The Four Archetypes Characters Go Through in Most Stories

I came across this video today, and I have to say I find the idea of the character shifting between archetypal roles as they go through their story fascinating.

The way he presents it, the character goes through four phases:

  1. The Orphan (a character cut off from others)
  2. The Wanderer (a character seeking an answer)
  3. The Warrior (a character fighting against challenges)
  4. The Martyr (a character who is willing to sacrifice themselves for their goals)

Now, he shows this as a four-act structure situation and claims that the four acts of most movies follow these four acts. However, I would argue that they’re actually the four phases of a character’s personal evolution, and the four acts of most films follow them because the film is built around the character’s personal development.

I can prove this when we look at the Troubled Soul Plot I’ve written about before. This is a very common plot in anime where the main character meets a struggling other character (a “troubled soul”) and then helps and supports them through their personal trials as they get their problems worked out.

How does this reflect on the 4-Archtype structure?

Well, the Troubled Soul basically goes through those four stages while the main character watches/supports them. Your typical Troubled Soul…

  1. Is cut off, lonely and isolated. (Orphan)
  2. Is trying to solve their central problem when they meet the main character. (Wanderer)
  3. Is inspired by the main character to stand up for themselves. (Warrior)
  4. Goes all-out to achieve their dream. (Martyr)

So you see, they’re not necessarily the four stages of the story so much as four stages of a character evolution inside a story. And used this way, much like Dan Harmon’s Story Circle system, they can be used to plot out the rough path of a character’s personal journey.

I think this distinction is important because it also means that the four stages aren’t always equal to each other in length (which they would be when used as four acts) and the writer can play with them more. This also allows for the idea that there might be multiple 4-Archetype stories playing out inside a single larger story with an ensemble cast, with perhaps the main character’s story being the main structure of the plot, but other characters having their own smaller versions going on at the same time.

For example, you could have a character who goes through all four phases in one scene! Or who goes through a short Orphan phase, a long Wanderer phase, and a relatively short combined Warrior/Martyr phase. There are many possible combinations and lengths depending on the story being told and just limiting things to four standard acts seems wasteful.

Also, finally, this would allow for multi-part stories where the character goes through a version of this in the story as a whole and a version where they (or supporting characters) go through the four archetypes in each of the component parts.  So, while the character’s overall story may play out over three, four, ten, or twenty novels, in each story, the character is going through (or part of another character going through) a smaller version of these archetypal roles which takes them closer to their final personal evolutionary goal.

In a longer ten book (or story arc) series, the phases might divide something like this:

  • Orphan (Books 1+2) (the main character is on their own)
  • Wander (Books 3-6) (the main character has allies they’re journeying with)
  • Warrior (Books 7-9) (the main character is taking the fight to the enemy)
  • Martyr (Book 10) (the main character has something they’re willing to sacrifice everything for)

Depending on the character’s overall roles in those stories, this would be a perfectly reasonable way to divide the stories up from a plotting/planning point of view.

It’s a fun idea that I will think about more. What will you do with it?


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