Over the last three weeks I’ve blogged about the nexus between certain well-recognized Archetypes and the story structures that go with them. I’ve reviewed the Hero’s Journey, The Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption. There are, undoubtedly, many more story patterns that fit specific archetypes.
But what if you’re writing a story about a protagonist that doesn’t quite fit the archetypal pattern of a Hero, Virgin, or Sinner?
What if your main character is a Sidekick? Or a Mentor? Or a Networker? Or a Judge? Or, the list goes on. . .
In an earlier set of blogs, I wrote about using the positive and negative behavioral traits of Archetypes to develop character arcs, independent of the rigid structure imposed by the beat sheets of The Hero’s Journey, The Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption. For many authors, the detailed beat sheet is of no help at all in plotting or navigating through a novel’s story. These authors need a structure that’s much simpler, more free-form, and in many ways more creative.
That’s where the classic three-act story structure is all about.
You can find all kinds of writing and advice on three-act structure. I’m a big fan of Michael Hague and his wonderful workshop on these topics in which he outlines the connection between story beats and character arc.
In Hauge’s take on story structure, a story’s Main Character needs to move from his “identity,” which is the mask he shows the world in order to deal with a wound he’s suffered in his backstory, into his “essence,” which is the fully realized, authentic person that he needs to become. Take a look at the video clip in which Hague discusses the Main Character’s “inner journey.”
If this sounds a lot like the Virgin’s Promise, or the Sinner’s Redemption, or even the Hero’s Journey, it’s not surprising. All good stories tell a tale about a Main Character who changes because of the action of the story. The Hero proves his manhood. The Virgin empowers herself. The Sinner sees the error of his ways. So it’s fair to say that the detailed beat sheets of the Hero’s Journey, the Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption all follow a basic structure, that’s usually presented in three acts.
Now, here’s where I’ve added to Hague’s ideas by using behavioral archetypes to help define a character’s identity and essence. Since every character archetype comes with both positive and negative behaviors, I can use the archetype to develop an arc that takes a character from the dark side of his archetype to the light side.
To give you an idea of this shadow and light quality of archetypes, here are a few:
A Liberator has the ability to free himself and others from outmoded forms of belief. But a liberator can also impose his own tyranny over the very people he tries to liberate. Could you write a story about a liberator who learns not to impose his will on the people he’s trying to set free?
An Engineer gives creative energy a practical form. He has a talent for designing solutions to common problems. But an Engineer can also rely on mechanical means, and have no regard for emotional consequences. Could you write story about an Engineer who has to learn compassion?
An Athlete is dedicated to transcending physical limitations and developing personal willpower and strength of spirit, but an athlete can also misuse his ability for personal gain, or have a false sense of invulnerability. Could you write a story about an Athlete who values money before the love of the game?
A Sidekick is loyal, unselfish, and tenacious. But a Sidekick’s loyalty is usually be so large that he never moves on to find his own fulfillment. Could you write a story about a Sidekick who becomes a Hero?
I hope you answered yes to all these questions. And, just for fun, I’ve used the archetypal shadow and light behaviors of a Sidekick along with a basic three-act story structure to come up with a quick synopsis of a Sidekick story. Here it is as a series of story beats.
A Sidekick Story
ACT I Introduce the Main Character and his goal or problem.
INCITING INCIDENT The story begins when something changes in the Main Character’s circumstances. This could be like the Hero’s call to adventure. Or the Virgin’s opportunity to shine. Or the first messenger that arrives at the Sinner’s door.
We see Sidekick in his ordinary world, being the sidekick to the local Cowboy Hero. He’s loyal and unselfish, but he’s also not moving forward with his life, because, well, he’s a Sidekick. But suddenly the Hero comes down with the flu.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD For the first one-quarter of the story, the Main Character deals with the change in circumstances. He may try to ignore it, he may refuse the call, he may miss the point. While he dithers things get worse, until he finally makes a decision to do something.
Someone needs the Hero’s help, and the Sidekick dithers around feeding the Big Guy soup, but it’s not working. Someone needs to rescue the Rancher’s Daughter, and the Sidekick finally decides that he’ll have to do it because the Hero is out of commission.
Act II Through a series of events the Main Character learns about himself. (Moves from identity to essence.) He must overcome obstacles and challenges using methods that are new and different for him.
THE FIRST PINCH The Main Character faces a problem he must overcome. The problem is relatively easy, but it will require the Main Character to learn something new about himself.
The Sidekick goes to the neighboring town to talk to the Rancher. The Rancher isn’t so sure the Sidekick is all he’s cracked up to be. But with a little bit of fast-talking, and a mask, the Sidekick convinces the Rancher that he’s the real deal Cowboy Hero, here to rescue the damsel in distress. During this encounter the Sidekick learns that he can be as charming and articulate at the Big Man himself.
THE MIDPOINT The Main Character faces a much bigger problem in which he will have to learn something very important about himself. Michael Hague would say that the character would have to move into his “identity” during this period. The Hero gets the “magic elixir” here. The Virgin is caught shining. The Sinner meets the avatar of goodness.
The Sidekick tracks the bad guys to their lair and through a stellar display of cunning and bravery he rescues the Rancher’s Daughter. And he’s pretty impressed with himself because he did it single-handedly. Something the Big Man can’t do since the Cowboy Hero always has a Sidekick – namely him. Maybe the Hero’s success has been dependent on him from the beginning?
THE SECOND PINCH The problems facing the Main Character are getting more and more complicated. He continues to learn stuff that will bring him further into his “identity.” But the stakes are getting much, much higher.
Things get more complicated because the Rancher’s Daughter is cute and he likes her. A lot. And she’s smitten with the Sidekick who she thinks is the Hero. Which is kind of a problem. Nevertheless one thing leads to another and they make love. In the heat of passion the Sidekick says something that the Rancher’s Daughter interprets as “I love you.” (Of course a Cowboy Hero would never, ever do any of this, because, well, he’s a Cowboy Hero and always gets the bad guy but never gets the girl.)
