Nothing is new in the world of art. Good writers borrow, great writers steal. It’s all been said before. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Usually what follows is, but not by you. We all have a voice, a way of shuffling the puzzle pieces so it still feels inviting and fresh. But even so, there are collective tropes, symbols, and archetypes that will inevitably find their way into our worlds, regardless of how much we try to subvert them or throw them in the rubbish bin.
The art of story is old.
Human beings have been telling each other stories—and ourselves stories through cognition and dreams, goals and wants and trauma processing—since we developed language. Probably even before. It’s encoded in who we are, even at the genetic or evolutionary level.
We make meaning.
We tell stories as instinctually as we breathe.
And perhaps there’s something deep in us that understands—universally—what the codes in those stories mean.
Enter Carl Jung.
The history and the legacy of Jung often feel at odds with one another. I’m a humanities gal with a social psych minor and a master’s in literature; my sister has a master’s in school psych, a specialist degree in school psych, and a grad certificate in applied behavioral analysis.
We both have arguments about why Jung doesn’t actually belong in psychology.
My sister argues he’s more of a sociologist or an anthropologist. I argue he’s a humanist. Yes, he’s concerned with the unconscious brain, and I suppose sure, that impacts behavior (though there’s debate amongst psychologists about how valid the psychoanalytic branch actually is), but the real legacy of Jung seems to be how the collective unconscious manifests in our art.
Jung (and Freud, for that matter) often feels more like a history lesson in psychology classes: the “how it started” to today’s “how it’s going.” Over the course of my academic career, Jung appeared in the humanties far more than he ever did when I meandered into the sciences.
So fight me for him, psych majors.
Jung’s main contribution to the world is the assertion that underneath our individuated unconscious minds (which is what Freud was mostly concerned with, and which he argued was hella sexual… *cough* oral/anal/genital fixations *cough*), there’s something else. An ocean of shared meaning connecting the entire human race, regardless of cultural background or, you know, what century we’re in.
The Collective Unconscious
Some symbols and archetypes, Jung argues, are universal.
Slaying the dragon is the child breaking out from under parental control.
Shadows are the dark inverses of ourselves.
Yoda is the Sage, Luke is the Hero, Solo is the Outlaw.
The names get a little messy (is Luke the Warrior? Is Solo the Jester or the Troubadour or the Trickster? Who’s the better Sage–Yoda or Obi Wan?).
A lot of symbols might not actually belong in the collective unconscious (children = innocence, right? Well did you know that childhood is a construct developed during the industrial revolution after… you know… children kept dying in the workplace?).
And some symbols might have evolutionary explanations. (Don’t @ me for this one, I’m sorry…): you know what’s super dangerous and an advantageous phobia for early humans? Snakes. You know what tends to be the biggest symbol for evil in the world? Snakes. Might have a chicken or the egg thing on our hands here, Satan.
The collective unconsciousness’s existence is not a fact. By definition, we can’t ever prove that it’s there–it’s unconscious. According to psychoanalytical psychologists, our conscious minds cannot fully perceive it, even if it affects us daily.
There does seem to be a shared understanding–or at least the opportunity to negotiate shared understanding–in a lot of the embedded codes in our stories. Whether that’s universally human or culturally specific, attached to the soul or evolutionary, the fact remains that if you write a story today, it will probably engage in patterns of meaning making that are widely understood.
The effects of the collective unconscious are twofold:
1). Code recognition happens faster. (Quick uptake)
2). More people recognize code information. (Wider demographic)
For these reasons, the collective unconscious is often taught in introductory marketing and communication classes. Transmitting information quickly and widening your demographic is, like, the whole point of branding and advertisement. Whether an ad is 60 seconds during the Super Bowl, 3 seconds until skipped, or a banner on the side of your web browser, advertisement happens FAST. Within milliseconds, companies need to get across who they are and why you might want to embody that archetype by buying their product.
Nike is phenomenal at this. Named after the winged goddess of victory, this sports brand has embodied the warrior/hero archetype to the T, and its advertisements usually follow the archetypal act structure known as The Hero’s Journey.
In media, athletes and soldiers generally are both warrior/hero archetypes based on the kind of struggles they face and the kinds of values they embody. Their stories generally follow the story map detailed in the images below–a call to adventure, a series of tests, an ordeal in the abyss, and then the return home with special knowledge / ascent to a higher plane.
Most Nike commercials are tightly mapped onto this story structure.
Which means I can tell you to take any Nike commercial and map it onto a war movie, and you’ll see the same journey, the same kind of tropes: camaraderie, struggling for something greater than one’s self, perseverance through struggle and physical / mental strength. May I have the envelope please…
“We’re never alone, and that is our strength. Because when we’re doubted, we’ll play as one. When we’re held back, we’ll go farther and harder. If we’re not taken seriously, we’ll prove that wrong. And if we don’t fit the sport, we’ll change the sport. We know things won’t always go our way. [And the world’s sporting events are postponed or canceled.] But whatever it is, we’ll find a way. And when things aren’t fair, we’ll come together for change. [We have a responsibility to make this world a better place.] And no matter how bad it gets, we will always come back stronger. Because nothing can stop what we can do together. [You can’t stop sport. You can’t stop us.]”Nike Commercial Transcript
This Nike ad not only uses the hero/warrior archetype and employs the archetypal map of the Hero’s Journey, it actually makes an argument for sport to belong in the collective unconscious as well–that sport is a manifestation of these universal codes… and that it unites all of us under that expression.
