Structural Archetypes

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      Join with me in the perils that lie in wait ahead - and be transformed!


      In the book Power Screenwriting: The 12 Stages of Story Development, Michael Chase Walker describes some plot archetypes, beginning with The Hero Myth and moving on to several related forms.

      His words will surely resonate with any dyed-in-the-wool troper:


      These are not just formulas, but principles that have worked since time immemorial. [A plot archetype is] a highly developed, time-honored and impeccably structured means for telling a certain type of story... a neatly assembled arrangement of events so powerful, the sheer use of it will communicate to your audiences the very nature of the conflict ahead.


      Here is a summary of his archetypes:

      Hero and Outlaw

      Walker's first five archetypes detail different sections of Hero's Journey, with a different focus for each archetype.

      The Hero Myth

      This is the complete transformation voyage of the Hero in classical format.

      The Outlaw Myth

      Here, the Hero was halfway through his voyage when he stumbled and fell. We pick up the tale somewhat after that point, when he's already become entrenched in the underworld. No longer does he have the option of completing his quest - but he still has a chance to flee, to return to the surface wounded but alive. He can only do this by clinging to the little virtue he has left. Luckily, in this case, redemption doesn't equal death.

      The Messiah

      The Hero has been fully transformed by a previous adventure that we don't get to see. Now it's time for him to bring his wondrous powers and experience to a new area, clashing with "the prevailing authorities" and acting as a catalyst for change. Bear in mind: He may become a martyr. But his sacrifice will enable others to break free.

      The Vengeful Messiah

      The Hero comes bearing a sword, ready to strike down the unrighteous; his judgment is swift and terrible. However, he will have mercy on those who are not his targets. This is his final act of justice before he departs this realm for good.

      The Blithe Angel

      The Hero comes as a Trickster, upsetting the status quo, unraveling pointless traditions, and showing the tired townsfolk how to enjoy life once again.

      Let's start with the first two, which concentrate on the Hero's transformation voyage.

      The Hero Myth

      We've got this over at Hero's Journey, I think. Walker divvies the story up into The Provincial World, The Magical World of Journey, and The Return World (the same as The Provincial World, only now the glorified Hero has the power to "restore order and guide it into the future"). These three worlds correspond to the three-act structure so common in movies today, with the central act/world being twice as large, twice as detailed, as either of the others. And it's in The Magical World of Journey that the hero "is challenged, purged, dies, and is reborn."

      In a version of the "phases of transformation" from Carol Pearson's The Hero Within, Walker describes the steps thusly: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Innocent/Apprentice, Magician, Wizard. Then he goes on to indicate the steps of the journey itself:

      1. The Miraculous Birth
      2. The Orphan
      3. The Talisman
      4. The World of Origin or Provincial World
      5. The Inciting Incident
      6. The First Threshold
      7. The World of Journey
      8. The Inhabitants
      9. The Journey
      10. The Return

      ...I might come back to expand this later.

      The Outlaw Myth

      In contrast to the Hero's Journey, the Outlaw's Journey is that of a man who "struggles to escape the criminal underworld while clinging to a single virtue" which ultimately will be his salvation, his redemption. Walker notes that the archetype harkens back to the tales of mortals descending to Hell to retrieve loved ones.

      One way of looking at this plot is that it's based on a larger Hero Myth in which the Hero made it into the evil kingdom but got captured, lost, or sidetracked, and only now is starting to remember that he doesn't belong here. He's been sullied, and is no longer in a position to topple the status-quo of the evil kingdom, but at least he can still save himself - if he can manage to get out with one fragment of his virtue left intact.

      It is because of that one virtue, by the way, that we can root for this guy no matter what horrible things he's done. "We will forgive him of almost anything," says Walker, "so long as he wishes to escape and redeem himself."

      Unlike the Orphan of the Hero Myth, who has nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Outlaw has everything to lose if he tries to escape the city he's trapped in. He's been down here long enough that he "has amassed a family, a girlfriend, a child and a small fortune" which "serve to anchor him in his present lifestyle."

      The elements of this plot include:

      The Provincial World

      Instead of being shown, it's referred to by a talisman, a "fading reminder of what he once was".

      The Inciting Incident

      Rather than an act of destiny, it's a window of opportunity - his last chance to escape. Besides having the physical ability to leave (if all goes right), the outlaw may be concerned that his "sense of virtue is slowly dissipating" - if he doesn't leave soon, he'll be just as bad as the rest of the scum down here.

      The World of Journey

      This is the underworld, "a treacherous world of darkness" where all "is done in the name of the Lord of the Underworld." Once our hero decides to make a break for it, all hell is gonna break loose to stop him.

      The Inhabitants

      Friends - foes - it's hard to tell sometimes. Besides, once our hero has shown his opposition to the underworld forces, those who were once his "friends" are going to turn on him. "Betrayal, deceit, fear and self-interest are everywhere. We do not know who can be trusted."

      The Final Threshold

      He's poised at the exit when he discovers - or realizes - that he's left some talisman or loved one behind. Can't go on without them (it would "destroy his virtue") so, "true to his code, he returns to their rescue." He might have to battle the Lord of Hell himself. And if he can't kill him, he'll have to "win some boon in order to leave."

      The World of Return

      Our hero is "finally free of all social obligations, criminal or provincial, and is left to a life of his own creation."

      The Outlaw Cycle

      Some stories pick up just after the end of the Outlaw Myth: Here the guy's finally managed to break free of his criminal associations and is living in a paradise of his own making, content and reasonably happy with his life (even if he's in prison, it's still a form of escape from his former life), and then here comes someone who wants him to head back into the fire, because only his expertise is capable of doing the job.

      Obviously, there has to be a good reason why he can't just sit back and go Somebody Else's Problem.

      The Inverted Myth

      In the previous two myths, we saw the Hero getting transformed during his journey. It's his journey, and sometimes the world around him barely changes at all. At the end, he's transformed, ready to lend his new powers and maturity to the betterment of others.

      The Inverted Myths tackle the next story, when the transformed Hero heads out to transform the world. They do so from different angles, so let's take these one at a time:

      The Messiah Story

      Here we have the transformed hero enter the provincial world "as a stranger with wondrous experience and remarkable powers." He's going to clash with the authority figures, but make friends among the outcasts.

      The Provincial World

      In this archetype, we're dealing with "an advanced society, ruled by three tiers of political power: the prevailing authorities, the marginal powers and the oppressed insurgent rebels." The Messiah counters all of these, because he represents "spiritual power" and liberation, whereas all these earthly powers seek to subjugate - to "oppress, control, or enslave."

      The Prevailing Authorities

      An "elite foreign government" who want to maintain status quo so they can continue to exploit the commoners. They care about riches, not people. They're powerful and confident.

      The Marginal Powers

      These are those who are "most threatened by the arrival of the orphan/magician wanderer," since they are even more power-hungry than their rulers are. This category covers the bureaucrats, as well as those who turn against their own kind to work for the overlords in the hopes of getting favors.

      The Insurgent Rebels

      Seeking to overthrow the Prevailing Authorities. They might be "likable, well-meaning, and more noble than all the others," but they still seek to force their will onto the common folk.

      The Orphan / Magician / Messiah

      An idealist who wanders into town. He is "a champion of the poor and underprivileged, as these are the good souls who have fed and clothed him along the way." Also, to a certain extent, he might be The Fool.

      Disciples and Adversaries

      Betrayal, Persecution, and Judgment

      Death and Resurrection

      ...will fill this in later.

      The Vengeful Messiah, aka The Angel of Death

      Here the hero transforms the world by righteously destroying the wicked. Just as importantly, he must allied with the outcasts, sparing the righteous. Walker claims that many such tales ring hollow because they neglect this second half of the equation.

      ...will fill this in later.

      The Blithe Angel, aka The Angel of Mercy

      Here the "divine rascal" enters the provincial world that clings too tightly to the old traditions and the strict interpretation of the law. The antagonists here aren't villains per se, and they do mean well - mostly - but they need to be shook up for the good of the entire town.

      ...will fill this in later.

      One excellent example of this tale is found in the movie Chocolat.

      Other Structures

      The Way of the Fairy Tale

      ...will fill this in later.


      ...will fill this in later.

      So there you go: plot archetypes, as compiled by Michael Chase Walker in Power Screenwriting.

      This summary is of one chapter in:

      Power Screenwriting: The 12 Stages of Story Development, by Michael Chase Walker. Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2002.