Character Psych 101 by Ken Johnson
Today I would like to welcome guest writer, Ken Johnson. Enjoy!
Wow! It is such an honor to be guest blogging today for Deanna. I really like author guest blogs because the readers get the best information from author cooperation. This is when the "butterfly effect" really takes off! So, I am genuinely grateful to be here to lend my voice and perspective to this ever-growing, and diverging, literary tapestry.
To start off, let's address the elephant in the room. Humans are a weird lot. We have this strange pattern of growing, perfecting, and then rejecting the wisdom and practices of the past to create something "new." Want to build a pyramid? Too bad! That information is lost. And, sadly, I would argue the same is true for a lot of literary wisdom.
Don't believe me? A quick research of book sales, over the last 60 years, will prove me right. As early as the 1980s, authors regularly were selling books by the thousands. Today, industry professionals, like Bowker and others, routinely report over 90% of the new titles put out each year will never sell 1,000 copies in its lifetime. To further compound the issue, the percentage of book buyers in America has dwindled every decade, since the introduction of self-publishing, to its present level of around 47%.
So, how do we fix this? One way is to find out the top reason people are not buying books. If we eliminate the prime reason for rejection, then one's chances of success dramatically increase.
As it turns out, readers say the top reason they put down a book or give it a bad review is they hate the way characters are being (mis)used. In other words, the characters do not resonate with them.
With my company, the Johnson Institute, we offer a wide array of author consulting services. And, after helping various Indie authors, I noticed the readers were right! The literary world has rejected Jungian psychology as it relates to fictional character types and their hidden meanings. Seeing this was a wide-spread problem, I wrote my award-winning book, A Quick Guide to Archetypes & Allegory. My intention has always been for it to be a way writers can re-learn the wisdom of the past. This way, fictional writers can eliminate the top reason a novel is put down and gets negative reviews.
To paraphrase Pablo Picasso, we must learn the basics of our craft to have a fundamental understanding of what rules we can change or break.
The idea of archetypes and allegory is actually a relatively new concept that's only a little over 100 years old. Our contemporary understanding is based on the works of noted Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. Lesser known is the fact his early insights were built off of Sigmund Freud's previous works. Jung showed how nearly all of the cultures of the world had virtually identical mythical creatures (i.e., dragons and giant birds of prey). Even more curious was how these cultures seemed to have a subconscious meaning they held for each character type. So, be the person a Native American, European, Asian, or a Maori from New Zealand – Jung contended everyone knew what a dragon was, and the creature resonated with the same hidden meaning.
Initially calling these known characters "primordial icons," he later changed the name to the more encompassing and useful term of "archetypes." He used the word "allegory" to relate to any hidden meaning associated with an archetype.
Over the years, the literary and cinematic world built off of Jung's work to exploit a sort of psychological shorthand that he'd unearthed. Later, other experts learned you can shift the allegory of an archetype. We found specific primordial icons really were placeholders for categories in story craft, which were more malleable than Jung had initially realized.
For example, a vampire and an alien both represent the concept of culture. However, there is a distinct difference in how culture is presented from the lens of the archetype. With vampires, they usually have sexual allegory tied to them. Aliens generally are more encompassing than just sex. So, as I like to explain, both can talk about homosexuality as a cultural element in our society. The difference is the vampire archetype represents what happens in the bedroom. In contrast, the alien represents what happens in the grocery store, the ball field, the ice cream shop, and in church.
To properly utilize archetypes, one must first realize there are two overarching distinctions, or designations, which all other classifications fall into. These two classes are the non-humanoid and humanoid archetype groupings.
Non-humanoid archetypes are just as the term denotes – not a creature that looks substantively human. In A Quick Guide to Archetypes & Allegory, I discuss the most commonly utilized non-humanoid character types found in literature, cinema, television, and even comic books. Some of these characters are the dragon, the acari, the unicorn, and the leviathan. Because these characters do not look human, their allegories are typically not tied to social issues of culture, emotion, etc. Instead, they grapple with broader topics such as natural order, God, climate change, etc. For example, the dragon oft times is used to refer to nature and spirituality.
Sometimes, the allegory of non-humanoid archetypes can be dynamically shifted by making the character into a humanoid form. We see this commonly used with the acari, phoenixes, and even the dragons. With dragons, making them into a human affirms a specific position that a given culture, gender's behavior, or other macro concept is acceptable and reasonable to the natural order of the universe. One example is the idea of a responsible male figure protecting his lineage and others, as is seen in The Witcher series. A more common example is when the writers utilize humanoid dragon figures to validate homosexuality as acceptable to the natural world.
