Archetypes, The Hero’s Journey & The Telling of Stories

Archetypes as Behaviors

An archetype is essentially ‘a universally understood symbol, term, or pattern of behavior, which serves as a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated.’ Jung talked about archetypes as universal, archaic patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious, and are represented as the psychic counterparts of human instinct. Husserl took these notions a step further and recognized that archetypes have the ability to change habits through unique experiences.

In plainer language, an archetype can represent an idea or a character that continues to appear in culture, across themes and narratives, and is a part of a developing story. Heroes, muses, villains, victims, protectors, mentors, facilitators, patrons, paternal and matrilineal figures all play archetypal roles in stories — they key is understanding who they actually are as they relate to your audience (or readership), and how they evolve a story beyond the written page.

The Journey Has Multiple Modes

When Campbell developed The Hero’s Journey, he intended to provide a framework for telling stories in a linear fashion; the hero literally embarks on a journey that has a series of challenges comprising a beginning, a middle and an end. In today’s, multi-modal, multi-platform world, the hero’s journey often has an open end. The story elements themselves are also extensible and non-linear (meaning they can take on lives of their own). ‘Transmedia’ narratives are a great example of this (one such example is the Holy Bible; it has numerous interpretations, archetypal forms and modes of consumption directly and indirectly connected through text). And as our friend Lance Weiler likes to say: “Stories haven’t changed, but the telling of them has.”

This graphic, an adaptation of Campbell’s framework, was created to explore how the telling of a story can align a customer with a product in a whole new way.


As you might deduce here, stories and storytelling techniques are more than the sum of a brand identity or a piece of content found on social media… They are opportunities to develop intelligence and design openly.

‘Telling’ is Participatory

In general, great stories are more participatory by their very nature. They have the potential to be more dialectic (thought and action-oriented) as well as dialogic in their form (thought and action-directed; connected to other works and other authors). In short, they are far more experiential.

This also means that as storytellers — whether we produce ‘content’, ‘media’ and/or an ‘experience’ — it is critical that we think in terms of what a story does to an audience and with an audience, rather than simply what it can mean or what we want it to mean. This is why we, at Paperlet, have not only built the hero’s journey framework into our own story editing tool, but we’ve incorporated a number of features that allow the storyteller to engage the audience as participants.

One could argue that participation has become the failure of ads and the backstop of most ‘social media’ or ‘content marketing’ practices. Stories, told well, transport people from an ordinary world into a realm of wonderment, exploration and actions that are ongoing. Put another way, when an ad runs on a screen, does it inspire you to make an informed purchase, or take some other action in alignment with a ‘brand’? When you read an advertorial or a blog post, does it evoke something within you that is truly relatable and shareable beyond the screen? Does it somehow change the rituals you engage in everyday (like exercise or simple communications)… whether you buy something, or not?

Designing an Experience, not just Creating Text or Media

Here’s the thing: when we design stories as real or enriched virtual experiences — irrespective of a fiction or non-fiction modality — behaviors change. They literally shift. And this doesn’t mean that as storytellers we have to manipulate those behaviors (for example, through messaging), it just means that we can tap into intentions that might already be accessible.

But first, we must understand what the journey represents:

*The reader (or participant) starts off in the ordinary world of his or her everyday life;
*The call to adventure is an unsolved problem or unfulfilled desire or an idea that creates possibility;
*There’s resistance to solving that problem of satisfying the desire or manifesting that possibility, and then…
*A mentor (your story) appears that helps him or her proceed with the journey (by way of an experience);
*The journey is something the reader (or participant) identifies with as his or her own archetype;
*…And it is something they can adopt and own for themselves as an ongoing experience.

These steps are obviously condensed bullet-points in the design of a story; the idea is to look at how the story actually functions as an experience, and then create accordingly.

Even within a highly fragmented media environment, the telling of stories has evolved to the extent that we can use emerging techniques not only to ‘create compelling content’, but to design products and services, to solve business and cultural problems, and to develop games that build up our senses, inspire new forms of learning and open unexplored areas of creativity.

Your storytelling gene is strong. Now go and design amazing experiences!



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