Archetypes of Fantasy

There's a fascinating book by Sheri S Tepper - A Plague Of Angels - which is one of those merges of science fiction and fantasy that seem to be becoming more common nowadays. In the strange world portrayed in the book, there are 'archetype villages' where such people as Heroes, Orphans, Fools and Oracles are shut away from most of the 'normal' population.

Classic fantasy does indeed have such archetypes, but there are so many - and not just people but situations as well - that Tepper missed. In this essay I'll be looking at a few of these, and examples of them in various well-known fantasies - including, of course, the Wheel of Time.

The best-known of all the fantasy archetypes is of course:

The Hero. There are two main types of hero - the Innocent and the Dangerous. The Innocent one, at the beginning of the action, doesn't know what's going on or how he got tangled up in it but does his best to deal with the situation, gradually learns, and usually ends up famous. They're normally young and frequently handsome, in a young, bashful sort of way. Innocent heroes include Garion from David Eddings' Belgariad, Shea Ohmsford from Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara, Bilbo Baggins, Luke Skywalker and of course Rand al'Thor.

The other kind of hero, the Dangerous, is exemplified by Sparhawk in Eddings' Elenium and Tamuli. Dangerous heroes do know what's going on. They're usually older, experienced fighters who set their own quests, are rarely handsome, and never bashful. Tough and weatherbeaten are words often used to describe them.

Both types can also appear as lesser characters, acting as foils to a hero of the opposite type. Lan is a perfect Dangerous hero. So are Hettar and Barak from the Belgariad (I don't care how old or experienced Mandorallen is, he's still an innocent) Aragorn, and to some degree Han Solo. Conversely, blond, blue-eyed, bashful Berit is most definitely an Innocent.

Heroes, of both types, usually end up falling in love. And that leads us to:

The Heroine. Again, there are two types - the Classic and the Modern. Classic heroines are typified by inactivity. They may be locked up in towers, held as hostages, be put under spells or have wars fought over them, or they may simply wait for their hero to return from his quest. They rarely do anything themselves. They are invariably beautiful and usually highborn. Helen of Troy and Guinevere are Classic heroines - so are Arwen from The Lord of the Rings and Ehlana (most of the time) in the Elenium. (While Ehlana shows a definitely Modern personality, for the whole of the first two books she's sealed up in a magic crystal while Sparhawk and company go on quest for her benefit.)

Modern heroines are feistier. They don't wait while the heroes go questing - they go right along with them, and if the hero isn't careful take charge of the expedition. While usually beautiful or at least cute, they don't have to be noble or royal - strong, sassy peasant girls make great Modern heroines. Of course, you do get the highborn ones, such as Eowyn in LotR, Leia in Star Wars and tiny, fiery Ce'Nedra in the Belgariad. All the female leads in the Wheel of Time are Modern.

There are two possible fates for Classic heroines: death or marriage. Moderns usually end up married, (almost always to the hero: Leia's an exception) but sometimes, if the author wants to show how little they depend on stereotypes, decide to keep on with their independent existence. They very rarely die.

Whether Classic or Modern, fantasy heroines have traditionally been secondary to the heroes. Lately, though, there's been a trend towards having a female lead not just as the romantic interest for the Hero but as the central character. For want of a better term, I'll refer to them as Female Heroes. At some point most of the WoT women get to take on a Female Hero role. Most books by Mercedes Lackey or Tamora Pierce have permanent Female Heroes - Rune, Kerowyn, Elspeth, Alanna, Daine.

And then of course there's:

The Guide. Guides are either skilful warriors or powerful magic-users. Sometimes they come as a pair - Moiraine and Lan. When the hero is an Innocent, they tell him what he's supposed to do, but not usually why, appearing mysteriously from somewhere outside the small, sheltered community where he's lived all his life, and which is another archetype we'll go into later. When the hero is Dangerous they act as advisors and are usually well-known to him. Belgarath. Polgara. Obi-Wan Kenobi. Allanon. Gandalf. Aragorn. Numair. That pesky sword called Need. :)

You can't possibly have a classic fantasy without:

The Bad Guy. Whether he's a dark god, depraved sorcerer, demon or some combination of the above, the Bad Guy is old as sin and twice as evil. We're talking Lucifer, Torak, the Dark One, Morgoth, Sauron, the Warlock Lord, or Emperor Palpatine - magical powers, a towering reputation, a Basic Black outfit and a penchant for saying "I am invincible!" The Bad Guy almost always is a guy, the only exception I can think of being Zandramas from the Malloreon.

In a lot of fantasies, you also have:

The Good/Bad Guy. Again, usually male. The Good/Bad Guy was once one of the brightest and best, who was tempted into evil. He's often closely connected to the Hero, the Guide or both. The first example to come to everyone's mind is Darth Vader - once that cute, megapowerful little kid called Anakin Skywalker. Others include Zedar, Martel and Ingtar. You may have noticed that three out of those four eventually turn back to the good side and die (Zedar didn't do either, although by now he probably wishes he had). That's also part of the archetype. I'm rather hoping for a Forsaken to switch sides at the last Battle, or alternatively for a major good character to be turned and eventually turn back. Nynaeve or Egwene are good candidates for the second option, which would give us a female in this role for once. Although I don't think they're going to die.

Then there are the situational archetypes. Number one is that Innocent heroes always grow up in tiny, sheltered communities, which is probably why they're innocent in the first place. Number two is that the Guide NEVER tells them all of what's going on at the beginning. (Occasionally this is because the Guide doesn't know either, but usually they're the ones keeping the secret.)

Number three is that the Bad Guy is never really invincible. Fantasy is where nice guys finish first.

Number four is that Innocent heroes usually learn very fast, whether swordfighting, magic or politics, even though they grew up on isolated farms or in little villages where there was no need for any of the above. In Rand's case, granted, Lews Therin has a good bit to do with the first two.

Number five is the aforementioned Good/Bad Guy turning back to the good side, and often sacrificing himself to save the Hero, who he has realized is the type of person whom he could have been if he hadn't gone wrong way back when.

Then you have one which dates all the way back to the fairy tales and nursery rhymes your mother read you when you were little - the Three. Three beautiful princesses, three bold knights, three trials, three nights at the ball. Or for that matter three little pigs or kittens. In grown-up fantasy you have the three hobbits (although Sam joined them later) three ta'veren, three questions to ask or three wishes to make on the other side of a doorway. David Gemmell's books often contain a triad of swordsman, axeman and archer, and/or a pattern of three events that must be completed.

There are more.

While archetypes aren't necessarily a bad thing - they recur so often precisely because they appeal to something in our psyche - writers should be careful when using them. Because the thing about archetypes is, if you're not careful, they end up turning into stereotypes. And stereotypes kill any serious work, whether fantasy or not. Setting them up to make fun of them is a different matter entirely. This is parody, and it's great entertainment.

The border between archetypes and stereotypes can be vague. Basically, if you read it, groan and complain "Can't they ever come up with anything original?" it's a stereotype. Of course, what you consider stereotyped varies between people, and many of the archetypes I've listed are stereotypes unless very well done.

Since I've mentioned before that I'm attempting to write a book myself, you might be curious as to a) whether it's fantasy, and b) how many archetypes and stereotypes does it contain? Well, to a, yes it is. Every WoT reader I know who also writes, writes fantasy. To b, there are a few archetypes, although not quite the typical treatment of them. There should be no stereotypes, because I've done my best to steer well clear of them in working out plot and characters.

If I ever get it published, you can read it and decide for yourself.

Raina's Hold / Raina's Library / Raina's Library - Essays