ACT III Something happens and even though the Main Character has grown as a person, he will still fall back on his old ways of thinking and reacting. This will cause a huge crisis that he must resolve.
THE CRISIS Something happens which forces the Main Character to forget everything he’s learned through the course of the story. He reverts back to the person he was at the very beginning. (Hague would say he moves away from his essence back into his identity.) From an archetype perspective this means he moves from the positive qualities of his archetype back into the negative ones.
The Sidekick returns home to find the Hero fully recovered from the flu. The Hero is fine with the fact that the Sidekick rescued the Rancher’s Daughter, but when she arrives in town expecting the Hero to fall on his knee and propose marriage, the Sidekick is in deep trouble. The Rancher’s Daughter discovers the Sidekick isn’t who he said he was. And the Cowboy Hero feels betrayed because we all know Cowboy Heroes don’t ever get the girl.
THE RESOLUTION All appears lost, but somehow the Main Character gets his act together, jettisons his fears, remembers what he’s learned about himself and fully embraces his “essence.” When he does this he is able to resolve the crisis.
The Sidekick loses his job and the Hero’s trust, but maybe that’s not the end of the world. After all, he could have the love of a wonderful woman, and he’s proven to himself that he could do the Hero’s job. There are plenty of Western towns that need a guy like him. And he could hire his own Sidekick. So he jumps on his horse, catches the Rancher’s Daughter, professes his love, kisses her senseless, and they ride off into the sunset together.
The simple three-act structure above can be used to write any kind of story. And if you combine it with archetypal behaviors that were first outlined by Carl Jung, you have some very powerful tools for brainstorming story and character arcs.
I also think that this less rigid beat sheet is perfect for writing a synopsis or coming up with a brief outline, especially if you’re a seat of the pants plotter who doesn’t want to know every scene before you write it. In fact, the story beats I’ve outlined above, if you put them in paragraph form, would create a very short, but complete, synopsis for this Sidekick story.
Even though I consider myself a tiny bit OCD when it comes to plotting stories, the truth is that I use the three act beat sheet way more often than I use any other story structure because I find that it’s the most fluid and liberating, and the best structure for synopsis writing.
Thanks for tuning in to this blog series. It’s been fun to write. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below.
And if you’d like to learn more about this topic, I’ll be teaching the three act structure and archetypes at RWA’s convention this July in San Diego. I’ll also be teaching a workshop on this topic for the Virginia Romance Writers in October.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve discussed the story beats that make up the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise. Today, I’m going to introduce some original work on an archetypal story structure that I call The Sinner’s Redemption.
I don’t believe anyone has laid out the beat sheet for a redemption story, but I could be wrong. I haven’t done an exhaustive literature search for this. What you see below is a story beat sheet that I developed myself.
What is it about redemption stories? We love them. We tell them all the time. And like any archetypal story structure, readers recognize the structure. Classic examples of redemption stories include: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment, A Christmas Carol (and the many spin-offs of it including It’s a Wonderful Life), as well as many sports comeback stories like Bad News Bears.
Like the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise redemption stories are perfectly fitted to a specific protagonist archetype. Theoretically a redemption story can be told about any person with any kind of archetypal behavior system, but usually redemption stories involve protagonists who are Misers, Addicts, Rakes, Harlots, Thieves, Villains, Vampires, Shapeshifters, Zombies, or Biker Boys with Tats. But for the purpose of simplicity, I’m going to call the protagonist archetype a Sinner.
In short, redemption tales usually begin with a protagonist who has already fallen from grace, or who, like the Ancient Mariner, commits a crime and falls from grace in the first few scenes. Unlike the Hero who start his story in an “ordinary world,” or a Virgin who starts her story in a “dependent world,” the Sinner begins his tale in a “miserable world.”
Here are the story beats for a Sinner’s Redemption, using examples from the movies It’s a Wonderful Life and Electric Horseman.
Example: Electric Horseman
Example: It’s a Wonderful Life
THE MISERABLE WORLD
The story starts in one of two ways:
The Sinner has already fallen from grace and is living in a world that is cold, bleak, dark, and divorced from all things spiritual. He is unkind, uncaring, craven, and values all the wrong things, just like Ebenezer Scrooge
The Sinner falls from grace. The Sinner is not a bad guy, but he (or someone close to him) makes a spectacular mistake that puts the Sinner into a miserable world.
Sonny Steele is a five time all around rodeo champion. At the end of his career he takes a job with AMPO, a giant corporation, to pitch their breakfast cereal. Now he’s trotted out in an electric cowboy suit and paraded around at rodeos. It’s a humiliating fall from his former glory.
George Bailey is a good man, but his bumbling uncle has lost the Savings and Loan’s money and a bank examiner has just arrived to audit the books.
WEARING THE ALBATROSS
There are three possibilities for this story beat: 1) The Sinner will assume the guilt and all the responsibility for his fall from grace. In fact he wallows in guilt. 2) He might be like Ebenezer Scrooge so far gone that he doesn’t even recognize how miserable he is, and he delights in being a real villain and ass, or 3) He will find himself in a state of utter despair.
Sonny is so humiliated by his life that he takes to the bottle. He drinks all the time, and is often so drunk that he can hardly stay on his horse when he has to do personal appearances.
George assumes the blame for the missing money. He knows he’ll be sent to jail the next morning because he has no way to replace the missing money. He despairs.
REJECTING THE MESSENGER
In redemption stories, there is a benevolent force at work behind the scenes determined to redeem the Sinner. The Universe of Goodness will send the Sinner a messenger, designed to shake him out of his misery. The Sinner usually ignores or misses the message the first time it’s delivered. But like Scrooge encountering Marley’s ghost, the message often makes the sinner uneasy or angry.
