Critique Group

Wizards, Wizened Old Fools, and Obi-Wan

In Blog Hop, Dawn Allen on April 5, 2013 at 11:20 pm

From the beginning of our time on this earth, we have been driven by commonalities that we share and recognize around us. This happens on such a subconscious level that rarely do we recognize that we are doing it. When we see a certain character and we’re drawn to him or her, we can’t really put a finger on why, we just know something in that character rings within us as familiar and comforting. Such is the link of archetypes.

Archetypes are common character types, symbols and relationships that appear often in stories modern and ancient. From the Greek word arkhetupos meaning “exemplary.” Throughout literature we have seen the wizened old man, the earth mother, the mentor, and that most famous of all, the hero. One of the important things to remember about archetypes is that readers are drawn to them, but they must be lightly crafted or the character easily slips from archetype to stereotype. A reader wants to recognize some element of himself in the character; but when a character falls to stereotype, the reader does not want to find themselves thinly drawn.

Did you take last week’s quiz? How did you do?

  1. George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life: George is a flawed man who is at heart a good man. The story allows us to find the flawed hero in ourselves. It’s a wonderful feel good story because this archetype works.
  2. Tony Soprano from The Sopranos: This was a big one for my grandmother who felt that these horrid shows perpetuated the ‘myth’ that all Italians are gangsters. This was another successful show, well-written, and obviously people were drawn to it. However, Tony Soprano as a character was little more than the stereotype of the gangster image of the Italian mob. 
  3. John McClane from Die Hard: The deeply flawed cop who has devoted himself to much to his job and lost himself and his family in the process is a well-played archetype. This action series has worked well in spite of plots you could fly 747s through and actions scenes that crash past straining credibility to setting fire to it and watching it burn. We continue to go and watch because we want to see John persevere another day. If John can, we can. He’s made us believe. 
  4. Neo from The Matrix: The Christ figure is a prolific one in literature. The idea of one person sacrificing themselves for everyone else. Watch any disaster film, and you’ll find this archetype. Rarely are they well drawn but they are nearly always present. Neo is an interesting choice because unlike most Christ figures, he’s reluctant, unsure, lacking confidence, and not a believer in the beginning. Those qualities help the character avoid the stereotype trap.
  5. Obi-Wan from Star Wars: The mentor, the aging wizard who has brought the hero from boyhood to manhood, is a popular archetype. From the beginning of time, man has relished the mentor relationship. Obi-Wan is nuanced and gives the mentor/teacher role the depth required for archetype.
  6. Jack McFarland from Will and Grace: Nothing perpetuates negative stereotypes of a cultural group like Hollywood. The image most people had of a gay male was cemented in stone by the character of Jack McFarland. You could love the character (and I did) but he was outrageously and sadly stereotyped.
  7. Bilbo from The Hobbit: Bilbo was not a typical catalyst hero. He sets events in motion, not so much purposefully, but as a matter of course. He’s there, it’s ordained, it happens.
  8. Lestat from The Vampire Chronicles: He’s not a brooding, secretive sticks to the shadows kind of guy. He likes the limelight, he’s childish, so he in some ways is the anti-vampire. He breaks from the stereotype enough to avoid the label.
  9. Niles Crane from Frasier: A wildly popular show, the Frasier men were the essence of adult nerds. The guys who’d been picked last for kickball, shoved in lockers in school, and never got the girl, were suddenly doctors and successful and wealthy men. It should have placed stereotype on its ear.
  10. Gandalf from The Lord of the Ring: Another example of the wizened old wizard who serves as mentor to the heroes, he is little different from any other example of this archetype. From King Arthur’s Merlin on, the wizard character’s role is a simple one. Gandalf fulfills it with little fanfare. Nothing really stands out for him as different making him as much stereotype as archetype. 

Writing characters that lean toward a comfortable archetype but avoid the stereotype trap is a lot about the nuances. Making sure the character is complex and made up of more than the archetype. Do you have a favorite archetype? Mine is from Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, and he calls it the Threshold Guardian. I like this archetype because the hero must decide to kill or befriend this archetype in order to move forward in his journey. The difficulty for the hero is in determining which of those things the TG deserves.

What’s your favorite archetype?



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