What are Archetypes and How Do I Use Them in Storytelling? Part I

How to drive people to work towards a goal and support your cause through storytelling.

Also co-authored by Eliana Reyes, Hattaway Communications. 

When Cinderella was in trouble, a fairy godmother helped her get to the ball. In Greek mythology, Athena gifted the hero Perseus with a mirror shield to slay the Gorgon Medusa. The Hindu epic Ramayana features the godly avatar Rama receiving help in the form of divine weapons and knowledge from the sage Vishwamitra. Why do stories written millennia and thousands of miles apart share common threads about the supernatural coming to aid the hero?

In literature, these patterns are called “archetypes,” and they recur in stories because people recognize something that speaks to them about their own lives, whether it’s making sure the people you love are safe, overcoming that big obstacle to personal success or creating the change you want to see in the world. These aspirations are universal. Using archetypes that are based on character traits can drive people to work towards a goal for themselves, and can motivate people to support your cause.

However, archetypes are not stereotypes. Using a cookie cutter character or pattern won’t tantalize your audience—it will bore them. People are complex and multi-faceted. They aren’t just the class clown, soccer mom or nerd. Even if these labels say something about them, they likely have other hopes and values that are beneath the surface. The shy nerd may have underlying “Hero” archetype aspirations and yearn to prove himself on the soccer field. Or the do-it-all mother may be hoping for a vacation to channel her inner “Explorer.”

A wisely used archetype can help awaken the aspirations people have for themselves—and motivate them to support your cause.

But how do you use these archetypes to motivate your audience? The same way that people have always used archetypes: Storytelling.

Even modern popular movies adhere to archetypal structures, attesting to their timeless appeal. You are likely familiar with what is called the “Outlaw” or “Revolutionary” archetype, which has been the crux of movies such as The Matrix and The Hunger Games trilogy. There is a system that either oppresses people or prevents them from realizing their true potential. However, the protagonist—an Outlaw or Revolutionary—is willing to break free from the rules and destroy the current system to find a better way of life.

Sometimes, a great story uses an archetype in unexpected ways by leveraging current attitudes in culture, creating something both timeless and timely. The recent popularity of the Disney film Frozen is a result of understanding how to mold the “Lover” archetype for a modern audience. In a world where gender equality is becoming increasingly important, filmmakers are wary of creating media aimed at young girls that stresses that their goal should be finding happiness with a man. While the movie begins with a lonely Anna dreaming of finding true love, it resolves not with a prince’s kiss or magic sword, but with a bond between sisters.

These same lessons can be used to create stories that work for social causes.

The popular Facebook page, Humans of New York (HONY), posts stories in the vein of the “Everyperson” archetype. Like the Lover, the Everyperson wants a connection with other people. The people in the pictures on the HONY page have their own hopes and fears, and we see their struggles. Placing them in the larger context of New York City and standing on a sidewalk, they become someone “just like you.” These stories elicit empathy from the audience.

These days, HONY shares photos from all over the world, but the formula still works. Pictures of people in their everyday lives, sharing their stories, bridges a global gap by showing that even people far away and in different cultures can share the same challenges.

Using the Everyperson archetype to create connections between people through stories, HONY helped viewers raise money to support their neighbors right after Hurricane Sandy. Most recently, the page helped raise $2 million to support people living in Pakistan.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll provide a primer on the most common archetypes used in storytelling, with examples of how they apply to brands or social causes. In the meantime, consider exploring the hopes and values that are most closely associated with your organization’s work. Ask the people who work with you and benefit from your work what they perceive to be the core values of your organization. For example, an environmental organization that wants to preserve the great outdoors for recreation might appeal to the “Explorer” archetype. But a similar organization that wants to stand up to corporate interests to save wildlife might fit more in the “Hero” category.

This information will help you begin thinking about the archetype that can drive your storytelling strategy.