At a corporate wide event in Las Vegas, Sonny is late to a press conference. Reporter, Hallie Martin, out for a good story, asks him a question that pierces his armor. He dodges the question, but it shakes him up.
George is beside himself. He goes home to his wife and family only to discover that his daughter Zuzu is sick. She is there to remind George of what he holds dear, but George misses the point, and instead, he yells at Zuzu’s teacher when she calls to see how Zuzu is feeling. Zuzu gives George a token of goodness in the form of the petals from her broken flower. He puts the petals in his pocket before he dashes out of the house desperate to find a solution to his problem at the bank.
THE VALLEY OF LIFE AND DEATH
About ¼ of the way through the story, the Sinner leaves his miserable world and enters into the Valley of Life and Death. In some redemption stories, like A Christmas Carol, this is a paranormal purgatory where the rules of physics do not apply. In other redemption stories, it’s a metaphoric valley. This place may be divorced from society, or it may be more akin to a secret world. Scrooge is allowed to visit his past and future life in a dream world. The Ancient Mariner is stuck on a death ship with the souls of his shipmates. In Les Miserables, the Sinner is sent to jail.
The PR department introduces Sonny to their new corporate symbol, a million dollar race horse named Rising Star. The company has sedated the horse and done other things to it jeopardize its health and wellbeing.
Sonny, who has been happy to take money in return for being demeaned, is suddenly unable to let AMPO do the same to Rising Star. So Sonny steals the horse and rides him off into the Nevada desert, a metaphoric Valley of Life and Death.
George tries to raise the missing money from Mr. Potter, who only points out that with George’s life insurance policy, George is worth more dead than he is alive.
George enters the Valley of Life and Death by contemplating suicide.
A GUIDE WILL APPEAR
The Sinner will not face the Valley of Life and Death alone. He will either be guided through it like Scrooge with the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, or the Sinner will journey with someone whose main story purpose is to make him review the choices he’s made during his life.
The police and Ampo are on Sonny’s tail, but they have no clue where he’s gone.
Hallie, the reporter, is way smarter. She talks to Sonny’s cowboy friends, learns something about Sonny’s past, and goes off to find him.
When she finds Sonny, Hallie discovers that he plans to release Rising Star somewhere out in the wilderness. She talks him into letting her tell his story. Hallie and Sonny team up and begin a trek across the wilderness together. In this redemption story, both Hallie and Sonny will review their respective lives while they travel cross-country on foot.
Heaven sends Clarence, an angel-in-training, to stop George from killing himself. Clarence who knows all about George’s past, decides to show George what the world would be like if George had never been born. Together they take a tour of an alternate Bedford Falls, where the villain, Mr. Potter, is in charge of things.
MEETING THE AVATAR OF GOODNESS
While the Sinner is wandering in The Valley of Life and Death being forced to review his life and the choices he’s made, he will encounter at least one Avatar of Goodness whose fate rests in his hands. Scrooge had Tiny Tim. Jean Valjean had Cozette. Often this Avatar of Goodness is innocent, naïve, and even Christ like.
As they trek across the wilderness, Hallie digs deeply into Sonny’s past life. She meets some of his friends along the way and comes to realize he’s a better man than the drunk she first met. Sonny learns a lot of about Hallie ,too, and makes her reevaluate the reasons she wants Sonny’s story. For Sonny and Hallie, their Avatar of Goodness is Rising Star. As they tend to the horse, he gets stronger, and their motivations for setting him free gets strong as well.
George Baily encounters himself. Oddly, in this redemption story, the Avatar of Goodness is the protagonist, whose life and choices have changed the course of history in the small town of Bedford Falls.
HE SEES THE ERROR OF HIS WAYS
At the close of the Sinner’s journey through the Valley, he has come to see how his past choices may not have been good ones. And he wants to save and/or help the fate of the Avatar of Goodness.
For a while it looks as if AMPO and the police are going to get the drop on Sonny, because, early on, Hallie gave them information about the place Sonny intended to set Rising Star Free.
But at the last minute, Sonny reveals the release point for Rising Star, and its hundreds of miles away from where the cops think it’s going to be. Together Sonny and Hallie release the horse, and agree that the true location doesn’t ever need to be disclosed.
George is shocked and horrified by what Clarence has shown him. He comes to understand that his life means something. Suddenly George finds himself back on the bridge where he’d been thinking about ending it all. He reaches into his pocket and finds Zuzu’s petals.
It’s not enough for the Sinner to see the errors of his ways. Only an act of true repentance or forgiveness will allow him to move on. Scrooge wakes up from his dream and immediately buys a turkey for Tiny Tim and his family.
Hallie comes to realize that there are some stories that are not worth telling to the world. She gives up her story, and she asks for Sonny’s forgiveness. Sonny forgives Hallie, and as she gets on a bus to return to New York, we know that Sonny’s days of selling himself to corporate America are over. He’s ready to face the penalties for having stolen a twelve million dollar horse, and he’s moving on with his life.
Even though George is facing prison time, he knows the answer isn’t suicide. He must go home and face his problem head on and accept the punishment.
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF THE MUNDANE
The Sinner’s world remains the same as it always was to everyone living in it except the Sinner himself. When the Sinner sees the error of his ways and repents, his miserable world is transfigured and becomes holy. The Sinner emerges from the Valley of Life and Death into a world that is as close to heaven as any world can get.
Hallie has seen things a girl from New York never knew existed. Her view of the world has radically changed. She sees beauty in things she never saw before.
Like any good Cowboy, Sonny heads off into the sunset with his head held high. He’s no longer a puppet of corporate America, but even more important, he’s preserved a piece of sacred nature by releasing Rising Star into the wilderness to run free.
George runs through Bedford Falls like a mad man, even though he knows that tomorrow he’ll be charged with bank fraud. It’s almost as if George is seeing the town for the first time.
