Replacing The Archetypes

During one of my Hero’s Journey classes a student asked if an archetype can be replaced, for instance by a series of events.┬áVery good question.

And yes, of course it’s possible.

But… Why would you? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The whole idea behind The Hero’s Journey and the insight that most successful stories employ archetypical characters is exactly that: we use the metaphor.

Archetypes are used to get a point across simply, without having to create complicated, realistic situations, so you can focus on what is really important in the story: the main character’s problems and actions, the hero’s journey of change.

Life often lacks archetypes?

In life, stuff is random and we need to analyze and interpret all these events to find meaning in it. If you believe your story is helped by this and you find a fascinating way to emulate reality while still entertain your audience, you have to follow that instinct.

However, in stories usually meaning is highlighted, enlivened and inspired by living characters, so we can focus on what they have to tell us rather than waste time on cracking the code of randomness.

Take the Mentor character. In life, we learn from everything and everyone, every day. Say, someone asks you: “How did you learn to become such a great proof reader?” The answer is probably a combination of sources. But if you want to maintain this level of realism in your stories and explain the detail in order to stick to the truth, your audience will fall like flies.

The Hero Without A Mentor

If in a story a character needs to learn something, the point of the scene is hardly ever really about the teacher character but rather about the actual lesson learned. So the teacher will be a simple, recognizable mentor character.

This doesn’t mean that every successful movie needs a Gandalf, a Merlin or a Dumbledore.

Take for instance Die Hard.

Although Die Hard follows a pretty straightforward Inner and Outer Journey, the first act does not have a clear Mentor character. When John McClane runs up the stairs of the Nakatomi tower to a higher floor to take stock of the situation and he says ‘think, think’, who/what is he consulting? There’s no-one around to tell him what to do. No grey-bearded man in sight.

Not every story needs a Gandalf, a Merlin or a Dumbledore.

He’s effectively consulting his memory, all the stuff he learned at the NY Police Academy. Then he decides to try and get support. So here, the archetype of the Mentor is replaced by McClane’s training as a cop. This is in essence what the student in my class meant: just like in real life, the wisdom the Hero accesses in the moment of decision is not always presented in the shape of an archetypal character.

This is not a mythical way of resolving the situation but it worked fine for Die Hard.

But if you want to make your story mythical and your characters memorable, why not use the power of archetypes? Ask yourself: is replacing the archetypal function going to make your story stronger? If so, by all means go ahead.

Any thoughts or examples from your own stories?

– Karel Segers

Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+. Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia.

Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 5-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens.

He is also the boss of this blog.

5 thoughts on “Replacing The Archetypes”

  1. Sgt Powell is an ally and plot device not really a mentor. McClane needed someone on the outside – so they wrote in Sgt Powell. Is it believable a Sgt would trust him so much? Who knows, but it works enough to make you suspend disbelief and enjoy the action and tension.

    Gotta love Die Hard 1 and 2 (not 3 and 4)

    Yippie kai ay

  2. Sgt Powell kind of acts like a mentor substitute in Act II (his only ally and the voice keeping him sane). There’s a scene where it references John being alone up there and leads to him confessing that his stubborness broke up his marriage – which leads into the throughline that McClane can get a second chance if he faces the challenge and fights for her.

    Then in Die Hard 3 they’re divorced :P

  3. That’s what I mean by Powell being a substitute (as an ally). You ask whether or not it’s believable, but I think its earned during the course of the journey. He even calls Powell his rock at the end and we don’t laugh at it.

    Normally we’d get the mentor/hero lesson learning to help visualise the change. In Die Hard, McClane needs a sounding board to express this. By Powell talking about his own experiences, McClane finally admits to his flaw. Without Powell we likely wouldn’t have gotten this:

    (long pause)
    Look…I’m getting a bad feeling up
    here…I’d like you to do something
    for me. Look up my wife…don’t ask
    how, you’ll know by then…and tell
    her…tell her…I’ve been a jerk.
    When things panned out for her, I
    should’ve been behind her all the way
    …We had something great going until
    I screwed it up…She was the best
    thing that ever happened to a bum
    like me. She’s heard me say I love
    you a thousand times, but she never
    got to hear this…honey…I’m sorry.
    You get all that?

    John McClane can be healed by overcoming the obstacles and get his chance to say it to Holly directly. Powell references this when the three are finally united at the end.

  4. Because Powell is really the sounding board, perhaps he’s a buddy character, despite the distance between the two.

    Powell only enters McClane’s world at the exact mid point (“Welcome to the party!”), which is usually the point where mentor figures start disappearing or dying (Little Miss Sunshine).

    The end of Act Two (McClane’s redemption scene) is often the very last scene in which the mentor has any role whatsoever, because after this the hero has fully transformed and doesn’t need the mentor any longer.

    I don’t think Voytilla (Myths & The Movies) mentions a Mentor in his Die Hard analysis either.

    • Yeah as I said, Powell is substituting so we get that transformation shown. I wonder if we would’ve gotten that if McClane was still mumbling witty one-liners to himself as in the first half.

      I don’t know if it would really feel like McClane. Which is why when he does it with Powell, it feels genuine, coming so soon after Powell’s own confession (earning trust).

      As for the last scene in which the mentor has any role, it’s important to note that after that scene, McClane tries to warn Powell about the roof explosives – but gets cuts off so there’s no further communication between the pair. After that it’s all about stopping the terrorists to save Holly.

      Then finally McClane and Holly emerge from the building where he meets Powell and says:

      “Al. Man, you were my rock. I couldn’t have made it without you.”

      McClane has the boon.


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