plot beats and symbolism of each archetypal journey.
While talking to several of you after releasing this tool, I was inspired to circle back to this common question I receive about how to use archetypes in a series—something so many of you are doing in your stories.
Series are wonderful not just for their potential profitability, but also because they allow us to sink deeply into the experience, exploring aspects and angles of a character’s journey we may not be able to access in a single installment. However, by nature of their complexity, series can also be challenging. If it is difficult to create cohesion and resonance within a single book, a series often ups that quotient multiple times!
I’ve written before about considerations for plot and character arcs in a series:
Today, I want to explore special considerations when using archetypes in a series.
Before You Think About Character Arcs in a Series, Think About Plot Structure
At their heart, archetypal journeys are always character arcs—and resonant character arcs are in themselves a well-defined story shape. Shape=structure. Before you dive headlong into archetypal waters, consider the shape of the series you’re about to create.
For instance, will you be telling a story that features episodic standalone entries? This might be the case in a whodunit serial or in a series of interconnected romance stories featuring a new lead couple in each entry. Or are you planning an overarching storyline that features a single cohesive plot across multiple books?
In either case, it is important that all individual books—whether standalone or part of an overarching storyline—are structurally complete unto themselves. What this means in the case of episodes within a larger storyline is that each installment needs to be a structurally complete unit, featuring a “mini” plotline that can be set up in the Inciting Event and concluded in the Climactic Moment, even as other elements of the story are left to develop throughout the rest of the series.
One of the most common problems I see with cliffhanger endings is not the cliffhanger itself, but the fact that the structure was left hanging. This is a sure way to upset readers. They won’t mind if elements of the overarching story are used to create a cliffhanger, as long as there is a sense of structural integrity and completion to the individual episode.
Another common quandary is how to structure the overarching story itself. How does structural timing play into a series? Ideally, the structural timing plays out much the same as in an individual book. For instance, if you’re writing a trilogy, each of the books in the overarching story can function as one of the Three Acts.
If you’re writing a story with a yet-to-be-determined number of entries, this can become much trickier. Ideally, you will at least have a notion of how the series will end so you can create all the necessary setup and foreshadowing in the beginning and plan important structural moments for each book throughout the series. However, the key rule in structural timing is that “the longer the story, the less precise the timing has to be.” This means that in a series of, say, twenty books, it isn’t crucial that the Midpoint happen exactly in Book 10.
Particularly, if you do know your series’ overarching structure, you may find it helpful to consider chiastic structuring. Chiasmus is a technique in which the beats in the second half of the story mirror those in the first half. There is a deeply archetypal quality to chiastic structure, in which all things come full circle, repeating the pattern at a new level of the spiral.
4 Ways to Use Archetypes in a Series
Once you’ve determined what type of series you want to write, you can start deciding which archetypal character arc makes the most sense for your protagonist. For that, I recommend reading the beat sheets of each archetype (or taking the journey yourself in the Archetypal Character Guided Meditations!). Once you know what you’re working with, consider the following four approaches to how to use archetypes in a series so you can determine which feels most resonant.
1. Match the Beats of a Single Archetypal Journey to the Series’ Overarching Structure
The most obvious way how to use archetypes in a series is to tell a single archetypal journey that spans the entire series. For this, you can take the beats of your chosen archetype and apply them to the structure of the series. Your character will complete their archetypal transformation by the end of the final book.
As mentioned earlier, it is still important for each book within the series to offer a complete and encapsulated plot structure, from Inciting Event all the way to Climactic Moment. Because plot structure is so closely tied to character transformation, this means the protagonist will likely experience a “mini” character arc in each book.
One of the most intuitive ways to approach this is to focus the overarching plot and arc of your series on the story’s main thematic Lie and Truth, while the individual installments each tackle a smaller version or “symptom” of the Lie, slowly advancing the character toward the ultimate realization at the end of the series.
When you’re telling an overarching story about a single archetypal journey, you can examine the archetype’s structure to identify what themes might be most important to explore in each individual story’s character arc. For example, if your character is following a Maiden Arc as did most of the young characters, such as Annie, in the series Sweet Magnolias, you can choose to explore a character’s “Protected World” in one book, their “New Identity” in another, their dance with the “Predator” in another, and so on.
This approach is common in plot-driven series, in which most of the story will be focused on external action. If you’re wanting to go deeper with character development, it will often make more sense to explore multiple successive archetypes for the protagonist (see Point #2, below). However, creating the foundation of a single archetypal character arc can bring a powerful depth to a plot-driven story by grounding the action in the archetype’s deep symbolism.