When he arrives home, he discovers that all the people whose lives he’s touched have banded together to raise the funds George needs to replace the missing money.
So there you have it –The beats for the Sinner’s Redemption. I can think of many other stories like this: Crime and Punishment, The Family Man, The Shawshank Redemption, The Mighty Ducks.
And – wait for it – the first book in my new series, A Christmas Bride, that will be available this coming September. In that story, a widower is living in a miserable world, no longer able to hear the messages that this eight year old daughter is trying to send him. . .until the his deceased wife’s best friend returns to town, gets all up in his face, and forces him to take a good long look at his life and the mistakes he made during his first marriage. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s a redemption love story, set during the holiday season. And it was during the writing of this book that I realized that most redemption stories have a structure to them that is repeated over and over again. And while the character arc for my heroine is probably more of a Virgin story, the much bigger character arc of the hero in this book is definitely a Sinner’s redemption. In fact, the first comment my editor made in her revision letter, was “wow, the hero’s arc is the biggest one you’ve ever written.”
Yeah. Because it’s a redemption story.
Next week, finding the story beats when your story isn’t a Hero’s Journey, a Virgin’s Promise, or a Sinner’s Redemption.
In last week’s blog I discussed the Hero’s journey and the nexus between certain character archetypes that are so well-recognized that they come ready-made with their own set of story beats. The Hero’s Journey as interpreted by Chris Vogler in his book on screenwriting (The Writer’s Journey), has been so widely read that it’s often offered up as the only pattern for stories.
But anyone who writes romance knows that the hero’s journey isn’t a good fit much of the time. It’s hard to see how Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty, or Belle from Beauty and the Beast fit the Hero archetype. None of these protagonists go out into the world for the purpose of proving their mettle. None of these protagonists have battles with villains, although they all face antagonists. None of these protagonists assemble a group of allies. And even if we go beyond fairytale protagonists, it’s hard to see how Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennett fit the Hero archetype, much less the main characters from movies like Sleepless In Seattle or While You Were Sleeping.
Not surprisingly all these protagonists are women, and although it is possible to have a female Hero, there is something quintessentially male about the hero’s journey. Perhaps that’s because the hero’s journey is based on the study of myths from largely male-dominant cultures.
It should come as no surprise that Joseph Campbell–a male– had a blind spot in his research. He studied myths but he ignored fairy tales — told by women for millennia and equally as pervasive in the human experience.
A few years ago Kim Hudson undertook an effort to develop a set of story beats that fit the uniquely feminine stories that are found in folk tales and fairy tales. Her book The Virgin’s Promise is a wonderful counterpoint to the Hero’s Journey.
The Archetype she uses is the Virgin – a person (not necessarily female) who is inexperienced and dependent. The Virgin’s story is one of empowerment. Unlike the Hero, who leaves the comfort of his ordinary world in order to test his meddle and eventually save the world, the Virgin is living in a world that’s holding her back from her true, authentic potential as a human being. She doesn’t leave her world and come back changed. The Virgin’s story is all about how she empowers herself and thereby changes the world she’s living in.
Below you’ll find the story beats for the Virgin’s Promise, but a word of warning. Virgin stories are not like Hero stories. A Hero story moves from one beat to the next in a logical order. Virgin stories don’t necessarily do that. Because they are stories of empowerment, and because they are uniquely female, they are less linear. But each of following story beats is usually present in a Virgin story. If you’re creating a beat sheet, you do not have to put the beats in the order I’ve listed them below.
Here are the story beats for the Virgin’s Promise, using Cinderella and the movie While You Were Sleeping as examples.
Example: While you were Sleeping
The Virgin is living in a kingdom in which she is either dependent on someone for her well being or so lost to herself and her inner dreams that she’s sleeping through her life.
Cinderella is an orphan child who has been reduced to the role of servant in her father’s house. She is dependent on her evil step mother for her survival.
Lucy is a toll taker on the Chicago Subway. She dreams of traveling, but she never goes anywhere. She dreams of a true love, but she’s alone.
THE PRICE OF CONFORMITY
Because the Virgin is dependent, she must conform to the rules of her world or face the possibility of losing something important to her. It could be a roof over her head or the love of her family. The bottom line is that the Virgin is living a life of servitude, in which her kingdom tells her what to do and who to be.
Although her stepmother and stepsisters are mean to her, Cinderella does their bidding because if she were to stop, she would lose the roof over her head. (In addition, Cinderella wrongly believes that if she works hard enough she will earn her step mother’s love.)
Because she has no family, Lucy is always the one who has to work on holidays.
OPPORTUNITY TO SHINE
Something happens that gives the Virgin an opportunity that she wouldn’t ordinarily have. This opportunity is like an escape hatch out of her dependent world.
The Prince is having a ball. All the single girls are invited. That includes Cinderella.
On Christmas Day, Peter, the man she’s been fantasizing about, falls to the train tracks. Lucy saves his life but his fall has put him in a coma.
DRESSES THE PART
The Virgin will change her appearance in order to take the opportunity that has been offered. She might dress like a boy. She might take off her clothes all together. She might work on a dress for the ball.
Cinderella dresses for the part in two places. First she begins to alter one of her mother’s old dresses in order to attend the ball. And, of course, after her step mother ruins that dress, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother give her a new, much more magical dress, that allows her to go to the ball.
A mistake is made, and the hospital thinks that Lucy is Peter’s fiancé. Lucy figuratively dons a mask.
Emboldened by her suddenly awakened dreams, the Virgin creates a secret world in which her dreams can thrive.
Cinderella continues to secretly work on her ball gown, dreaming of what it might be like to go to the ball and dance with the Prince. After she meets the Prince she also dreams of marrying him.
Peter’s family arrives at the hospital and immediately embrace Lucy as his fiancé. She plays the role and pretends.
