Archetypes and Fiction Writing

Rob Parnell
4 min readMar 16, 2024

I’m thinking of creating a new course on using Jungian archetypes to help with fiction writing. Would this be useful to you? That’s usually my main criteria for making a new course: will this area of study help my subscribers become better writers?

I touch on the use of archetypes in my hero’s journey course, but mainly in the context of the Tarot deck, which I find fascinating. The Tarot is like a story-telling manual that encapsulates history and all of the possible interactions of humans.

I should explain to those who don’t know that Dr Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist working at the beginning of the 20th century, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Jung developed the idea that archetypal characters like the hero, the mother, the trickster and various others continually reveal themselves in fiction because, on some level, we all recognize these generalizations as based on reality. A fascinating idea.

Using Freudian psychobabble to help justify and explain some character motivations has been common over the last one hundred years, especially for screenwriters. Could Jungian archetypes take us to any better places? As an intellectual exercise, yes, these issues are probably helpful to writers but, as for to supplying believable motivations, I’m not so sure.

Curiously Jung believed there was absolutely nothing wrong with having sex with his patients, indeed he seemed to think it might help them. In our more enlightened age this is troubling behavior. Today we would call that abuse. The risk of cancellation aside, these were different times. Despite his questionable transgressions, Jung’s philosophies are still interesting.

His groundbreaking idea that there is something like a shared collective consciousness that holds us all together is a good theory, a quantum argument for the ages. Synchronicity is a fascinating idea too. But archetypes require the kind of understanding that seems less appropriate with each passing year. Women are either maidens, mothers or crones — which is horribly insulting. Heroes are always masculine and, if they’re not, they are women dominated by their masculinity. I mean, come on. Who was he working for? The Catholic Church?

Archetypes are an interesting intellectual exercise but for storytelling I think they are limiting, even destructive to good fiction. We need to move away from stereotypes and think more laterally. I mean really, is presenting cliche ideas about personality and suggesting you use them in your work wise? What if you are striving for originality? How can it be original to use character “types” that allegedly present universal traits, especially when we live in a world that is certainly not totally black and white.

Besides, archetypes are often only identifiable AFTER the fact, and usually by their behaviors and their functions. Not always because they represented the intention of the author. I’ve never believed in making assessments about writing based on finished products. This is not the way authors create. We invent first and rationalize later.

In my view Jungian archetypes are simplistic and assumptive. Jung blithely assumes that the archetypes are part of a subconscious intelligence that may be simply a romantic imposition onto reality because they may not represent reality beyond what a well educated person may connect. This is reductionist and in this PC world, not helpful. Indeed modern psychologists think that seeing people as archetypes might be a sign of madness.

You need to free yourself of preconceptions and templates when you create. Inspiration should be free flowing and instinctive.

Sure, learn, study, take on board all the information you might need.

Absorb it, make it part of who you are. BUT when you’re inventing stories, plotting, building characters, let your instincts take over. Clear your mind and simply invent, imagine and dream.

Archetypes will limit your imagination. And make plotting harder. Trying to force square pegs into round holes will simply frustrate and irritate you. Best to come at a new project clean. Start with a “what if” question and set your spirit free.

Ask yourself questions and go for the first answer you get and then ask again. Often the third or fourth idea will be the most original but that doesn’t matter. Stick with the idea that feels right to you, even if you can’t explain that decision.

Try not to be formulaic but do make sure you are not stretching credulity.
There’s nothing wrong with “off the wall” ideas as long as they make complete sense to you and you know you can “sell” the ideas in your storytelling. But don’t go the painless route just because it’s easier. Think through the consequences of making a decision and see where logic takes you. There’s a fine line between logic and fancy. They have to work together to create a satisfying whole.

So. I would still like to know what you think.

Would you like to see a course devoted to character creation using Jungian archetypes as a starting point?

I’m quite happy to create one, even if only as an intellectual exercise.

Personally, when I’m inventing characters, I prefer to see them as real people with real motivations. I see them in my mind’s eye. I find it difficult to take seriously the visualization of archetypes. They’re a bit too nebulous for me.

But writing about them?

I can do that!

Keep Writing.

Rob Parnell’s Writing Academy

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Rob Parnell

Bestselling Author and Owner of Rob Parnell’s Writing Academy