Archetypes and Lost Souls

Some of the hero archetypes tend to be overused, especially in romance and chick lit, and others underused. I suspect that a lot of this has to do with authors not really understanding how the archetypes work and veering dangerously close to stereotype. Really, an archetype relates to WHY a person does something more than it does to WHAT he does or especially how he looks. Of course, that why is going to shade a character’s actions and the way he does things, and sometimes even the way he looks, but you get more interesting characters when you mix things up a bit. I think that’s why so many of Joss Whedon’s characters have captured people’s imaginations. He uses very strong core archetypes in characters who go against type. His literal librarian/physics graduate student isn’t the Librarian archetype. She’s a Spunky Kid. His literal courtesan isn’t a Seductress. She’s a Nurturer. His warrior woman character isn’t a Crusader, she’s a Librarian. And so forth. (I’m using the terminology from the Heroes and Heroines book because it works for me and because I don’t have the time to do the research and come up with my own system, although I think the authors themselves have sometimes fallen into the stereotype trap in the way they classify people).

There are a lot more interesting ways to use certain types than we often see. Take the Lost Soul archetype (one of my favorites, though I haven’t yet consciously written one — I keep saying I’m going to, and then he never fits into my cast). The stereotype for that is the brooding loner who wears a lot of black, lurks in the shadows, and is reluctant to trust. But what authors tend to forget is that there’s more to the archetype than that. This character is driven by a desire for belonging, for home, love, approval and acceptance. He may be jaded and may have given up on finding it, which is where we usually see this character at the beginning of a story, but it’s possible to write this character where he’s still hoping to find a place where he belongs. Or, even after he’s found that place and is terrified of losing it. Just looking at some pop culture examples off the top of my head, there are a variety of Lost Souls out there.

Angel, as he was shown in the first three seasons of Buffy (he evolved into a Warrior on his own show) fits the usual Lost Soul mode — brooding, wearing black, lurking in the shadows, wanting and yet fearing love. He’s even a vampire (the recent popularity of vampire books means the Lost Soul has been very popular lately). But would you believe that Michael Scott on The Office belongs to the same archetype? He does. Michael is a Lost Soul portrayed in a comic way. We’ve seen hints of a lonely childhood in which he said he wanted to have lots of kids so then they’d have to be his friends. One reason he’s such a terrible boss is that he sees his employees as his friends and family. Because of that, he’s so desperate to be loved and accepted by them that sometimes he can’t do what’s needed as their boss. He’s so needy in relationships that he drove away the normal woman he was dating by Photoshopping himself into a family picture with her and her children and then got himself into a twisted relationship with his emotionally unhealthy supervisor just because he needs so desperately to be loved. He tries to convince himself that he’s already what he wants to be — popular, funny and well-liked — and that gets him into sad situations, like when he tried to throw a huge party in his hotel room at a trade show, and the only person who came was one of his ex-employees. Once I clued into the fact that Michael was a Lost Soul, he became a lot more bearable for me, even at his worst, because I could feel sorry for that core need of his.

Back to the Buffyverse (and this one I’ve actually argued in public about with one of the authors of the Heroes and Heroines guide, so I guess I’m off on my own about this one), I think the real Lost Soul in the series Angel was Wesley. Yes, he looked like a Professor because of the glasses, his arcane knowledge and all those old books, but I think he was primarily driven by the need for belonging, and he used his skills as currency to make himself invaluable to the team. If he’d really been a Professor, he wouldn’t have failed as a Watcher, but his need for approval from the Council was so great that he obeyed them blindly, with disastrous results. Once he joined Angel’s team, he didn’t want to be locked away with his books, but that was the thing he could contribute that Angel didn’t have without him, the one thing he could do that the others couldn’t, and therefore the reason he felt he was being kept around. A real Professor would have been driven by the thirst for knowledge and answers, but he was driven by the need to be valued. When we met his father (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), we learned why he had such a desperate need for approval and acceptance.

Yet another example where I quibble with the reference book is Harry Potter, whom they classify as a Professor, but he’s a total Lost Soul. He’s orphaned, his only remaining family treated him as a slave and kept him from having friends, and he was a freaky weird kid, which made him an outcast. But then he finds his place at Hogwarts and finally feels like he belongs. What motivates him to get into all the investigating and Voldemort fighting to begin with? The threat that Hogwarts might have to be closed. He’s found a home and doesn’t want to lose it. The real clue that Rowling must see Harry this way, as well, is in the parting gift that Hagrid gives him at the end of year one. If he’d really been a Professor, the right gift would have been some kind of spell book or other reference book. But it’s a photo album of pictures of his parents, gleaned from all their surviving friends, so that Harry can finally get some sense of connection with his family. That’s a Lost Soul gift.

One of my favorite recent examples of how the Lost Soul can be played against type while still having the core of the archetype is on the TV series House. House himself looks like a Lost Soul, wearing his pain on his sleeve, with his damaged leg, addiction to painkillers, and few friends (House is a Professor, since he’s even stated outright that what drives him is the need to be right, to have the answer), but the real Lost Soul in that cast is Dr. Chase, the young Australian. He’s blond, where most Lost Souls tend to be dark-haired, he’s generally pretty good-natured, has a sense of humor, and he doesn’t wear much black (usually he wears frighteningly mismatched things in bright or light colors). But the more we learned about the character, the more Lost Soul he appeared — his mother was an alcoholic and drank herself to death while he was still in his teens, his father left him alone with the alcoholic mother to be her primary caregiver as she drank herself to death, his father died without telling him he was sick and cut him out of his will, he initially wanted to be a priest but somehow felt he failed a test of faith and is still struggling with his faith, he’s utterly alone in the world and very far from home, and because his father was an immigrant, he doesn’t even have a lot of roots in his home country. For whatever reason, he seemed to have decided that the hospital is “home,” and when his place there was threatened in the first season, he was willing to take pretty drastic action to save his job, even turning on his boss to do so. He doesn’t trust anyone else to have his back, and he tends to keep his head down and stay out of conflicts rather than rocking the boat. What he wanted more than anything is House’s approval (and how bad must his childhood have been for him to fixate on someone like House as his chosen father figure?). All classic Lost Soul, but without fitting almost any of the external stereotypes. He tried hard not to show his pain, to keep his sad past a secret even when others knowing about it would work to his advantage, and he indulged in very little brooding while still having most of his actions driven by that inner need for approval, belonging and acceptance.

So, it is possible to take the core character types and find new and different ways of portraying them that aren’t stereotypical. And then when you are mixing things up like that, it opens the door to using the less common archetypes by putting them in situations you otherwise wouldn’t expect of them.