Evolving Archetypes

I mentioned back when I was talking about the difference between a story goal and the kind of deep-seated need that defines an archetype that while the goal may be achieved, the archetype need will always be there — unless the character goes through so profound an experience that he/she actually evolves from one archetype to another, essentially giving up, losing or moving on from the previous need and taking on another. This is one way to show character growth.

Yet again, I’m going to disagree with the book I keep referencing. Their example of evolution is Rose in the movie Titanic, who evolves from a Waif to a Spunky Kid. I think I agree more with Michael Hauge’s description of her transformation as being about identity and essence rather than seeing it as an evolution. I think she was always a Spunky Kid but had repressed herself while putting on the identity of a dutiful woman. Changing archetypes is something that generally requires something major to happen, and Rose had already come to life and started showing signs of extreme spunk long before the ship started sinking. All it took was for Jack to see her essence, and boom, she was off.

There actually don’t seem to be a lot of examples of evolution in standalone movies or books. That’s because it is such a major change that either it has to be painted in broad strokes to show it in the course of a single book or movie, or else it takes a long time to set up the development and then show that the change is complete. In a standalone movie or book, I think there are two key spots in the story where you might see a character change archetypes.

The character could be changed by the initiating incident that sets off the story, so that the character has to change fundamentally to take on the task or mission of the story. You see this a lot with the kind of characters Mel Gibson tends to play, such as Mad Max, The Patriot and Braveheart. At the very beginning, he’s a nice-guy Best Friend type who just wants to live his life, then his wife and/or family are killed, and he then transforms into a Warrior — the man on a mission — and goes out to get revenge. Bloody mayhem ensues. His inner need has gone from harmony/loyalty to vengeance/justice.

Or the character could be affected by the course of events during the story, then at the final turning point, the symbolic death/resurrection, the character has to change fundamentally in order to survive or triumph over the final obstacle. That moment is the full completion of changes that may have been building during the story. The best example I can think of there is Sarah Connor in the original Terminator movie. She’s established as a Waif character, one who gets pushed around but who just kind of goes with the flow. Then she finds out a killer robot from the future is out to get her and that it’s because one day her son will be the leader of humanity, thanks to her training, and there’s a really hot guy from the future who was willing to come save her because he’d fallen in love with the idea of her. She’s still pretty Waifish through most of the movie, but gains strength, and sometimes it’s like she’s willing herself to be the woman her rescuer says she becomes. But then in the final chase, she’s the one who has to take charge when he’s wounded, and then after he’s dead and she has to face the Terminator alone, she makes that final transformation into a Crusader — the woman on a mission — as she destroys the robot. She couldn’t stay a Waif and survive. We didn’t need sequels to know that she wasn’t going back to her old ways, that from this point on, she would be a take-charge warrior-woman on a mission. Her inner need has gone from her individual survival to ensuring the survival of the entire species.

I think we see a lot more evolution in TV series or long-running book series. For one thing, sometimes you have to shake things up to keep things fresh, and for another, you’ve got the time to go about it in a gradual way that makes sense without having to bring about the change with something major like a killer robot from the future.

One example might be Harry Potter, who I think is evolving from a Lost Soul to a Warrior. In the first four books, his main needs are home, family, belonging and acceptance, but I think things start to change at the end of the fourth book, when he faces Voldemort directly and sees Cedric get killed. There’s still some Lost Soul in him because he spends much of the fifth book feeling misunderstood and being an outcast in the magical world, but he’s starting to be driven by bigger things than his own pain. By the end of the sixth book, I think the transformation into Warrior is complete. It’s no longer about keeping the magical world safe for him so he’ll have a sense of home, but it’s about destroying Voldemort once and for all. The big sign is when he gave up Ginny — and by association his status as an honorary Weasley — and when he said he wasn’t going back to Hogwarts in the fall. He’d willingly given up the two things he’s wanted most all along, family and home — a sign that he’d moved on.