NO LONGER FITS WORLD
By spending time in her secret world the Virgin is empowering herself. She begins to see possibilities that weren’t there before. She tries to juggle both worlds, it becomes clear that she must make a decision, but she’s angst-ridden over it. She may become confused or reckless or attract unwanted attention to herself.
Cinderella begins to believe that she has a right to go to the ball. And despite the extra work her step mother piles on, she continues to work on her dress.
Lucy goes to dinner and a holiday celebration at Peter’s parent’s house, where she falls in love with Peter’s family. But the next morning Peter’s brother, Jack, arrives and he’s immediately suspicious. Juggling the lie becomes difficult as Jack tests her. But Lucy begins to fall in love with Jack.
Reality intrudes, and the Virgin must face the fact that she can’t keep her two worlds separate. Her secret world and the real world collide with the feared consequences. Also, the Kingdom is not happy to discover that she’s dared to dream.
On the night of the ball, Cinderella puts on her party dress and expects to go with her stepmother and stepsisters. But, of course, her stepmother is furious to discover that Cinderella dared to dream that she was good enough to go to the ball. So her stepmother rips up the dress.
Peter wakes up. He can’t remember being engaged to Lucy. Everyone thinks he has amnesia.
His godfather encourages him to love Lucy. Peter agrees and asks Lucy to marry him.
GIVES UP WHAT HELD HER BACK
A major turning point, in which the Virgin sacrifices some part of her past in order to move forward toward the future. She recognizes that she’s been paying a price for conformity that is way too high, and comes to realize that she is entitled to more.
Cinderella has a low point after her dress is destroyed. But her Fairy Godmother arrives on the scene and tells her that she is entitled to a night at the ball. She dresses the part again, and goes back to her secret world, dances with the prince, and begins to harbor another secret much more dangerous. That she could be a princess.
Peter’s marriage proposal changes everything. Lucy could choose to tell the truth and go back to her world taking tokens and being lonely, or she can say yes to a handsome and rich man. She agrees to marry Peter.
KINGDOM IN CRISIS
When the Virgin changes and demands something better, a ripple goes through the kingdom that throws everyone into crisis. Not just the Virgin, but everyone around her.
Cinderella leaves the ball at midnight when the magic wears off. She’s back in her dependent world, but she left the glass slipper and a lasting impression on the Prince, who throws the kingdom into chaos because of his desire to find his true love.
But Lucy doesn’t love Peter. She loves his brother. And Lucy’s impending marriage to Peter throws Jack’s world into chaos, because he loves Lucy.
WANDERS IN THE WILDERNESS
The Virgin, as much as she would like to stand up and leave her dependent existence, is suddenly afraid. She’s not sure she can make it on her own.
Cinderella goes back to her life of servitude. And while the prince is running around trying on the glass slipper, she allows herself to be locked away. She momentarily accepts the fact that she will never have a chance to try on that shoe.
Lucy is determined to go through with the wedding, but there are several moments when she gives Jack a chance to profess his love. He doesn’t, because he’s loyal to his brother. But this hurts Lucy. She’s more determined than ever to marry Peter.
CHOOSES HER LIGHT
The Virgin will finally decide to trust herself and pursue the dream that’s she’s been nurturing. She knows this will upset the order of things, but she’s no longer willing to maintain order at the expense of her own fulfillment.
Cinderella defies her step mother and asks for a chance to try on the shoe
The day of the wedding arrives. Lucy is all dressed up in her white dress. She goes down the aisle, but she can’t go through with it. She tells Jack she loves him and she tells the entire family the truth about the mix-up at the hospital. She has lost the family she’s grown the love. But she has chosen to trust herself. She’s going to go traveling. On her own.
THE KINGDOM IS REORDERED (Rescue)
The Virgin has claimed personal authority over her life. The Kingdom must: a) recognize her value when she’s fulfilling her dream and b) reconnect the Virgin to a community.
The shoe fits. The Prince asks Cinderella to marry him. She goes to live in the castle.
But before Lucy can leave her job, Jack and his family arrive at the toll booth. He professes his love and asks her to marry him.
THE KINGDOM IS BRIGHTER
In the end the world has changed. Evil has been overturned. And the world is brighter because the Virgin is now living a true, authentic life.
The evil stepmother and step sisters are thwarted and must live in a world in which Cinderella is no longer a servant but a princess.
Lucy marries Jack and she becomes a member of the family she has come to love. Jack takes her to Italy on their honeymoon, fulfilling one of Lucy’s biggest dreams.
A Virgin’s Promise story lies at the heart of many romance and women’s fiction novels as well as romantic movies. This is a uniquely female pattern because it’s a story of someone caught in servitude who breaks her chains and becomes the person she was fully meant to be.
Next week, we’ll discuss redemption stories, a story beat structure that’s essential to know if you’re writing Christmas stories or sports stories.
Human beings have been telling stories since the dawn of language. Some stories have been told so many times that their structure and main characters have been hardwired into the human consciousness.
A smart writer can use this to advantage. Knowing the most beloved characters and their story patterns, can be a huge time saver when you’re sitting down to brainstorm your latest novel. Today’s blog, and the blogs that will follow on the next three Thursdays, will explore the nexus between character and story, by looking at some of the story patterns that have been with us since the dawn of time.
Before I start, two definitions are in order.
Story beat is a term that comes from script-writing. A story beat is scene or collection of scenes that moves the narrative from point A to point B. All the action occurs during story beats, and scriptwriters start plotting their stories with something they call a beat sheet, which is nothing more than an outline of the scenes in the movie and the action that occurs in each scene.
Character Archetypes come from the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who postulated that certain human behaviors are hardwired into our “collective unconscious,” because we’ve encountered them in life or in fiction over and over again. The King, the Warrior, the Magician, and the Sidekick are all familiar character types that have built in behavioral traits that readers immediately recognize because all human beings recognize these characters.