That is a really powerful way to market. The story that this ad tells is a universal story–it’s one we can all relate to whether we’re athletes or not. In our every day lives, we find moments of struggle and find the strength to overcome, and when we sit down in front of Netflix or crack open a book to escape from that struggle, we inhabit the lives of characters who do the exact same thing.
The Hero’s Journey is considered one of the pinacles of storytelling.
It could be argued that it’s the basis of all stories everywhere.
Let me reframe the spiral diagram of the Hero’s Journey. If we broke it up into pieces, how might we label them?
Act 1: call to adventure
Act 2: test, allies, enemies
Second Act Turn: the abyss & transformation
Act 3: return & ascent to a higher plane
You might recognize this flow from act to act in media you’ve consumed before–books, shows, movies, video games, advertisements. And if you’re a writer (which I assume most of you are), you might recognize it from craft books like Save the Cat, which has taken the Instagram #writingcommunity by storm (and for good reason). If we take the collective unconscious as truth, then Jessica Brody (and Blake Snyder before her) are simply laying bare patterns that ALL of us recognize, that all of us have embedded in us like universal html code–a driver put there by God or shaped by the gradual hand of natural selection or intended by something else entirely. As I’ve mentioned before, intent is bloody hard to prove, so I’ll just stick with the effects.
What to do with those effects, as a writer, is completely up to you.
I get a little skittish, to be honest, around Jung because of the assertion that the collective unconscious is completely universal, especially given that my experience with it is more Eurocentric. (We’ll explore that waaaaayyyy more in-depth next week.) But I do think it’s worth at least bringing up Jung on a blog called Write Like You Did It On Purpose. Whether you’re discovering, plotting, writing, or revising your project, what the collective unconscious offers you is an opportunity to move more intentionally through the patterns of stories.
If you want to tap into it like a well-focused ad campaign, go for it. If you want to go all Cabin in the Woods on it and flip it all on its head, you do you. If you want to call Jung a quack and ignore it completely, you wouldn’t be the first.
But there are beautiful examples of the collective unconscious done well if you want something to aspire to.
It’s easy to categorize Yoda, Luke, and Solo into archetypes, for instance, because George Lucas famously mapped his story structure onto these collective codes. Is Lucas great at dialogue? Not really. But is he good at beat sheeting? Damn straight. (Don’t @ me for that one either haha). And perhaps because he used the hero’s journey and Jung’s archetypes as road maps, Lucas created one of the biggest canonical franchises in the science fiction genre. It spoke to A LOT of people very quickly.
The Hero’s Journey isn’t solely reserved for grand space operas or inspiring war movies either. Go to YouTube and you’ll find a plethora of video essays on Dan Harmon’s use of the same beat sheet. His fans like to point out that his termination from Community resulted in the terrible Season 4–which Ken Jeong’s character jokes about in the final episode–because the new showrunners didn’t stick to that act structure. And, I mean, we’ve all seen the star power of Rick and Morty, right?
Archetypes have always been the bread and butter of fairy- and folktales as well. Part of their universality is because their characters often are archetypes rather than fully fleshed out human beings. It doesn’t take a lot of mental energy to understand them, and we can imagine ourselves as them more easily because they function a little more shallowly than a character-driven literary masterpiece. For that reason, these stories worked well as oral allegories that transmitted easy morals and helpful tips to navigate a troublesome world:
Red Riding Hood
—respect your elders.
Beauty & the Beast
—don’t judge a book by its cover.
—don’t talk to strangers.
In a lot of ways, that’s incredibly reductive, but fairytales have been used to socialize children for centuries. (Not forever, though. Originally, they were for adults. It wasn’t until the oral tradition went literary in the 17th century that it started to shift towards children—one reason why the older folktales are hella dark and violent).
Folktales even speak to one another with the codes of the collective unconscious. Bluebeard, for instance, is the shadow story (re: dark inverse) of Beauty & the Beast.
Beauty & the Beast
—monster turns out to be marriage material.
—marriage material turns out to be a monster.
In Bluebeard tales, the young woman marries a handsome man (with a blue beard, in the OG French version), only to find out he’s murdered multiple wives and kept their bodies in a room the MC isn’t allowed to enter. If you’re a Guillermo del Torro fan, you’ve watched both BB movies: Shape of Water (Beauty & the Beast) and Crimson Peak (Bluebeard). And scholars have long pointed out that some of our beloved literary classics are re-toolings of these incredibly old, archetypal stories–Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for instance, is often read as a Bluebeard fairytale.
If you want examples of staying power, of stories being beloved by a MASSIVE audience, then fairytales are a great example of what archetypes can do for storytellers.
I’m probably ranting, now, but…
Stories have a heartbeat, a rhythm (act structure)
and a set a symbolic codes that most, if not all of us recognize (archetypes)
Drama, comedy, published novel, or campfire tale. No matter the medium, no matter if it’s high brow literary or a 30 second ad you skip on YouTube, the most effective stories either have or are alluding to the patterns we recognize on a much larger scale.
So fight me for him, psych majors. We storytellers have a vested interest in Carl Jung hanging out at the humanities table.