Friday, February 22, 2013

The Arcana

Taken from an essay/info page on my website, we're publishing this here because after ten years, a lot of this informs how we talk about characters and fiction. Plus, it's the answer key to all those personnel files we've been talking about in our fourth-wall-what-fourth-wall profiles of Haven characters.

The Arcana got started on account of being an over-educated liberal arts major and needing to classify all the character patterns I saw in my own writing in a manner similar to Jung and Campbell and all the rest. Then it growed. Like fungus. As you'd expect, they're highly interconnected, so instead of trying to create further order out of chaos, I give them to you in alphabetical order. Note: not every character is going to be Arcane or fit neatly into these patterns, nor is it unlikely for them to change type over their character arc; they're archetypes for a reason, folks. 

The Augustine
Did I mention over-educated? If Julius Caesar is the most famous Caesar, Augustus is arguably the most successful by several benchmarks. He built up the Roman empire from a state of lawless near-anarchy to a greatly expanded and largely stable world power. He was also a ruthless, cold, manipulative empire-building bastard. And yet he's frequently remembered as a benevolent force of light and truth, due to really good press. Augustines, however cold and ruthless they may be, are possessed of a damn near uncanny ability to spin events so they come out looking like golden boys in public. They're second only to Sorcerers in their ability to manipulate others, though it's less a matter of inferior ability and more because the Augustine reckons everything in a cost-benefit balance. History and fiction tend to record these as being public kingmakers. What others know of them in private may differ, of course...
(Examples: Johnny "Gentleman" Marcone, Lara Raith, Varys the Spider, Mycroft Holmes, Lord Vetinari)

The Blade
Serial killers tend to follow a very restrictive pattern. In real life, the study of the pattern of serial killers happens in the FBI and in criminal psychology courses. In fiction, we call it studying the crime genre. The Blade is the character who exists to hurt and kill, whether for a cause (i.e. a wielder) or because that's all the character knows how to do (i.e. unwielded.) They might be visibly broken or subtly broken and highly trained, but they're rarely given in the narrative to suggest that they have anything in their life outside of the hunt and the kill. When a history is given, it generally points to an all-too-familiar cycle of abuse. Blades are never stable and are so-called because they cut in both directions, if they're of the wielded variety.
(Examples: John Reese, the Corinthian, Dexter Morgan, Sweeney Todd, Clarice Willow [Caprica])

The Brute
Not all patterns are cerebral in nature. The Brute is a simple type, who may be unintelligent or who may simply prefer physical solutions to problems. They may be violent, but they don't have to use that violence to abuse others; they're as likely to be found in a boxing ring as in a domestic call-out. Unlike the other archetypes who do violence the Brute has a personal code of behavior and doesn't feel a need for some sort of leader or controller, although sometimes they do join an organization with a leader whose orders must be followed. The Brute is also not necessarily unintelligent; although often portrayed that way because of either lazy or simplistic writing, sometimes he just doesn't see the need to be smart all the time. What the Brute is not is highly educated in an institution, all other intelligence-related qualities are up for grabs. The name comes from the fact that someone who prefers physical solutions, uses short words, and stumps about being blunt and sometimes uncouth is usually seen as brutish.
(Examples: Jayne Cobb, Raven [Snow Crash], Max Hansen, Sandor Clegane, Xander Cage)

The Child-Bride
For various reasons, there's a class of protagonist who is young, inexperienced, and thrust into a position of either authority or leadership-by-example while being paired with an older, more jaded character. Usually this provides a protagonist a young person can relate to (in the case of young adult fiction) while being singled out as special, or it's done to show contrast and create benign conflict and progress the story via dialectic. The Child-Bride, not the abducted and enslaved kind but the young person thrown into an adult role, provides energy and stability beyond his or her years, as well as hope and fresh thinking. Usually she or he learns some lessons about disappointment, hardship, or pain, while the older person the Child-Bride is matched with learns to have new hope in the world. It's a very old device, but it still works.
(Examples: Sarah Williams from Labyrinth, Lucy Pevensie, Luke Skywalker (arguably), Wendy Darling, Amanda Graystone)

The Innocent
There's very little to say about the Innocent because they're so rarely found in fiction. They're more of a proto-Arcane than anything else, a blank template, if you will. They have significant force of personality but little experience to direct that personality in a specific manner; they may be found at the start of a journey/quest narrative and morph into another Arcane by the end of the story.
(Examples: AudSarLu as a construct, Alcuin no Delaunay, Twoflower, Vir Cotto at least as he begins)

The Madwo/man
This be madness, yet there's method in't. That's the core of the Madman character, though the madness itself can take a lot of different forms. The two requisite parts of the madness are that the character must be damaged or nonfunctional according to the standards of the setting in which the work takes place, and the character must possess wisdom and knowledge that the rest of the characters don't. Maybe the Madman is aware of the knowledge or maybe not, but the point is that there's truth, often valuable and helpful, in all the deranged blather, if the characters have the patience to sit down and sift through it or, in the event that the Madman is a part of an ongoing journey, the patience to care for the Madman character.
(Examples: Zathras, Stark the Banik, Don Quixote, Delirium of the Endless, Ponder Stibbons)