2. Advance the Protagonist Through All Six Archetypes Over the Course of the Series
In contrast to choosing to drill deep with a single archetype over the course of many stories, you can also choose to explore a new archetypal transformation in each new installment. This is a common approach in most series, especially those that cover lengthy timespans and/or put their characters through particularly challenging circumstances.
The beauty of this approach is that each of the six archetypal character arcs aligns with a structural beat.
- The Maiden: Inciting Event
- The Hero: First Plot Point
- The Queen: First Half of Second Act
- The King: Second Half of Second Act
- The Crone: Third Plot Point
- The Mage: Climax
Not only does this make it easier to plan your structural and character development throughout your series, it also offers the opportunity to transform your entire series into a deeply cohesive and resonant journey.
If you choose this approach, it is not necessary to feature all six archetypes. For instance, you may choose to explore only two.
It is also important to note that even though the archetypal progression does align with story structure, you do not have to adhere your series’ structural timing to this alignment. For instance, if you choose to write successive stories that chart the protagonist’s arcs through Hero and Queen, the archetypes themselves need not always be contained to separate books. You can tell a series in which the Hero and the Queen both feature in Book 1, the King features in Book 2, the Crone happens in between books, and the Mage closes out the series in Book 3. (And, of course, you may also choose to feature multiple archetypes within the span of a single book, as does T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which follows King Arthur from Maiden through King).
Series such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender Quartet and Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles follow their protagonists throughout their lifetimes, allowing them to chart through almost all of the archetypes. Similarly, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games trilogy can be seen to successively represent variations on the Hero, the Queen, and the King in each installment.
3. Follow Multiple Character Arcs Through Interwoven Archetypes
By their very nature, archetypes do not exist in a vacuum. We see this most popularly in the Hero Arc, which classically features a Call to Adventure initiated by either a Mage character or his flat archetype partner of Mentor. Once you know what archetypal journey(s) your protagonist will be taking, you can discover which supporting archetypes will be most helpful for your story.
You can also choose to feature concurrent archetypal character arcs for multiple characters. Particularly if you are telling a sprawling tale that features a large cast and/or multiple plotlines, you can access tremendous depth by exploring your story’s theme through the varied lenses of characters who are all experiencing different archetypal initiations.
For example, one of the many reasons The Lord of the Rings is able to offer such incredible symbolic resonance is its concurrent exploration of multiple archetypal journeys. We can see Frodo taking a Hero Arc, Aragorn taking a Queen Arc, Theoden taking a King Arc, and Gandalf transitioning from Crone to Mage (and these are all found amongst many other related flat and shadow archetypes throughout the story).
Thanks to its inherent complexity, this approach is necessarily intensive. The more arcs you follow, the more potential loose ends you will have to bring together in a thematically cohesive finale. However, if you tune in deeply to the archetypes themselves, they will show you how you can weave all of them together in a way that ultimately tells a single overarching story (the story of the life cycle!), rather than many disparate subplots.
4. Feature a Single Flat Archetype Throughout the Series
Finally, you can also choose to feature a single unchanging flat archetype over the course of your entire series.
Flat archetypes are:
- Child (precedes Maiden Arc)
- Lover (precedes Hero Arc)
- Parent (precedes Queen Arc)
- Ruler (precedes King Arc)
- Elder (precedes Crone Arc)
- Mentor (precedes Mage Arc)
They are are most commonly seen in series that feature episodic standalone stories—ones in which the protagonist goes on a new “adventure” in every installment. Characters such as Jack Reacher who travel to new locations to encounter new plot challenges fit this description, as do protagonists in many long-running children’s series and many whodunit detectives such as Hercule Poirot.
However, you can also feature a consistent flat archetype in a more traditional Flat Arc story—in which the Flat Arc protagonist represents the story’s Truth and uses it to initiate the transformations of supporting cast members.
In these stories, the most important archetypal choices are often those of the supporting cast. Writing a truly powerful flat archetype over the course of a lengthy series comes with its own challenges, since by their very changelessness, these characters can sometimes lack dynamism. However, when done well, they are incredibly powerful.
A modern example would be Steve Rogers in the MCU, who holds to the flat Ruler archetype throughout most of the series, while other characters (most notably Tony Stark) change around him and because of him.
The depth available in writing archetypal stories is never-ending. If you choose to go deep with a series, you can explore your characters’ archetypes in so many ways. Understanding how to write archetypes in a series is a powerful step forward in bringing complexity, nuance, and deep thematic resonance to any type of story you may want to tell.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s your best advice for how to use archetypes in a series? Tell me in the comments!
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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland