Embracing Archetype

Some time ago, there was a story I wanted to write about an event that happened in my life. In writing it, there were some things I knew would need to be addressed, particularly because the urge to write the story occurred long after the event had taken place. The first issue raised is that my memory is fairly poor, so the dialogue would have to be largely recreated with the essence of what happened kept in mind. That didn’t bother me so much as actual living conversations and well crafted dialogue are rarely the same thing. The second thing that was important to me was capturing the realities of a character that was based on a human being I had interacted with. While the story itself would be fictionalized, the reality of this character being based on a living individual concerned me. I wanted to write this character as well as I could.


The story, in short, was about a young high school student who gains the attention of an upper-class girl during track practice. For reasons that are unclear to the protagonist, this girl takes a liking to him and the two form a bit of a bond. The story was meant to evoke a kind of uncertainty that is very specific to newly teenage boys. Throughout the story, the girl gives the boy an incredibly generic nickname, “Kid”, talks to him about the kinds of music he should enjoy while offering him rides home, and plays a little into a provocateur personality. Writing this character was a challenge because while the inspiration did stem from a real person, I never did really get to know that person. All I had to go on were the few conversations that took place, the few moments shared in the midst of rapidly changing life events.

I finished writing the story, but was never really satisfied with it. Although I had tried my best to tell a story I thought was worth telling, none of it ever seemed to fit together in a way that felt compelling to read. I think it’s because of archetypes, or more accurately, a lack of them. Because of the nature of the story, it hadn’t ever entered my mind that the characters I was writing fit into a mold. In truth, it’s nearly impossible not to write into archetypes. Since storytelling has its roots set very deep into the social nature of our existence, it’s come to the point where the vast amount of material to draw from contains just about everything we are capable of coming up with as storytellers.

A happenstance rewatching of a Japanese animated show I had enjoyed in my youth called Outlaw Star brought me to realize that not only was my story tired, but so were my characters. In that show, there is a character who goes by the name “Hot Ice” Hilda. Using a pseudonym, Hilda employs the main characters, Gene and Jim, and ends up being the catalyst for the entire series. It turns out Gene has dreams of becoming an outlaw and making it big, but lacks a spaceship, as well as the inner drive necessary to go after his dream. His brash attitude basically acts as a barrier to hide his underlying fears of going into space. For Gene, Hilda encapsulates what we wants to become. She’s a serious force to be reckoned with. He constantly hears about her through the mouths of peripheral characters, and her reputation really has an effect on how he views himself in relation to the universe.

Hilda, herself, is a compilation of archetypes and tropes. While all of them have their own parts to play in making up the entire character, her relationship to Gene is the one that caught my attention. Hilda appears to be between five and ten years older than Gene, she does what Gene hopes to do to a large degree, and she doesn’t have any qualms about her place. She is genuinely confident, intelligent and feared. It dawned on me so suddenly that this was a lot like the character I had written. Like my character, Hilda openly criticizes the main character, Gene, with little regard for his feelings, yet there is a healthy dose of endearment to all of the criticisms. Hilda also takes Gene under her wing a bit in preparing him for life as an outlaw the way the character in my story acted as a bit of a life coach to an upcoming young high school student. Additionally, it is heavily suggested in Outlaw Star that at one point Hilda and Gene sleep together. While the story I wrote was devoid of any sexual encounters, there is certainly an aura of physical attraction, at least from the protagonist’s perspective. Both of these characters not only shared some personality traits, but also were ultimately created to serve as a catalyst for the protagonist to become something he wasn’t yet.

I did a fair bit of searching and was unable to come up with a name for the specific archetype I had stumbled into, but I am convinced that the archetype exists. Once the archetype had been realized, it made that story I had written so long ago seem much more interesting. Again, it was because of Hilda. Although created completely as a means to an end in setting the story in motion, Hilda goes far beyond the confines of cliche. Her personality is far reaching. The reputation she has, all of the bit characters that know who she is, and the thoughts she conveys all speak to an individual motivated by her own desires. While she ends up sacrificing herself shortly into the series to allow Gene and the rest of the crew of their newly stolen ship to escape (a popular trope in its own right), you never get the feeling as a viewer that she existed solely for this reason. In a flashback to a night that Hilda and Gene spend together, she tells him that “You can never count on anyone but yourself, but sometimes you just want to feel the warmth of another body, you know?”. It might not be the best line, but it carries enough weight with it to suggest that a full person is there.

It came time for me to figure out whether or not my own characters had gone beyond the archetypes that had been the platform. In terms of the main character, no. He was about as lifeless a protagonist as once could write, completely missing any redeeming qualities. The attempt to put the reader in his perspective by having very little dialogue himself felt far more alienating that inclusive. Of course, looking back, that story never really was about that character, anyway. So what of the girl? Well, my story spanned about three pages, so based only on how much time the character had to develop, she doesn’t stack up to Hilda. She was created with serving the needs of the “main character” in mind. One of the biggest gaps is a result of the two characters never really interacting with anyone else. The story was supposed to be about a unique connection between two people, but unfortunately, those two people alone were not written in a way that made them compelling enough on their own.

Unlike Hilda’s reputation being spoken by a breadth of other characters, the boy in my story never has an outside source about this girl to supplement what he takes in from their direct interaction. The world of that story is so confined that a thorough exploration of character was impossible. The reader is left trying to interpret the cues from the very bland third person narrator as well as what’s spoken by the character. What they get are the archetypes without the variations that can make them truly unique. That’s what writing is supposed to do. Since it’s a foregone conclusion that you won’t be able to write a person that shares no similarities with uncountable other characters, the point then is to give them life in a way that only you can. In my case, it might have been that the girl rolled her socks down one handed after putting on her track spikes. That is the essence of characterization, finding the space within the narrative to give insight into the individuals you imagine. While I mostly failed to do that in a way that would have saved the story, it wasn’t completely absent. Despite the girl exuding as much confidence as I could fathom to write, there was one moment in their conversation where she mentions her boyfriend will probably be attending the local college the following year. While the line itself suffered from the same lack of care as the rest of the story, there was a hint of both relief and worry in that line. Perhaps with a more skilled hand, the individual lying underneath the shadow of the archetype may yet still be able to express herself.

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  • Response
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