Masks, Archetypes and Metaphors [and why the Donald doesn’t don]

In this post, I want you to bear with me, as I meander through Covid-19, The Don and masked superheroes, to finally demonstrate how masks and metaphors improve your screenplay.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mask

Early in the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, some governments recommended against wearing masks for reasons you may have read in the media at the time. I followed that science, and didn’t wear a mask.

It felt wrong, as I belong to a white minority in an overwhelmingly Asian suburb of Sydney, where face masks had been commonplace long before Covid.

But there was another reason I felt naked without a mask.

“In Asia, masks aren’t just shields. They’re also symbols. They’re an affirmation of civic-mindedness and conscientiousness, and such symbols might be important in other parts of the world too.”

[from this article]

So, I caved in, and googled “best face mask”.

(The first result came from the WHO … or maybe not:

surgical mask

The Don don’t don

“I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know. Somehow, I don’t see it for myself, I just don’t.”

It was one of the Donald’s classic quotes, and at its core it debunks what others have said was the reason for his refusal.

The real reason had nothing to do with the coronavirus, and everything with the mask as a symbol.

The function of a face mask in a pandemic is clear: to protect you. But Trump was more concerned about its symbolic power. The mask as a metaphor.

If you need a mask for protection, you’re weak. You’re a loser. And we all know what Trump thinks about losers. After all, his favourite movie is Citizen Kane. (Not Little Miss Sunshine.)

So, the Don doesn’t don.

What is remarkable about this attitude is that he completely misses the point about when metaphors matter, and when they don’t.

trump mask

There may be a symbolic value, but wearing a face mask during a pandemic is first about the literal application of a piece of cloth to your face, so you don’t get sick.

If Trump mistakenly responded to the metaphor instead of the science, well, somehow he didn’t get that, either.

Another missing mask

To fulfil a public function and serve the people means to step out of yourself, and essentially become someone else. This is why superheroes wear masks.

The mask as a metaphor signals the new role you are willing to play. It transforms, and transcends.

When Peter Parker puts on his Spider-Man mask, his actions change, and he becomes your friendly neighbourhood hero.

Trump however, refused to act presidentially.

Now here’s the thing: Trump wanted to play president. He loves all the peripherals and paraphernalia that come with it.

Only, he may have the courage of the knife, but lacks that of the blood.

He wanted to live in the White House, have the power to make Big Decisions, and meet important people. These things are peripheral to the job, and have little to do with serving America. They are just the mask; not what it stands for.

Imagine if Spider-Man were to don his suit, yet continued acting like a dork. That’s Donald Trump.

But given that the man is out, let’s focus on what matters now.


guy fawkes mask, a metaphor


What is your mask?

Although you are reading this, you are likely wearing the mask of the writer. You are approaching this text with the question “how can this help me write better stories?”.

The biggest decisions in your life show the mask you’re wearing.

When I decided to move to a different suburb, I wore the mask of the father, because I wanted my son to be able to walk to school.

These days, my writer’s mask is important enough to get me out of bed earlier than normal, and write before doing anything else.

Masks and metaphors define our relationship with the world.

Joseph Campbell asked: what myth do you live by? Once you’ve picked, your myth comes with a mask.

To live by a myth, you abide by its laws, and you act out its rituals. That’s the mask, right there.

But if the mask is just a metaphor, how does the world know which one we’re wearing?

Well, this brings us to storytelling.

writer with Scream mask

Archetypes, Masks and Metaphors

People recognise our mask by the actions we take.

Because you know your screenwriting stuff, you know how an audience understands a character: through their actions.

The way we perceive someone’s actions will determine our relationship with that person, and the mask we project onto them.

Just like we relate to other people through the mask we wear, we relate to them through the mask they are wearing.

For characters in stories, this goes in the exact same way.

Your characters are playing a role. They fulfil the role that best suits them for the purpose of your story. We have a word for that: archetypes.

On the people who raised us, we see the mask of the parent. Someone who shares their experience with us wears the mask of the mentor. The person we are attracted to dons the mask of the lover.

Our characters, too, behave in ways that represent their archetypal function, i.e. their particular relationship with the Hero.

The Shadow is the antagonist, usually representing a character trait the main character suppresses. The Herald brings the news of the inciting incident, the Trickster pokes fun at the main character’s flaw, etc.

Sometimes these archetype coincide, as archetypes or masks can overlap; they are malleable.

It is essential that the audience sees the same mask we envisaged when we wrote the character.

For each character in your story, the relationship with the main character needs to be clear.

How do we create this crafty stuff?

masks and metphors - surgical masks during Covid-19

Creating Masks and Metaphors

Making our characters wearing their mask is easier than telling people to stay protected. Writing archetypes is mostly an unconscious thing. But it does help to ask yourself what the main function of a particular character relationship is. Then, to work with it consistently.

You can actively reinforce a character’s mask by aligning every aspect: physiognomy, sociology and psychology.

This aligning explains why mentors are often older people with the function of parent or teacher, and why lovers in movies often look attractive to all of us.

We experience a great story from the POV of the MC. This means that we need to understand the archetype of each character in the same way the MC does.

When you’re writing original material, you design your characters to support the overall story. You give them the most effective mask to wear.

For adaptations, you have to figure out the mask for each of the existing characters, and decide if it supports the story you would like to tell.

For true stories, it may be even harder. Sometimes we need to give characters different masks, or remove them from the story because no dramatic mask fits the real-world character.


masks and metaphors - horror character with mask


Changing Faces

Most characters keep their masks on. They don’t fall out of character, or change their roles.

But when your MC goes through an arc, and changes their world view; inevitably the way they look at other characters will change, too.

This is when you see characters shapeshift.

Remember Lotso Bear from Toy Story 3, or Colonel Quaritch from Avatar? Both are initially mentors, but as the MC sees the world in a different way through the second half of the story, these characters take on a different mask.

In other words: as we change our look on the world, our view on the people in it will change, too.

masks and metaphors in toy story 3 - Lotso Bear and the mask of the shadow

What You Need To Remember

In our stories, all characters need masks.

The clearer the archetypal role they play in the story world, the better the audience will understand their relationships, and the emotions that go along with them.

In life, know your masks and metaphors. And when you wear yours, wear it with pride and responsibility.

Respect the traditions that come with it, so that those around you understand what you want to achieve, and who you’re trying to be.

You want to be a leader? Then lead. You want to be a president? Be presidential.

You want to be a writer?

Wear the mask, and write.


3 thoughts on “Masks, Archetypes and Metaphors [and why the Donald doesn’t don]”

    • You’re still a better writer than me, Valerie!
      I didn’t publish anything here between March and now. It’s a disgrace…


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