Six identities, six stories

As I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead,  it hit me that the six identities of the writer she explores can also be interpreted as six story archetypes. Almost every story I could think of fit at least one of the archetypes, and many took elements from several of them.Clearly, these are stories that resonate deeply with us.

It’s no accident that Atwood gives many examples from horror fiction to support the archetypes she identifies in her book. Horror, which confronts both our fear of and fascination with death, is the most primal of literary genres. It is also most closely tied to our oldest kinds of stories: myths, legends, and fairy tales. Following Atwood’s lead, I have chosen horror novels to illustrate each of the six archetypes. I have found at least one famous classic work of horror literature that perfectly exemplifies each category.

Categorizing is fun, as well as a human compulsion. These archetypes provide an interesting and, I think, useful way of thinking about stories. (But of course, it is not the only way.)

(1) Realization story: The protagonist realizes something critical about his/her own nature and undergoes fundamental change. Best known as the coming-of-age story.

Example: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is a perfect example of a coming-of-age and self-realization story.

(2) Duplicity story: Dual natures, whether internal or external, are placed in opposition to one another. Includes stories of good versus evil, rivalry, tricksters, doppelgangers, and shapeshifters.

Example: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is the prototypical split personality story, exploring the warring dark and light sides of human nature.

(3) Devotion story: The protagonist is dedicated to something higher than him/herself and pursues it, no matter what the human cost. Includes stories of playing God, pursuing art for art’s sake, giving oneself over to the gods or the muse, and self-sacrifice.

Examples: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is the story of a scientist who pursues his quest to create life and winds up creating a monster with horrific consequences for him and everyone he loves.

(4) Temptation story: The protagonist is tempted to violate what is ethical or right in exchange for personal gain. Includes stories of deals with the devil, falls from grace, black magic, and forbidden love.

Examples: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is about a man who gives into a life of hedonism and eternal youth, the effects of which show only on his portrait, but ends up losing his soul in the process (also Doctor Faustus and all its variants).

(5) Outsider story: The storyteller is a stranger or stands apart from the world in some way and reports what s/he witnesses or discovers something that must be told. Dystopias often fall into this category.

Examples: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells is about a scientist who makes himself invisible and becomes a hated and feared exile from society as a result.

(6) Descent story: The protagonist journeys to a strange land outside of normal human experience or encounters the supernatural on a quest to bring back something of value or to save or avenge someone. Includes stories of the hero’s journey, overcoming the monster, and many ghost stories.

Examples: Dracula by Bram Stoker begins with a journey to a foreign land, where Jonathan Harker encounters the supernatural vampire, and ends with a quest by a band of heroes to destroy Dracula and save Mina Harker (also The Odyssey  and Beowulf).


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