Saturday, December 10, 2011

Writing and the Archetypes: Are They the Best for Developing Characters?—Part 2

So, in part 1 of this 3-part series I introduced the concept of the archetypes and why writers use them. And, like I said there, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why archetypes might be useful tools for developing characters in fictional settings.

But, here’s the problem: they’re not characters, they’re archetypes!

This is the essence of the problem. Archetypes are by definition not people. They are aspects of people, aspects of being human, aspects of … you get the point (actually, it's the other way around ... we're aspects of the archetypes!). Archetypes make for great traits, characteristics, qualities, but they do not make for whole characters. They make pieces of characters.

Stories are about us. Stories are about human beings and the human condition. Every story, any story, all stories MUST be about a person on a journey. If the story is not about a person on a journey it is not a story, it is something else: a situation, a problem, a predicament to be solved, whatever; but it’s not a story (I’m sure I’ll get some mail on this one).

A human being is a character. A character has traits-characteristics. The human is an aggregate of behaviors and these traits-characteristics. Taken separately (i.e., an archetype) these traits-characteristics-behaviors cannot standalone. They do not have choice, they do not have will, they cannot act in pursuit of a goal, they cannot be flawed by some moral conflict that speaks to some inner lesson to be learned (or not). Only a fully formed human being, a multidimensional person, a protagonist can stand alone to drive a narrative forward. Archetypes help, but they do not drive. Motivation drives a story and a protagonist. Motivation is the crankshaft of every story (or at least the best kinds of stories). Archetypes reflect motivation (i.e., a trickster is motivated to trick), but they are shadows in this regard. Without human desire and choice the motivation is shallow and thin. Only a human gives meaning, significance, and purpose to motivation—not archetypes.

So, herein lies the problem. All those great writers out there who have written books on this, who have built careers on pushing the archetypes as the foundation of all storytelling, who have banked their entire story-development theory on the primacy of archetypal development are not bad and wrong, but they are gilding the lily in my opinion. You can write a great trickster character, but that will take you just so far. You can write a great villain, but that will take you just so far. You can write a great ally, but—

Maybe this metaphor will help clarify the relationship between a pattern (archetype) and the thing is generates (human being):

Say you are a knitter and you want to make a quilt. So, you buy a knitting pattern that comes in the mail and when it arrives you open it and hold it in your hand. You are not holding a quilt, you are holding a patten for a quilt. The pattern is a piece of paper with instructions, knitting code, and directions: i.e, it is an abstraction of something it will help to create. It is the raw material for making a "real" quilt, which is something you can use to warm yourself or lay on a couch to look pretty for the neighbors when they come over to spill coffee all over it.

Let's take this one step further. You are a writer (okay, a stretch, but go with me) who wants to write a story about a quilt. Which is going to be the most useful to you as a storyteller: the abstract pattern, or the physical quilt? Obviously the latter and not the former. Having a big, warm, wooly quilt gives you a fully dimensional object that you can describe and interact with as a writer. A pattern for this object cannot do those things; it's just a pattern.

And so the difference between the Enneagram and the archetypes. The Enneagram is the fully dimensional and realized object that functions in the world with form. The pattern (archetype) is the function without form. The pattern is essential, the pattern will inform, the pattern will guide, but the pattern is not as rich or useful as the thing it helps to create. Patterns can exist without the things they represent. The things they represent can not exist without the patterns. We can't exist as human beings without the archetypes, but they can exist (and do) without us.

And this is how using archetypes as the foundation of story development can derail and undermine your process, rather than support it. Using patterns of human behavior to cobble together a whole character is not unlike a Victor Frankenstein approach to storytelling. You can't piece together a great character or a great story like a quilt.
You must find the crankshaft for motivation and you must find it in the full dimensionality of a protagonist, if he-she is going to drive a story from beginning, through the middle, to the end. Archetypes give wonderful, recognizable, and universal conceits all humans can recognize despite culture or upbringing. But they can’t carry the narrative. For that you have to find what I call the “narrative crankshaft."

In the world of character development (and in story structure, in my opinion) the best tool for discovering, developing, and implementing motivation in a narrative is the Enneagram System. The Enneagram is, in fact, the best tool available for describing human motivation and its related behaviors—period. This is why it has become one of the most popular tools today used by therapists, organizational development consultants, coaches, and a host of other personal-growth and business-development gurus.

I can already hear the objections. “Oh, really? So, all the other personality-typing systems out there (MBTI, DIsC, BPP, etc.) are all chopped liver?” No, of course not. But, they are personality-typing systems. They do not cover motivation; they describe behaviors and traits, not unlike the archetypes. The Enneagram System is not a typing system (despite what many Enneagram practitioners think). It is a holistic paradigm for modeling what motivates human behavior, thought, and feeling in all realms of life. That's what makes it such a gold mine for writers and storytellers. And this is the essential difference between the Enneagram and all other "personality systems," including the archetypes.

When it comes time to write a story and develop characters, a writer needs to be able to see the whole picture, not just the pieces of what is under the hood. Archetypal models won’t do the job, nor will running characters through some personality-typing test. What will do the job, however, is the Enneagram because only the Enneagram shows you the crankshaft for human personality; it is not personality, but it is the driver of personality. The Enneagram, not the archetypes, drives human action and thus creates the narrative crankshaft responsible for driving a story from beginning to end.

In part 3 of this series we’ll look at the Enneagram more specifically and why it is not only a fantastic tool for character development, but also for discovering a story’s natural, right, and true structure. This is something I call the Enneagram-Story Bridge™ and it can be the springboard for liberating any constrained writing process.

Big words, I know. But, it’s a pretty big bridge.


Anonymous said...

Will we ever see Part 3 of this?

Jeff Lyons said...


YES. Thank you for pushing me a bit on that. :)

Jeff Lyons