Some characters are so universal that they come ready-made with a series of story beats. The character archetype called the Hero (capital H to connote that we’re talking about the character archetype and not the male lead in a romance story) is perhaps the best known of these. His set of story beats was first outlined in the work of Joseph Campbell who studied the myths of many different cultures and discovered that the story beats in all of them were the same.
Chris Vogler, a scriptwriter for the Disney Studios, took Joseph Campbell’s work and turned it into a writing manual for Disney scriptwriters. The manual was so popular that he eventually turned it into a book called The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Vogler’s book should probably be in every fiction writer’s library of craft books, especially those writing action adventure stories, suspense stories, or science fiction stories.
Let’s look at the Hero’s Journey.
First of all, it’s important to understand that the standard story beats in the Hero’s Journey only work for a main character who is a Hero. The Hero of a Hero’s Journey story can also have the behavioral traits of a King or a Warrior or a Lover or any other standard archetype, but once you put a character into the standard beats for a Hero, he automatically becomes that archetype.
A Hero is a main character who leaves his/her comfort zone in order to face a series of tests in which s/he proves his/her mettle and quite possibly saves the world. You will find Heroes in all the myths of classic literature and in a lot of today’s comic book movies. Ulysses is a Hero. Luke Skywalker is a Hero. Dorothy Gale of the Wizard of Oz is a Hero. The clown fish in Finding Nemo is a Hero. While the word Hero is masculine, it is possible to write a Hero’s Journey for a female protagonist.
Here are the story beats for a Hero’s Journy for in short form, using the original Star Wars: Episode 4 as an example:
THE ORDINARY WORLD The Hero is introduced against the backdrop of his environment.
Luke Skywalker is living his life with his aunt and uncle on a backwater planet. His uncle buys two androids to help with chores around the farm.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE Something happens that changes the Hero’s situation.
While cleaning and checking the androids, R2D2 delivers part of a message from Princess Leia that is meant for Obiwan Kenobe.
REFUSING THE CALL The hero is afraid of this change in circumstance and tries to ignore it.
Luke suspects the droid is damaged. He doesn’t take the message seriously.
MEETING THE MENTOR Someone older or more experienced comes along and encourages the Hero to answer the call. The mentor will provide advice or training.
R2D2 escapes from the Skywalker farm, and Luke has to chase after him. This brings him into contact with the old Jedi Knight Obiwan Kenobe where Luke learns about the Force, and the fact that his father was a Jedi Knight.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD About one-quarter of the way through the story something happens that forces the hero to commit to leaving his ordinary world and entering a new world with new rules and values.
After his meeting with Obiwan, Luke returns to the farm only to discover than his aunt and uncle have been killed by the Emperor’s evil forces. He must answer the call now.
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES The Hero meets friends, battles enemies, and is tested.
Luke, Obiwan and the droids go into town looking for transit. They have adventures in the bar, where they team up with Han Solo and Chewbacca. It isn’t long before they are dodging Han Solo’s enemies as they take off in the Millennium Falcon headed for the planet Alderon.
APPROACH TO THE CAVE The Hero and his new found allies prepare for a big battle that will take them into the enemy’s or antagonist’s lair.
Obiwan teaches Luke about the Force during their voyage to Alderon. When they finally the arrive, they discover that the Evil Empire has destroyed all traces of the planet by using it’s latest weapon of mass destruction — The Death Star. The Millennium Falcon is unable to escape and is drawn into the Death Star.
THE ORDEAL Near the middle of the story, the Hero, enters the enemy’s lair and faces death. Out of this ordeal, the Hero will learn something important about himself. He may also come away with an important artifact or prize.
Luke and his friends hide from the Imperial storm troopers. Obiwan goes on a mission to disable the Death Star’s tractor beam. Meanwhile Luke and his friends go deep inside the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia. Obiwan has a final battle with Darth Vader and is killed. The rest of the allies escape.
THE REWARD The hero and his friends celebrate their victory. But the celebration is short lived.
Luke and his friends manage to escape the Death Star, perhaps too easily. They go to the rebel base but it turns out that Darth Vader has put a tracking device on the Millennium Falcon.
THE ROAD BACK About three-fourths of the way through the story, the forces aligned against the Hero make their presence known. The Hero must prepare for a final battle with his antagonist or his enemy.
The Death Star is gunning for the rebel base. A countdown to annihilation has begun. The only hope is if the small band of X-wing fighters can torpedo one tiny spot on the Death Star that it it’s only vulnerability.
DEATH AND RESURRECTION At the climax, the Hero is severely tested to the point where it looks as if he will fail and maybe even die. To get out of this, he may need to make a sacrifice. Or he may need to use knowledge that he’s learned during his adventures, particularly during the Ordeal.
The rebel forces mount an attack on the Death Star but their efforts are failing. Many of them die.
After Luke fails on his first bombing run, he decides not to rely on his fighter’s instruments. Instead he lets the Force guide him. Once he follows the Force, he is successful in taking out the Death Star.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR The Hero returns home or continues his adventure, but he is forever changed because he has proved his mettle and learned something as a result of his adventures.
In the final scene we see the rebel forces rejoicing and Luke getting medals for his efforts, but we know that Luke is different now that he’s learned the power of the Force.
The table above is a simple example of a beat sheet. If you want to use the standard story beats of The Hero’s Journey, create a spreadsheet or table like the one above, with the story steps on the left, then number your scenes on the right, making sure that the action in each beat, matches the standard story pattern.
Beware! Some people – Joseph Campbell himself – will try to tell you that every story fits this pattern. And that’s just not true. Not every story is a Hero’s Journey. In fact, if you write romance or are telling a Cinderella story, the Hero’s Journey is not particularly helpful.
Cinderella is not a Hero. She’s not a character from out a myth. She’s a character from out of a fairytale. And if you think about it, you already know that a myth and a fairytale are two different things, even though they are both as old as storytelling.
Fairytale structure is next week’s topic, so stay tuned. In the meantime I’m happy to take any questions.
I was a little stunned at how popular this particular blog became, not only among our diverse readership, but within the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood itself. Our Yahoo email loop kind of exploded for a day or two, especially when Darynda Jones emailed me (publicly) and asked me if I could use the Caroline Myss archetypes to describe Mr. Darcy, the original romance hero from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Have I mentioned that P&P is one of my all-time favorite books? So naturally this was a challenge I couldn’t resist. I immediately fired off an email, which sparked more discussion on our Yahoo group. Eventually the Sisters insisted that I turn my email into a blog post.
So, here it is, a slightly edited version of the email I sent to Darynda in answer to her question about Mr. Darcy’s archetype.
I just flipped through my deck of archetype cards and I think Darcy would be some amalgamation of a Judge or Mediator. A Judge balances justice and compassion. But on the negative side a judge offers destructive criticism. A judge also mediates between people, and Darcy certainly did a lot of that.
The Mediator archetype is similar to the judge. A mediator negotiates fairness in personal and professional life, and has respect for both sides of an argument. The shadow side of a Mediator negotiates with an ulterior motive.
When you consider the way Darcy convinced Bingley to leave Netherfield because Jane was an unworthy match, you can clearly see how Darcy was both a judge and a mediator. And, of course the title of the book gives you a clue, since we’re talking about pride and prejudice. Darcy spends a lot of time judging people.
This points out something I didn’t say in my blog post — you don’t have to give your character just one archetype. Characters can have more than one. You can blend them. The archetypes are there to help you brainstorm at the beginning, and analyze at the end so you are sure you’ve got a memorable character with lots of layers. I always give each of my main characters one archetype and then one of the “child” archetypes. There are several: wounded child, nature child, magical child, eternal child, orphan child, divine child. I think Darcy is probably a Magical Child. The shadow traits for a magical child are pessimism and a disbelief in miracles. By the end of Pride and Prejudice Darcy is closer to believing that anything is possible. So he moves through an arc that takes him from the negative traits of his archetype to the positive traits of it.
Also, by giving each character a “child” archetype you can brainstorm a backstory for them that explains why they have these positive and negative traits.
By the way, since we’re talking Pride and Prejudice, I would probably say that Elizabeth Bennet is a Rebel. She challenges authority and rejects spiritual systems that do not serve her inner needs. Just think about Lizzy’s verbal zingers and her determination to marry for love and not for money. And think about how the social system reaches out to grab her at the black moment and potentially destroy her future. Her willingness to tell Lady Catherine off at the end of the book underscores the fact that Lizzy is most definitely a Rebel. She’s also probably a wounded child, which means she had to deal with a seriously dysfunctional family.
So, there you have it, a perfectly useless (but really fun) exercise in analyzing the archetypes used by another author.
So here’s a challenge just for fun. Follow this link to the Caroline Myss archetypes and try to analyze your favorite book boyfriend. Post the results below.
I’ll sweeten the pot, by giving away an autographed copy of Last Chance Book Club, a book seriously influenced by Pride and Prejudice, to one random poster.
I write romance, and that means my stories are, by necessity, character driven. That doesn’t mean I ignore plot or story — my books have plenty of plot, and storytelling is my favorite thing about writing. But in a romance the story should grow out of the struggles of the characters. More important, the love story in every romance requires the characters to grow. The hero and heroine need to learn something by the end of the book that allows them to have their happy ending. The bigger the transformation the more satisfying the ending.
Coming up with ideas for that inner character arc is not easy for me. I can come up with ideas for situations and story lines and conflict, but figuring out what a character has to learn before he or she gets to the end of the story is really hard. I need all the help I can get.
Otherwise I’m liable to find myself in the middle of a story and suddenly realize that the characters are two-dimensional and don’t really have any significant barrier to their love story. When that happens, major revisions are usually required.
I hate major revisions. Like the plague. Unfortunately, when I was first learning how to tell a story, this happened all. The. Time.
And then, one day about ten years ago, I went to a plotting workshop put on by my local RWA chapter. And, of course, the instructor started out by telling us that we needed to know our characters in order to tell a good story. I knew this, but I was clueless as to how to actually accomplish that.
And then the instructor did a remarkable thing — she brought a bright red box out of her bag that looked like a box of tarot cards. “These might help,” she said.
They weren’t tarot cards. They were “archetype” cards developed by the self-help guru, Caroline Myss.
I don’t know a whole lot about new-age self-awareness, but I recognized a good thing when I saw it. Right after the workshop I rushed right out to my local bookstore and found a deck of these cards for myself. I’ve been using them ever since. (Follow this link to a full listing of all of the Caroline Myss archetypes, along with detailed explanations of each of them.)
There are many archetype systems that authors can use, but I love playing with my cards. They make it fun. But they are also so useful because each of of these archetypes comes with a list of positive and negative attributes. The negative attributes are particularly helpful when it comes to figuring out what lessons a character needs to learn before he or she can find love.
Let me give you an example of how I used these archetypes in the novel I started writing yesterday.
My heroine is a “beggar.” The card gives me a few clues to this archetype, but a further exploration on the Caroline Myss webpage leads to the understanding that: 1) a beggar is starving for love and attention, and 2) a beggar doesn’t feel self-empowered. She has to rely on others for sustenance for her self-esteem.
Okay, that immediately gets my brain working. What kind of character would match that archetype? I came up with a woman who set off to change the world only to have the world throw her back. She’s lost her job, her home, her life savings. She’s come back to town to live with the mother who never really gave her the attention she craved. And she has to face a community who expected great things from her and who now sees her as a failure. There is a job opportunity in town, but she’s going to have to beg someone for it. She desperately craves validation from the people around her, but of course they are not going to give her what she craves. (But they might just give her what she needs.)
Okay, so far so good. Now comes the fun part. What does this archetype need to learn in order to have a happy ending? The answers come pretty quickly: 1) confront and/or reconcile with the mother who neglected her in some way, 2) take control of her life in some way by finding a job that no one expects her to succeed at, and 3) develop a relationship with a hero who refuses to do the one thing she thinks she needs — validate her existence. (To be a fully realized person, she’s going to have to validate herself.)
See what just happened? Not only did the card help me find a character, but it gave me the beginning of a story line, complete with built in conflicts. Of course I’m not done yet. I need a hero for my beggar.
Off I go to the cards again, and I find the one for “hermit,” an archetype that has withdrawn from the world because of his own fears. A hermit also refuses to help those in need.
Wow, that immediately generates a ton of ideas. I used this archetype to come up with a hero who has withdrawn from society because his wife has died. Now he is intently focused on trying to keep his dead wife’s memory alive at the expense of everything else in his life, including his daughter. (Who is starving for attention, which harkens back to the heroine’s own backstory.) In withdrawing from the world, the hero has turned a blind eye to the people around him who are in need, especially his young daughter, but also other members of his family. There is a business that requires his attention, or it’s going to fail. His friend is in the middle of a legal battle, and the hero is a lawyer. And since he doesn’t give a darn about anything but his own sorrow, he’s not terribly interested in helping any beggars who ,might show up, especially if the beggar in question is his wife’s best friend from high school.
Obviously my hermit needs to have something my beggar desperately needs (a job perhaps, or money to accomplish some end, or legal advice). They are going to fight about this for the first third of the book. (I’d tell you what it is but that might spoil the read.) The bottom line a beggar heroine a hermit hero immediately generate conflict, which is always good for storytelling. Equally important, I can now brainstorm a list of things that could happen that would either 1) force the hermit to deal with the people around him, or 2) force the beggar to fend for herself and improve her self-esteem, or deal with her residual issues with her mother. Believe me I have a long, long list of what ifs now — many more than I need to tell a good story.
So, how do you come up with characters who drive your stories? Since we’re all feverishly writing as part of the Winter Writing Festival, I’m sure that brainstorming ideas would be welcome by all.
Okay, I admit it; I am a Science Fiction geek, and I loved Farscape. The whole premise excited my imagination —which is normal, considering I write futuristic Sci-Fi Romance when not dealing with lords and ladies. However, as much as I enjoyed the show, it’s the beginning—available in the music video above—that really spoke to me.
“Look, I can’t be your kind of hero.”
“No, you can’t be. But each man gets the chance to be his own kind of hero. Your time’ll come, and when it does, watch out. Chances are, it’ll be the last thing you ever expected.”
Nobody wakes up one morning and says, “I’m going to be a hero today.” Heroism tends to be the product of unforeseen events, unplanned incursions of circumstance, or simple happenstance (being in the right place at the right time). When any of those things occur, ready or not, the truth of a person’s character is revealed. There is no time for prevarication, dissembling, or projecting the desired image. There is only now. And a hero does what the now demands without regard for anything—or anyone—else.
In the now, a true hero has but one goal: Save the maiden. Rescue the colonists. Protect those within the fort. Brave the fire. Face the bullet. Find the threat and eliminate it—or die trying.
Heroism is about risk. Whether that risk is physical, psychological, or emotional is irrelevant. Whatever the root, the perception must be one of threat or danger.
Heroes put themselves in harm’s way for others. Were there a handbook for heroes, that would be Chapter One.
As writers, we write all kinds of heroes, and in doing so, must escalate the risk, elevate an ordinary man to heroic heights. How much is our hero willing to give? What is he willing to lose? His life? His heart? His beliefs? To be a hero, he must be willing to disregard something he believes necessary to his existence. The numismatist who has dedicated everything to procuring a unique coin only to sacrifice it to ransom a kidnapped child, or the accountant who, despite fears of professional suicide, ferrets out the truth about his crooked boss so the innocent bookkeeper won’t go to jail is just as much hero as the brawny Scot swinging his bloodied claymore to defend the lady he is sworn to protect.
It’s how we write him that gives him his chance to be his own type of hero.
Of course, most of us would prefer the brawny Scot—at least between the covers (that’s book covers, ladies). Still, the most unassuming person, given the right circumstances, can be a hero, while those to whom our perception ascribes innate heroism can turn tail and run.
Along those lines, the first movie that comes to mind is The Incredible Mr. Limpet—which could easily be subtitled Casper Milquetoast Saves the World. No, I’m not kidding, and here’s the original movie trailer so you can see for yourself.
Among types of heroes, one can’t forget the unwilling hero, thrust into a situation better avoided but doing what’s necessary because there’s no alternative. Atticus Finch is a good example of an unwilling hero. A quiet man, he goes about his life without raising much dust until he’s forced to choose between his preferences and his principles. Principles win, and as a result, he, his daughter, and his entire community discover his innate strength, courage, and conviction.
Then there’s the anti-hero, cynical and self-serving, forced by circumstance to do the right thing. Rhett Butler anyone?
There are other types of heroes, of course, but I’ll let you fill in the blanks while I give you one more video. (You really didn’t think you’d get away without something historical did you?)
Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite type of hero? Alphas? Betas? Gammas? What do you think makes a good hero? Have you ever read a book with an unexpected type of hero? Is there any one thing that makes you fall in love with a fictional hero? Do you have a favorite hero? Anything you want to share about heroes, feel free. Let’s celebrate heroes!
Everybody excited yet? I hope so. This is one of my favorite subjects, so I can’t help but want everyone to love spreadsheets as much as me. 🙂 Seriously, though. Even if you’re not a spreadsheet lover, I hope you find something here you can use in your own character development even if it never makes it inside the cells of a spreadsheet!