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As a university lecturer, I teach students how to use Jung’s collective unconscious theory to develop characters and stories that resonate with audiences on a deeper psychological level than mere entertainment. Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, says of this concept: ‘Stories can be read as metaphors for the general human situation, with characters who embody universal, archetypal qualities.’ This got me thinking – could people intentionally write archetypal stories, not to appeal to their readers, but to explore their own inner problems and develop solutions?
Briefly summarised, Jung’s theory about the collective unconscious is that all human beings are born with the same innate psychic patterns and instincts. This includes archetypal character types such as The Hero, The Maiden, The Earth Mother, The Trickster, The Shadow (villain). The idea that these characters are a part of a shared, universal unconscious that we inherit at birth, could explain why they recur in ancient myths and dreams across all cultures.
It’s not just characters that recur. Several narrative theorists have identified recurring patterns in the story events of myths and legends. One of the most famous is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which, from a writer’s perspective, can be seen as the archetypal story to complement Jung’s archetypal characters.
The vast majority of stories, from ancient myths to modern blockbusters, follow this same story structure when you break them down to their essential components and stages.
Christopher Vogler explains how Carl Jung’s characters and Joseph Campbell’s plot structure can be used by contemporary writers to ensure their stories connect with the audience’s psyche. As one example, the character of the Threshold Guardian serves the dramatic purpose to stand in the way of the protagonist’s goal.
In a fairy tale, this might be a troll they must fight to cross the bridge; in a modern film, it may be the villain’s henchmen guarding a secret weapon. In dramatic terms, this creates conflict and entertainment; on a psychological level, the Threshold Guardian represents day-to-day obstacles such as a car breaking down, as well as internal obstacles and neurosis that hold back our personal growth.
And speaking of obstacles that hold back our personal growth, how can all this knowledge of good storytelling help us to combat these Threshold Guardians?
I propose that intentionally writing a creative story using The Hero’s Journey and Jung’s archetypes isn’t just an effective in terms of narrative; if the story’s themes reflect the writer’s own problems, it could help them overcome them. As a writer, I have often found that although I may think that I’m just creating fiction, my subconscious has other ideas and embeds my personal issues into the themes of my work. One example is that when I was younger, I often wrote stories about characters with amnesia having to figure out who they really were as a person; it wasn’t until I grew up, started living more authentically and came out, that I realised it was me who had that lesson to learn.
In any story, the audience is invited to identify with the protagonist or, using the archetypal name, ‘the hero’ (who can be male or female). We follow the story from their point of view and the connection is so strong that even when this character is a ‘bad guy’ whose actions we would abhor in real life (such as a gangster who kills people), we still find ourselves rooting for their success within the story. As a reader, listener or viewer, we become a part of this character’s journey and growth; as a writer, we do the same, and direct ourselves through their problems and to solutions.
Most (if not all) stories involve ‘the hero’ overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal. When writing creatively, we could lead ‘the hero’ to overcome obstacles that we face in our real lives, guiding not just the character, but ourselves, to real-life solutions.
Practical actions may be one upside to the process, but even the psychological experience of our hero, with whom we closely identify, overcoming past traumas, personal difficulties or troubling situations, could carry our mental state from a negative to a positive position as we work through those issues ourselves in fictional form.
Vogler also says ‘the hero’ represents the ego and that their journey ‘represents the ego’s search for identity and wholeness’. This can be achieved by integrating the energy of the other archetypes into one, balanced self. Through writing a story in which a hero encounters villains, tricksters, shape-shifters, mentors, allies and heralds, and learns from each experience, perhaps we can tap into our own unconscious patterns, learn more about ourselves and heal old wounds.
It is with these ideas in mind that I have developed a new workshop for my well-being company Spiral Sun. The workshop is called ‘Story Writing for Personal Development’ and the idea is that stories are more than just entertainment, they take us on a character’s journey of problem-solving and personal growth. If we’re the ones writing the story, we can use a fictionalised scenario to guide ourselves through a problem and to a conclusion, perhaps learning even more from the process by afterwards analysing the tales and characters for personal inner meanings.
Anjali Wierny is a self-help writer and workshop leader for Spiral Sun Well-being and a university lecturer.
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