In contrast, humanoid archetypes specifically deal with allegorical concepts that solely concern humanity. The more the character looks human, the more it subconsciously resonates with people as being "them." The less it looks like a human, the more apart from the reader it will feel.
We especially see this in the world of science fiction and fantasy. Franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and others have played upon this concept. For example, have you ever wondered why Klingons (Star Trek) and Moclans (The Orville) both look violent, aggressive, and hideously brutish? They both carry allegories of what contemporary society refers to as "toxic masculinity." For those unfamiliar with this term, it is an idea that many male behaviors are undesirable in post-modern society. Just take a look between a 1960s era Klingon and one from Star Trek: Discovery. One can quickly begin to see how cultural shifts and perceptions have dramatically changed the character has been depicted over the decades! Conversely, the more beautiful an alien species is, the more these franchises tend to portray them as intelligent and powerful to represent allegories tied to feminism and empowered women.
Sometimes, tried and true archetypes have to be changed due to the legal and social pressures of the period one lives in. Robert Louis Stevenson ran into this issue when he crafted the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. During his era, there were forces against French-based werewolf stories and their allegories. So, Stevenson crafted a book where science, not witches or the Devil, turned a God-fearing, learned man into a hulking monster of a man. Mr. Hyde ultimately became a new classification of the werewolf archetype.
Later, in 1954, the Comic Code Authority (CCA) came to power in America as an industry self-regulation effort to circumvent government censorship. At the time, comic books vetted their stories through the CCA before being released for sale to children. Part of the CCA rules stated werewolves were forbidden because it was believed the werewolf resonated an allegory of pubescent angst to young boys. To resolve this matter, in 1962, Marvel Comics published a line called The Incredible Hulk. The comic became a hit with young boys because it was a twist to the Mr. Hyde character…which was, as previously noted, a twist on the werewolf archetype.
For over 57 years, the Hulk sub-archetype represented all of the allegories a pubescent teenage boy could identify with. Then, in 2019 Marvel bungled things in Avengers: Endgame by marrying Dr. Banner with the Hulk. True, it made for some great comic relief. However, it ultimately killed the appeal of the character going forth. Only time will tell if Disney fixes this huge blunder now that they are tied with Marvel Comics.
Even when archetypes are human, they can hold a diverse array of allegories that audiences can resonate with. In A Quick Guide to Archetypes & Allegory, I discussed a plethora of human archetypes ranging from the hero to the hunter and even femme fatale.
With each archetype, there is a history and many significant changes that have transpired over time. For example, while the hunter was once a beloved character up until the 1940s, its popularity has waned with the emergence of animal rights concerns, popularized by works like Disney's Bambi. Therefore, the hunter archetype has morphed into the various fictional police detective and private investigators found throughout cinema, television, and literature. In other cases, socio-economic forces in the market have all but killed off some archetypal characters, such as the femme fatale.
This concept also ties in with something else I noted in A Quick Guide to Archetypes & Allegory. Generally speaking, the popularity of a given archetype is usually predictable because its allegory is tied to exterior forces in politics, religion, etc.
For example, the 9/11 terrorist attacks created a resurgence in the popularity of numerous archetypes. First, we saw superhero-themed works take off – which is understandable because we wanted a hero to step in where the government had failed us. As the "Arab Spring" became more known, the mummy archetype became popular being its allegory is tied to religious zealot takeovers. Later, we saw a rise in popularity with the zombie archetype since its allegory is linked to economic certainty and corporate impropriety. The popularity of these archetypes later died away as fears and concerns were slowly addressed, and the American market once again became a worker's market.
As one can see, the world of character archetypes and allegory has enormous potential. I would encourage readers and writers alike to study this in more detail.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ken Johnson is a culturalist (a.k.a., Social Scientist), conflict specialist, business consultant, college instructor, award-winning heritage arts feather painting artist, and a multiple award-winning author. He routinely writes and lectures on issues of culture and conflict. When not writing and lecturing, Ken loves attending cultural events, cooking, outdoor sports, and feather painting. He also serves on numerous non-profit and professional boards. In 2005, the Governor of Kentucky commissioned Ken as a Colonel. Later, in 2018, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association honored him with their most prestigious award possible, the Founders Award. Presently, Ken Johnson lives in Northwest Florida with his wife, Toshana. They have three little dogs which Ken calls his “editors” for their propensity to mess with his keyboard when wanting his attention.
A Quick Guide To Archetypes & Allegory can be purchased on Amazon