Internal vs. External Archetypes

I’ve noticed how easily audiences can fall into stereotypes when assessing characters, so that they misread who the characters really are — considering that people writing a book on the subject managed to misclassify Harry Potter when that one seems really obvious to me.

There are some types that are often confused with each other. I see a lot of confusion between the Professor and the Lost Soul because they both tend to be solitary and often have some special interest, especially books. The difference, as usual, is in the WHY. Is he solitary because he’d rather focus on his books or other special interest (Professor), or does he turn to books or his other interest out of loneliness (Lost Soul)? There’s also some confusion between the Lost Soul and the Bad Boy, because the Lost Soul often tries to develop a thick skin and an attitude as a way of hiding his vulnerability. The Swashbuckler and the Warrior might be confused because they’re both men of action, but the Swashbuckler goes into the action for fun and the Warrior does it for a higher purpose. There’s also a fine line between a Charmer and a Swashbuckler because they both have that twinkle in the eye. A Charmer, though, is more about sliding by and getting others to do things for him, while the Swashbuckler is more about taking action.

It stands to reason, then, that if audiences can mix up the types, then the characters within the world of the story might also, and that opens up all kinds of possibilities for conflict. You might also have characters trying to be something they aren’t or hiding what they really are, which also means the other characters may be dealing with them on the level of the wrong archetype. There’s the public or outer archetype the other characters see and respond to, and then there’s the core of what the character really is and what really drives him. I mentioned this theory in a seminar with one of the authors of the archetype book, and maybe I didn’t explain it too well, because she thought I was nuts and totally wrong. So I could be nuts, or I could be brilliant.

Anyway, the argument we had was that I saw Wesley on Angel as the Lost Soul, while the other characters responded to him as a Professor (she also disagreed with that and insisted that Wes was a Professor). The Professor hints are all very obvious and right out there — he wore glasses, was always around books, and was a real whiz at research even during times when he was incompetent at just about everything else — while the Lost Soul hints were more subtle, trickled out gradually, and were things that the audience saw while the other characters usually weren’t in on that information. Because of that, the other characters misread him entirely, and that created a lot of the conflict surrounding the character. For one thing, it meant his actions were always judged more harshly. A Professor acts on logic and reason, after much thought and consideration. That gives his actions a sense of coldness about them. If he does something, it’s very deliberate, and the action was chosen after a lot of thought. But a Lost Soul makes emotional decisions that spring out of the need for belonging and acceptance. His decisions are mostly about pain. As a result, when Wes made a rash, emotional decision out of his need for belonging and acceptance, he was judged by others as though he’d very carefully considered what he was doing and had studied all the angles before deciding what to do. Even back on Buffy when he was a comic antagonist, that’s what happened. All the stuff he did involving Faith when she went bad was about proving himself to the Watcher’s Council, which would then have earned his abusive father’s approval, but the gang saw it as him being cold, logical, and so caught up in rules that he couldn’t see the shades of grey in the situation. Then later, when he was finally really loved and accepted by the group on Angel, the fact that they misread him entirely meant they could never meet his emotional needs. They saw him as a Professor, so the way they showed their love and appreciation of him was to give him what they thought he wanted — things to translate, old books, puzzles to solve. And then he saw that as them only wanting him around because he was the only one who could do that work. He thought they were keeping him out of the way of really being part of the group by locking him up with the books, while they thought they were giving him what he wanted. The results of that disconnect were ultimately quite tragic.

Then there are the characters who try to be or act like something they aren’t as a way of protecting themselves. All my examples here are of Lost Souls, and I think that makes sense because this type feels very wounded and vulnerable, and he doesn’t want others to see him that way. Others might pity him or use his vulnerability against him as a weapon. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if a character openly acts like a Lost Soul, he probably isn’t one (just as a character who dresses like the stereotypical Bad Boy probably isn’t one). The characters who act very Lost Soul are most likely Charmers who know that chicks dig the vulnerable act, or perhaps Professors who are trying to get sympathy for their obsessions. To spot a Lost Soul, you really have to look at the motivations and the subtle clues.

Angel, as he was on Buffy in the early seasons, was the most stereotypical Lost Soul, but he tried to act like a Bad Boy at first because he didn’t want Buffy to see all the pain of his past (that whole exchange in the pilot where she asked who he was, he said he was “a friend” and then later said he didn’t say he was her friend is total Bad Boy behavior). He acted all tough and uncaring, and I think she may have even used the term “bad boy” to describe him.

Harry Potter tries to act the Swashbuckler, who gets into all his scrapes because he likes the challenge, which is easier with his Quidditch hero status. He resents it when others play up the poor lost orphan image of him. Hermione, of course, sees right through it, as do some of the adults, but when he and Ron fight, it’s usually because Ron is taking him at his Swashbuckler image and misreading why Harry does things (like the whole part where Ron resented Harry for getting into the tournament in Goblet of Fire). The characters who dislike him see him as the big action hero instead of as the lonely lost soul, and while that creates problems for him, he much prefers them to hate him for thinking he wants to be a hero than to pity him as a Lost Soul.

On House, Dr. Chase the Lost Soul tries to act like the Charmer — he’s good-looking, from a wealthy family and has that accent. He lets everyone think he’s a slacker just riding on his father’s reputation. Even when it would be to his benefit to let others know just how bad his situation has been, he keeps it all carefully hidden because he’d rather be resented than pitied. But the real sign that he’s a Lost Soul and not a Charmer is the fact that he never did use his tragic past as a way of attracting Cameron. A Charmer would have totally gone for the whole abandonment/alcoholic mother thing as a way of making her go soft on him, but as a Lost Soul, he kept quiet about that even as he pursued her romantically (I’m not sure she knows about it even now). He’s so good at maintaining that Charmer facade that he has the whole hospital convinced that’s the way he is, even when he quite clearly acts in ways that don’t fit. He’s managed to outdiagnose even House himself, and yet there are still those (like Foreman) who think he only got the job because of his father’s influence.

The disconnect between the way other characters see the character (whether he intends it that way or not) and the way he really is creates all kinds of opportunity for deep conflict between characters. If the others don’t get him on that fundamental level, they’re never going to be able to meet his needs, no matter how much they care about him and no matter how hard they try. In fact, the more they try to meet his needs for a type he isn’t, the more they may end up hurting him. The disconnect also makes it difficult to deal with enemies, if their foes don’t understand what they really want and why, or it may create enemies or antagonists out of people who should be allies (as was the case with Wesley and the Scooby Gang on Buffy). Others might dismiss them because they don’t have a lot of respect for the type they see him as (the way Chase is disrespected on House because they think he’s superficial since he hides all his depth). Because all of this works on a sub-subconscious level, it’s not as though characters are aware of what they really need, so they can’t just tell others what it is they want. The point at which another character finally sees the person for who he is creates a real opportunity for bonding.

That also ties into all the identity vs. essence stuff that Michael Hauge talks about in his screenwriting theory, where the “true love” character in a romantic plot is the one who recognizes the true essence of the person that’s hiding behind the identity. They have conflict when the other person insists on relating to the essence while the character is still trying to be the identity, even as the character can’t help but respond to someone dealing with them on that level of fundamental truth. Going back to Wesley, it’s interesting that the only characters who ever seemed to really recognize him as the Lost Soul were essentially villains — Lilah and later Illyria — and they both ended up allied with the good guys through him. Even though he was light years apart from them, he ended up connecting with them because they were able to meet his emotional needs in a way his supposed friends couldn’t because they couldn’t see past their preconceptions of him. If he hadn’t been a fundamentally good person, he could easily have been turned to the bad side just because it was only the bad guys who managed to address his emotional needs.