Thursday, 9 August 2012

Mythic Archetypes and Character Arcs

by Caroline Lawrence

A few days ago I was talking to a group of A-level and college-level Classics students about how I write historical fiction. I told them about the Hero's Journey, a plot structure found in many Greek myths, which anthropologist Joseph Campbell calls Monomyth. I also talked about the different archetypes that crop up in the Monomyth: the Hero, the Faithful Sidekick, the Funny One, the Wild One, the Mentor, etc. (These particular archetypes are my own mélange of Greek Myths and Hollywood Blockbusters.)

the first nine books in a 17-book series
I explained that when a character changes in the course of one story, that's called character development. When a character changes over the course of a series, it's called an arc. One of the them asked how far ahead I planned my character arcs, considering an 18-book series was originally planned.

My reply was that I used my logical 'left brain' to plan the trajectory of the main characters -- from Slavery to Freedom, for example, or Feral to Civilized -- but I keep each arc broad enough so that my creative 'right brain' can fill in the details of the character's ups and downs as they (and I) progress through the series.

When I got home from my talk, I dug up some jottings I did six or seven years ago. At that time I was two-thirds of the way through my 17-book Roman Mysteries series. My notes (below) show how methodical I was about creating of my four characters but also how I didn't necessarily stick to the plan.

Character arcs in The Roman Mysteries (Warning: from here on there are spoilers!)

Flavia, the Hero
Flavia, the leader, is a truth-seeker with a strong sense of justice and injustice. (The Thieves of Ostia) She is kind and loving, but as a precociously intelligent only-child, she is also impetuous, bossy and controlling. Her strong emotions often hijack her reason as she searches for the truth (The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, The Fugitive from Corinth, The Sirens of Surrentum). Her arc over the series will be to learn to recognise her own flaws and limitations and to respect the viewpoints of others.

Jonathan, the Funny One
Jonathan, the comic relief, is a pessimist with a dry wit who assumes everything is his fault (The Assassins of Rome). Dutiful, obedient and loving, he yearns for a secure family life. When he tries to find the mother he thought was dead, he sets in motion a series of events that cause a devastating fire in Rome, killing thousands. (The Enemies of Jupiter). Guilt overwhelms him and he almost kills himself. From this lowest point of his arc he will struggle with his belief in God and experiment with different philosophies, especially Stoicism (The Gladiators from Capua, The Sirens of Surrentum). Gradually, over the remaining books, he will recover his faith in God, in the world and in himself.

Nubia, the Faithful Sidekick
Nubia's arc is from slavery to freedom. She is the intuitive, faithful sidekick to Flavia's leader. Her flaw is that she is sometimes too meek and passive and – like all faithful sidekicks – she must learn to find her own identity apart from that of the more forceful leader. In the middle of the series she struggles with her love for her young Greek tutor Aristo (The Fugitive from Corinth) and the haunting memories of her family's slaughter and her abduction (The Charioteer of Delphi). She also learns to develop her skills as a kind of 'horse-whisperer'.

Lupus, the Wild One
Lupus is the archetypal 'wild child' or 'id-boy'. A feral kid with a horrific past, he must overcome his pain and distrust of people. His arc will be the greatest. From a mute wolf-boy living among the tombs of the dead, he learns to trust, to forgive, to become civilised and to live in a loving extended family (Flavia and her friends.) At the very moment when Jonathan loses his faith in God, Lupus begins to find his own (The Gladiators from Capua). Over the course of the series, Lupus will receive physical and emotional healing. He will grow in faith and wisdom to become a leader and – in the end – a visionary. (The Prophet from Ephesus)

The last book in the series, The Man from Pomegranate Street, will start and end fifteen years on from the first book, when Flavia is married and her friends are all grown. (The middle will be a flashback to the four of them as kids solving their 'last mystery': who killed the emperor Titus?) We will therefore get a satisfying glimpse at what the four of them will become as adults.

Caroline with TV actors playing Jonathan, Lupus, Nubia & Flavia
Other characters in the books also have strengths and flaws and will therefore have their own arcs. Jonathan's father Mordecai and his estranged wife Susannah will learn to live together after many ups and downs. After being shipwrecked (The Dolphins of Laurentum), bereaved (Twelve Tasks) and stabbed (The Fugitive from Corinth) Captain Geminus will finally find love by the end of the series. Jonathan's beautiful and newly-married older sister Miriam will die in childbirth, and this will have devastating impact on Flavia and her friends, especially her Uncle Gaius, who is Miriam's husband. We will also follow the arc of Aristo, the young Greek tutor and musician who is Nubia's soulmate, though he doesn't realise it yet.

Some of my ideas played out as I had planned. Others didn't. But when starting an ambitious series it's useful to have a general idea where your characters are going just to keep heading in the right direction.

Find out more about my history-mystery books at and if you are interested in the Hero's Journey, read this blog I wrote about Monomyth in the Easter Story.


H.M. Castor said...

Story structure is my passion, too, but I've never attempted a long-running series. This is a fascinating post - thank you, Caroline!

Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting to see your notes - thanks, Caroline!