Guest post by Elizabeth Kobayashi

Much of the world depends on a level of consistency and repetition in human behavior. Psychologists break behaviors down into personality types and dysfunctions and endless variations on the same basic things. Since stories are about people, storytellers and story-lovers often find themselves intuitively aware of these psychological patterns played out in the form of characters.

These patterns are broken into eight archetypes that fill specific roles in books, films, and other types of stories. Let’s begin with the most familiar: our Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Dorothy and the Wicked Witch, Cinderella and the Stepmother. The hero and the shadow.

The Hero

The story is about the hero. A hero can be willing, unwilling, cynical, tragic, group-oriented, a loner, or a catalyst, but he or she is the core of the story, the one connected with self-sacrifice and the one the audience relates to most during the story. The hero is typically the most easily identified of the archetypes. Everyone knows Harry Potter is about Harry Potter and Star Wars about Luke Skywalker. Some stories have multiple heroes, such as Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings series following two and three characters who are heroes of their separate parts of the story and the multiple parts slowly weave together into a coherent whole. Other stories have ensemble casts, such as the Breakfast Club, in which each character takes on the archetype of Hero as the story unfolds. In that case, the hero of the story is all of them and none of them; they each have their own private arcs and they are each part of the others’ stories. They are independent personas, but they collectively drive the plot. Heroes come in many shades, but the story cannot exist without one.

The Shadow

The flipside of the hero is the villain. The shadow represents darkness, both outside the hero and within. Shadows mirror and challenge the hero, shaping them for better or for worse. A shadow may be a person, directly resisting or attacking the hero, or it may be fear, weakness, or repression within the hero. Often, it is both. Luke Skywalker’s shadow is Darth Vader, but it is also his potential for evil, his anger and internal darkness. Ender Wiggin faces opposition in other students, teachers, and the buggers he is learning to fight, but his true shadow is what he is afraid of becoming.

When all is said and done, the hero is never as he was before his encounter with the shadow. The journey and struggle, the shadow itself, changes the hero. Heroes and villains may be simple in fairy tales, but when the shadow spreads from the cackling witch and becomes a part of the hero’s soul, the door opens to complex, rich story arcs that connect with the audience in their struggle against the shadows they face–which rarely take the form of dragons and orcs.