The Joy of Archetypes.

The other day, my first born IMed me a URL from her computer downstairs. Nothing out of the ordinary there. I clicked on it and found myself looking at me. Well, a pen and ink version of me anyway. Same "birth control" glasses, beard, pocket full of pencils, pot belly, unfashionable clothes, and bemused look (okay, in my case it's more of a thousand mile stare). It seems this is a portrait of the archetypical strategy gamer from an online gamers' comic.

It's interesting; I never thought of myself matching an archetype. I always figured the Lord took one look at me, broke the mold, burnt the blueprints, and blew up the factory.

Archetypes are a part of writing in which something, a personality for instance, stands as a symbol for all such personalities having the same features. Psychiatrist Carl Jung described the idea of archetypes but mythologist Joseph Campbell popularized them with his description of the "Hero's Journey" in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Story tellers have used archetypes as long as there have been stories. Humans are apparently hard-wired to recognize archetypes. Aesop's tortoise and hare are archetypes. Plautus' stock characters, Pseudolus, Senex, and Miles Gloriosus [see "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" below] are archetypes. John Ford and John Wayne dealt in archetypes. In our own time, Luke, Han, Obi Wan, Varder, in fact every character in Star Wars is an archetype that comes from the Hero's Journey, as does the plot of "Star Wars IV: A New Hope" (for my part, The Hero with a Thousand Faces is one the of the few books I'd like seen burned, though only in southern California--with the success of the first Star Wars movie, every hack in Hollywood ran out and bought a copy and writes scripts by just plugging names into the Hero's Journey and mixing and matching time periods and genres).

Archetypes can be used as a form of literary short hand, though best with restraint. When every general is crazed with blood lust, every politician is venal, every holy man is either a saint or the devil incarnate, or every member of a minority is the salt of the earth, archetypes become a cracked crutch for lousy writing.

For those of us who attempt to write humor though, archetypes can be a gift. When the audience detects an archetype they are predisposed to expect certain characteristics. This allows the writer to set them up for the gag and then jerk the rug out from under them. That the evil galactic overlord (is there any other kind?) wants kittens on his new charge card is what makes the commercial memorable. If you do it right, the audience gets a slight case of mental whiplash. Vaudevillians from Plautus to Eddy Foy to Monty Python have made a living off of this for a couple of thousand years.

Like most good workmen, writers need to learn to use these tools in the right situations. That way, there are fewer barked knuckles around the keyboard.


Review: (Note to FTC: I bought this dang DVD myself!)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. MGM. 1 hour 37 minutes.

This is one of my guilty pleasures (like Larry the Cable Guy until he runs me out of the room). As Zero Mostel sings at the opening of Stephen Sondheim's take on Plautus, "Something appealing. Something appalling. Something for everyone...a comedy tonight!"

"A Funny Thing" is an updating of two of Plautus' better plays, "Pseudolus" and "Miles Gloriosus." Zero Mostel plays the part of Pseudolus, slave in the household of Senex and his lovely wife, Dominia (I had to write that, she had a dagger at my throat), residents of "a less fashionable suburb of Rome." Pseudolus can best be described by eavesdropping on a tavern converstation between procurer Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers) and Crassus (Jon Pertwee),a newly arrived ship's captain:

Lycus: "He did it to me again!"

Captain: "Who?"

Lycus: The dirtiest, conviving-est, lying-est, thieving-est, crookedest, most underhanded slave in all of Rome!"

Captain: "Oh, you mean Pseudolus."

Basically, Pseudolus hatches a plot to gain his freedom that involves Hero (Michael Crawford), the son of Senex, an attempted dirty old man (Michael Hordern), head slave Hysterium (Jack Gilford), Domina (Patricia Jessel), Senex's frightening wife, Philia (Annette Andre), a rather confused virgin and love interest of both father and son, Erronius (Buster Keaton in his last role) as the dim-visioned slightly punch-drunk retired gladiator next door, Marcus Lycus and his emporium on the other side, and a legion led by Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene), the man who raped Thrace thrice.

The movie is the epitome of low comedy with its one-liners, double ententes, pratfalls, misdirection, puns, and chases. From this, you might, maybe get the feeling I like it.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is rated A-III (adults) by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: http://www.usccb.org/


15 January 2010: Feast of St. Ceolwulf of Lindisfame, Nebuchadnezzar II besieges Jerusalem 588 BC, Britsh Museum opens 1759, 21 killed in Boston Molasses Disaster 1919, Pentagon dedicated 1943.

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