The Priest/ess
Many of these archetypes use their perception and knowledge for evil or at least for not-very-nice. The Priest/ess uses that perception for good. If also not necessarily for nice. Because of this the Priest/ess generally ends up fixing things, not only rescuing people but fixing problems, instructing people to be self-sufficient, employing strategy and counseling before defeating enemies with violence. Though when the violence comes, generally the Priest/ess is capable as everyone else at either dealing it, deflecting it, or both. They also tend to, because of this perceptive ability, be shown as the flip side of or in danger of becoming the Sorcerer. Of all the flaws inherent in the Priest/ess, the greatest is the tendency to disregard personal weakness because, dammit, people need help and s/he is qualified. Also known as the Super(wo)man complex.
(Examples: Phedre no Delaunay, Delenn, Jeffrey Sinclair/Valen, Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan, Granny Weatherwax)

The Sorcerer/ess
Into many stories an anti-hero must fall. The Sorcerer is the bad boy, the one you love to hate and hate to love. Usually depicted as male, he's severely damaged in some way but still capable of passing for functional in his native society. The core of his narrative is that at some point, he was offered a choice between power and love (be that platonic or romantic) and chose power above all. While the name for the trope suggests this power must be magical in nature, it can also be temporal or cerebral. The Sorcerer knows exactly when and why he's become the person he has, and regrets it on some level. His true power comes not from whatever he hoped to gain, but from his self-knowledge and knowledge of others' motives, and ability to manipulate them into choosing against their own self-interest and/or for their worst desires. This gives him the self-satisfaction of knowing that what he's done, everyone else can fall to. Sorcerers tend to come in stages, which for the sake of pedantry have been split into five, with one being the lightest and most capable of turning back to another Arcana's path and five being terminally self-destructive. Unless the story is about their redemption arc, they're usually found on the more self-destructive side of things, as the examples list shows.
(Examples: Jareth, Lucifer, Randall Flagg, Melisande Shahrizai, Raistlin Majere)

The Star
As much as people like an anti-hero, sometimes the grimdark gets depressing, and that's where the Star comes in. Stars are shiny, very very shiny, shiny squirrels on speed. And acid. They tend to be performers of some kind or another, for best and most widespread effect, but the core of the Star is simply to bring lightness and laughter to wherever they are. That said, if someone mistakes them for empty-headed or stupid because of this, well, they tend to be quickly proven wrong. And if they aren't, it's because it amuses the Star to play dumb. The Star's function in a work is not only to provide levity but also to provide the strength and energy that comes with hope and optimism, and generally the moments of greatest despair see the Star getting both more serious and more heartfelt and uplifting. Narrative permitting, of course, because the Star is another type that can easily turn to Sorcerer if you're working with the grimdark aspects.
(Examples: Tank Girl, Marcus Cole, Cuthbert Allgood, Carlos Ramirez [Dresden Files])

The Tragedien/ne
Sometimes there just is no happy ending. Sometimes the character is screwed every which way until they end up dead, or worse. This used to be a far more popular character type than it currently is; now it's more required that the character be justified in their eventual doom than simply 'they're the main character in a tragic story.' In any case, often for a variety of reasons, the Tragedien/ne is the protagonist who can't escape the death of the self, usually with accompanying physical death. Sometimes the base of the tragedy is of his or her own making, but events conspire to prevent them from learning crucial information, or taking the hard-but-livable way out is simply a choice they can't see. (See especially Morpheus, who ends up in a tangle of familial duty and debts owed.) Often the character even realizes their end is coming, providing some commentary or wisdom on the situation.
(Examples: Morpheus-Dream of the Endless, Juliet, Eddard Stark, Londo Mollari, Roland Deschain)

The Twins
There are two prevalent types of twins in fiction; the first type is the type that's nearly one person in two bodies, Fred and George Weasley, the twins from the second Matrix movie. This archetype deals with the other sort, the kind that is light and dark, day and night. Not necessarily good and evil, because many of these twin pairings are on the same side, but they have opposite approaches to the problems presented within the story. Sometimes you can find this archetype within a single person, Fight Club being probably the most pop-culture prevalent example of it but also some renditions of Jekyll and Hyde (Moffat and Nesbitt I'm looking at you) present this way.
(Examples: Vash the Stampede & Nicholas Wolfwood, Apollo & Artemis, Cain and Abel of Mysteries and Secrets, Sally and Gillian Owens, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern [Stoppard, not Shakespeare])

The Warrior
Unlike many of the other archetypes here, the Warrior isn't a leader, or at least, not in the independent sense. The Warrior might lead soldiers, and will do so very capably, but if the Warrior is the protagonist it's generally, pun intended, in service of a cause or a leader. This may result in conflicts between the leader or others in the cause and the Warrior's own sense of justice and responsibility, which is acute. Words most often associated with this archetype are loyalty, duty, and honor, engraved into 50 ton anvils and dropped on toes at any convenient point within the narrative.
(Examples: Commander Vimes, Joscelin Verreuil, Jorah Mormont, Detective Joss Carter, Paksenarrion)

The Witch
Witches come in a lot of different flavors and archetypes, but for these purposes if (arguably) the Priestess is the Crone and the Child-Bride is the Maiden figure, then the Witch would be the Mother. The Witch represents a more organic, gradual, and passive form of nurturing and teaching, and a less chaotic form of wisdom than the Madman. The Witch brings wisdom and healing from simplicity and provides an often much-needed grounding element, usually in earth-based philosophy and magic but sometimes just in the importance of ordinary things like cooking a meal or cleaning up a living space.
(Examples: Radagast, Juliette Silverton, Tara Maclay, Poledra, Nanny Ogg)


  1. This is a fascinating compilation of archetypes. Looking forward to applying them to character profiles. Thanks for posting!

    1. Thanks! We've found them really useful when describing shows and other writings, glad to share. :) (And sorry about being forever behind on comments, ugh.)