For a real Waif to Spunky Kid transformation, I think Pam on The Office is a good example. Considering that her first date with her fiance involved him taking her to a hockey game along with his brother, and them leaving the game while she was in the bathroom, and she not only went on another date with him but actually got engaged to him, I don’t think she was hiding her inner Spunky Kid. She really was the Waif who just wants to get by and survive, and does so by letting others take the lead. Her friendship with Jim gave her the first chances to try out some spunk because he (as a Best Friend) created a safe environment for her to grow and use a backbone. She could sass back without getting slapped down. During the first two seasons, we saw a bit of tug of war, with her being the Spunky Kid around Jim and reverting to Waif around Roy. This started to create some pain and conflict for her when she tried being a Spunky Kid with Roy and got slapped down or when she was a Waif around Jim and saw how disappointed he was in her for not standing up for herself.

Just being a Spunky Kid with Jim’s support wasn’t enough to make her really change. She had to find that in herself, for herself, and that’s what season three was all about. I know a lot of people were disappointed that she didn’t end up with Jim immediately after she cancelled her wedding, but if she’d done so then, she’d have remained a Waif. Jim has a very strong personality, and though he’d never bully her the way Roy did, if they were in a relationship it would be too easy for her to just go along with him. She spent that year growing her own strength until she could stand up to Roy and dump him for good, and then face down Jim and tell him what she felt. The final transformation became effective at the moment she walked on the coals during the beach day, and then went to the circle and spilled her guts to the whole office.

One more character evolution was Dr. Chase on House. He’d been a Lost Soul all along, whose main need was acceptance and approval. He’d been looking to House for the approval he never could get from his father. But I think midway through season three he started evolving into a Best Friend. It started in the episode “Finding Judas,” when he realized he never would get acceptance from his colleagues, and when he got the diagnostic triumph and got no approval from House (quite the opposite — he got decked). He said then he was through seeking approval. He was still hungry enough for affection that he went along with Cameron’s wacky idea of a just-sex relationship, but along the way he started dropping that Charmer facade, he really didn’t worry about whether or not House was proud of him when he got another diagnosis, he was open with his emotions to Cameron and was able to ask for what he wanted in the relationship. When he started truly pursuing her romantically, he didn’t play the Charmer or bring out any of his inner pain. Instead, he acted like a best friend, being quietly persistent and just plain nice. He was supportive to Foreman in his crisis. And then the final sign of evolution was when he lost his job — something that in season one would have caused a major freak-out — and he was okay with it, even philosophical. Instead of clinging desperately to what little he had (Lost Soul), he was able to let go of all of it and be content with life as it was (Best Friend).

Changing archetypes doesn’t always mean all the traits of the previous archetype are lost. After all, the events that helped mold the characters into the former archetype still happened. No matter how much they move on, Harry Potter and Dr. Chase have still lost their entire families and are alone in the world, and they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t still want belonging and acceptance. It’s just less of a driving need, and they can see other priorities in their lives. Harry can put aside that need to have a greater goal, and Chase seems to be managing to find what he’s needed all along by not needing it so desperately. He’s turned his focus from his own pain to being there for others, and that brought people closer to him.

Archetype evolution isn’t the only way to show character growth. A character can grow and change dramatically while remaining in the same archetype. My example here is Wesley from Angel again. He transformed from geeky, prissy Watcher to nerdy, insecure assistant to competent boss to dark, dangerous man, all while remaining a Lost Soul. In fact, I think keeping the same archetype is what made the drastic transformation believable. He’d changed because of the things he’d gone through, but he was still the same person inside.

Changing archetypes should be used sparingly, and can even weaken a character. The example there is also from Buffy/Angel — Cordelia. She started in Buffy as a Boss/Princess type, the one who has to be in control of the situation and who expects others to defer to her. Then when she showed up in LA in Angel, she’d become a Spunky Kid. That transformation made sense. She’d lost everything, and instead of being on top of the pecking order, she was now on the bottom, scratching and clawing to survive, and desperate to pull herself up again. The experience had taught her a lot of empathy, and she was able to be the cheerleader of the group, the one who could pull everyone together and keep them encouraged. But then sometime during the second season they started making her more of a Nurturer who was focused on taking care of Angel, and then by the third season when they’d decided they wanted to build a romance with Angel, they started turning her into a Crusader (incidentally, the archetype for Buffy). As a result, all those drastic changes without good reasons behind them or a clear evolutionary path just ended up weakening the character until she was unrecognizable.