Story Archetypes that Make Your Novel Resonate
Humans have been using story archetypes to tell stories since we evolved the ability to speak. We have been writing them down since we invented the ability to write in the Bronze Age, four thousand years ago.
Ever since then, people have competed to tell stories to each other. In four thousand years we have told a lot of stories. The best storytellers and entertainers became legendary. Their stories have become immortal. Why is that?
Because they used story archetypes: characters and plots that will always resonate, as long as humans are human.
Story Archetypes: the Building Blocks of Fiction
We call the classic characters and situations story archetypes. Story archetypes are the building blocks of fiction: they come up again and again. They’re powerful because they’re universally understood at a deep, instinctive level – human nature doesn’t change and stories are, and always will be, about human nature.
The story archetypes were old when Sophocles used them, so they’re ancient now. But it doesn’t matter, because we can rearrange the building blocks and tell the same old human stories, but in new ways and in new settings.
The Eight Key Story Archetypes
The guide to story archetypes below will explain what the building blocks are. That will start you on the path to using them to make your novel resonate with the reader on a deep, instinctive level.
Protagonists are responsible for most of the action in a story, they take the risks and reap the rewards. As well as physical challenges, Protagonists must also change and grow. The reader must like (or at least sympathise) with the Protagonist. Heroes, heroines and warriors are all types of protagonist.
In spy fiction, James Bond is a perfect example of the Protagonist story archetype.
A Quest is the archetypal journey the Protagonist must undertake to gain a Prize. The action of the story is the Protagonist moving toward the Prize and overcoming the challenges that keep them from it. Good stories have external and internal challenges for the Protagonist. While the external challenge is exciting for the reader, the internal challenge makes the reader care about the Protagonist.
In spy fiction, the Jackal’s attempt to assassinate the President of France (The Day of the Jackal) is a perfect example of the Quest story archetype.
The Antagonist is the primary obstacle to the Protagonist’s successful completion of their Quest. Antagonists should be strong enough to give the Protagonist a worthy opponent. The Antagonist doesn’t have to be external; they can be the darker, more negative side of the Protagonist, that they are trying to suppress. The best Protagonists, and the best Quests, have internal and external Antagonists. Something to remember when creating your Antagonist is that to the Antagonist they are the Protagonist.
In spy fiction, a perfect example of the Antagonist story archetype is Goldfinger in the novel and film of the same name.
The Prize is what the Quest is all about. It can be a person or an object, something internal or external, anything that the Protagonist wants to win, achieve, find or defeat. Whatever the Prize is, the Protagonist must really want it and be ready to go on a Quest to gain the Prize. Remember, the Antagonist must also go to great lengths to stop the Protagonist gaining the Prize
In spy fiction, a perfect example of the Prize story archetype is the submarine Red October (in The Hunt for Red October).
Guardians provide obstacles the Protagonist must overcome as they strengthen themselves for the final battle with the Antagonist. Guardians are stepping-stones and can be Allies or Enemies. As Protagonists defeat Enemies and recruit Allies, they become stronger, and move forward in their Quest.
In spy fiction, a perfect example of the Guardian story archetype is Toby Esterhase in Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy.
The Mentor is a positive figure who aids or trains the Protagonist. The Mentor gives advice and gifts that will help the Protagonist on their journey. Again, the Mentor does not have to be external; it could be the better side of the Protagonist or their conscience.
In spy fiction, a perfect example of the Mentor story archetype is M in the James Bond books/movies.
The Herald is the harbinger of change who delivers the Quest to the Protagonist. The Herald can be a character or an event. Often, the Protagonist refuses the Quest to start with. Then something persuades or forces them to accept it, setting the scene for their internal struggles later.
In spy fiction, a perfect example of the Herald story archetype is Colonel Radl in The Eagle has Landed.
The Trickster embodies the energy of mischief and the desire for change. Tricksters cut big egos down to size and, provide comic relief. They also make fun of hypocrisy. The Trickster’s loyalty and motives can be in doubt: is the Trickster an ally, an agent of the Antagonist or do they have their own agenda? The Trickster’s true motives remain in doubt.
In spy fiction, a perfect example of a trickster is Werner in Len Deighton’s Game Set and Match trilogy.
The Shapeshifter can be fickle, two-faced or bewilderingly changeable and bring suspense to a story. If you find yourself wondering if a character is an Ally or an Enemy, that character is probably a Shapeshifter.
In spy fiction, a perfect example of the story archetype Shapeshifter is Rita in Cypher.
The Archetypes Defined
So, we have defined the eight key story archetypes we need to know about: Protagonist, Quest, Antagonist, Prize, Guardian, Mentor, Trickster, Shapeshifter. The examples have started to explain how authors have used them in classic spy fiction.
I use the Archetypes in my series of articles on Creating an irresistible Elevator Pitch.
If you’d like to discuss my ideas about story archetypes, please email me. Otherwise, please feel free to share the article using the buttons below.