How Can Carl Jung’s Theory of Archetypes Help You in Your Creative Writing?

Nancy B. Alston

Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “archetypes”. An archetype may be defined as “a universally understood symbol or term or pattern of behaviour”. If you read Robert McKee’s Story, you will find that the key to writing a great novel lies in “building archetypal elements into the story.” So what exactly are these “archetypal elements”? And how exactly can they help creative writers?

Let me give you a few suggestions of archetypes from my own reading and observation:

1. The indissoluble partnership on the quest: This pair is hard-wired into our unconscious – Character A is the one on whom the gifts and the destiny have fallen; and Character B is the unfailingly loyal and faithful companion who provides essential moral, emotional and psychological support, without whom character A could not succeed. We see this working out in the following pairs: Frodo and Sam; Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson; Arthur and Merlin; The Doctor and his companion.

2. The animal spirit guide/messenger. We see this in the story of Siegfried (one of the four parts of the music drama The Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner). As Siegfried waits for the dragon to appear he notices a woodbird in the tree,which he befriends; when he fights the dragon its blood burns his hands; licking them, he tastes the dragon blood and can understand the woodbird’s song. He follows its instructions to take the Ring from the dragon’s hoard. Philip Pullman extended this idea in his use of animal daimons in His Dark Materials trilogy; Mrs Coulter has her golden monkey, and Lyra her marmoset, Pantalaimon. Here the animal is like an externalised part of our unconscious. The Bible of course makes use of this too by giving the Dove a key role as a guide; and as a symbol of peace, love, the Holy Spirit. Another example is the Raven. “To have a raven’s knowledge” is an Irish proverb meaning “to have a seer’s supernatural powers”. The Raven was banished from the Ark by Noah – but it returned later on in the Old Testament to feed Elijah in the wilderness.

3. The saintly fool / the one who is without guile – this appears in the story of Parsifal again dramatised by Wagner in his opera of the same name. The fool himself, Parsifal, personifies goodness. The quality of simplicity and purity of motive appears in many characters such as the Chaplain in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22. However, Heller develops the chaplain to the point where he discovers his innocence has become irrelevant; he’s disorientated by a world where killing has become a virtue. His original purity of motive, however, provides a strong emotional charge to the novel. So too does that of the character Dilsey, the black servant in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The simplicity of her approach to faith holds her together, in stark contrast to the other characters.

For a novel to be lifted from the merely “good” to the “great”, it must incorporate archetypal elements. How can we do that? By studying great stories until this becomes part of our own subconscious as we plan and create our own.

SC Skillman

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