Great characters don’t exist only to entertain—they have a point.
What makes your favorite character so great?
You might list attributes, or favorite lines, or endearing scenes. You probably identify strongly with him.
And these answers would all be right, if incomplete. Because you don’t love your favorite character for his attributes only; you love him for his role in the story, too. His role and symbolism are equally meaningful things that make him dear to you and your own life story.
In his excellent book The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler describes the eight archetypes, or functions, of characters in a story. He shows you that characters aren’t there for wit alone, but actually advance stories and symbolize realities. They are, as Vogler says, the “infinitely flexible language of character.” They tell us a lot about the hero, the story, and even about ourselves.
Here are the eight most common character archetypes. Characters often contain a few of these archetypes at once, and the great stories usually have all or several of them:
You know this one: the Hero is the character whose desires drive the story forward. He must accept the call to adventure and become separated from the life he was familiar with in order to face an ordeal. Of all the characters, he learns and changes the most.
His whole purpose is to give us a “window” into a particular narrative. We identify with him because each of us is the hero in our own story.
This is the character who teaches the hero or gives him special gifts that will help him at key moments as the story unfolds. The Mentor often serves as the hero’s conscience (think of the ghost of Hamlet’s father) and even as a healer.
In the good stories, Mentors never give their wisdom or gifts away—the hero earns it through some brave or admirable action. Mentors symbolize the nobler, wiser, and even divine aspects of our souls.
3. THRESHOLD GUARDIAN
Whenever we commit to change or adventure, we immediately encounter resistance. This is the function of the Threshold Guardians: testing. While not being the Villain, Threshold Guardians often have a symbiotic relationship with him. They provide warning for when the hero has crossed boundaries and moved from his former life into a new phase or special world.
Threshold Guardians symbolize our neuroses, fears, and wounds. It’s up to the hero to outwit or overcome his guardians, or to become them for a brief time in order to surmount the first obstacles and continue his journey.
Act One usually contains some initiating action that challenges the hero and calls him to adventure. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, it comes in the form of French ambassadors and a mocking “gift” of tennis balls, provoking the king and motivating him to fight.
Until the Herald arrives, the hero has coped his way through life; now he must commit to growth and change. The Herald tells both the hero and the audience that things are about to get real. Change is coming.
Heralds can come in all shapes and sizes; they need not be a character only. They might be an event.
The idea that you should get in touch with your “masculine” or “feminine” side actually has old roots in storytelling. The Shapeshifter archetype symbolizes the opposite sex aspects of the hero that he must learn and appreciate in order to grow. Think of Henry V when, after killing other men in the rain and mud at Agincourt, he must win the heart of Catherine through gentleness.
The Shapeshifter introduces doubt into the story through characters who aren’t what they seem, or who change constantly. But, if the hero is patient, “the truth will out.”
The Shadow archetype is often a villain, but not always. It can also exist within characters as the negative or even positive aspects of something that have been repressed or ignored. Villains express the energies which oppose the hero’s desires and aspirations, though sometimes Allies (we’ll get to them in a moment) can do this as well by playing the role of a rival after the same good.
However the Shadow manifests itself, its sole purpose is to challenge the hero—and to flare up his deepest trauma and guilt in the process. In Much Ado About Nothing, the villain Don John not only tries to destroy Hero’s and Claudio’s relationship, but strikes at the softest part of any relationship: trust.
Allies have many functions in a story. They fulfill mundane tasks and carry messages, but their most important function is playing a foil to the hero. Characters like Falstaff or Lear’s Fool are funny, but they also draw out the human and emotional qualities of the hero. They reveal his dimensions and challenge him to be reflective and balanced.
Allies can also ask questions on behalf of the audience to reveal important information about the world in the story.
The Trickster’s most obvious role is comic relief. He’s the unpredictable wild card, the loose cannon, the prankster. He’s also the one who humbles the proud and brings perspective into drama’s emotions and angst. He symbolizes change and the futility of the status quo. The gravedigger in Hamlet is an obvious example. Although his knavery nearly earns him a beating, he catalyzes the moment of perspective: Hamlet’s encounter with death through the skull of an old friend.
Once you understand the functions and symbolism of characters, going to the theatre or reading plays is much more interesting. It gives you an insider’s understanding on how and why good stories work, and what sets the great plays apart from the bad ones.
“Every good story,” Vogler writes, “reflects the total human story, the universal human condition of being born into this world, growing, learning, struggling to become an individual, and dying.” Within these archetypes you’ll see other people, and you’ll recognize aspects of yourself. You contain, as Whitman says, “multitudes.”
And once you start experiencing the stage and its stories accordingly, it will never be the same again.
This article is part of an August series on theatre, hosted by the Play and Create channels at Humane Pursuits. Read more here.