The Story Archetype(s)?

Faith, Fiction, Films

I was chatting with some mates yesterday and we somehow ended up discussing types of stories. We’d all heard the claim that there were 7 Story Archetypes; a quick google search uncovered this list:

  • The Odyssey - a 'Quest' story or 'Voyage and Return'?

    The Odyssey – a ‘Quest’ story or ‘Voyage and Return’?

    Overcoming the Monster

  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

The above link explains them each a bit better.Though we thought this was a pretty good list, we also recognised that each of these ‘archetypes’ (“the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based”) is fairly loosely defined and seems to overlap with others.

One of my friends confessed that he’d always dreamed of crafting a story which avoided all of these archetypes. But when we tried to think of how this could be done, we were stumped. A young man works towards becoming the best in his industry, but ends up failing horribly… that’s a tragedy. Maybe an elderly woman who discovers to become young again in order to ‘do over’ her life? Oh wait, that’s rebirth. We then tried looking at stories we know, to see if any of them find a way to avoid these archetypes. The three of us like to think of ourselves as film buffs, so we began thinking through our list of films. Again, no luck.

I then suggested something radical: that perhaps there’s only one story archetype. Every story ever told, and every story that will or can ever be told, is drawn from one great Story.

The Catholic Church speaks of ‘Salvation History’ – the huge living mass of stuff that makes up the history of mankind’s creation, fall and salvation, seen through the eyes of faith. The major happenings of this are contained with the Bible, which, though written over hundreds or thousands of years in a wealth of different settings, forms a single body of work. Even without the perspective of faith, there can be discerned within it a distinct story which flows through every piece of literature within Scripture: the poetry of the Psalms, the symbol-charged story of early Genesis, the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels, all of them.

salvation history

And so I propose an archetype called Salvation, which encompasses all other types. It’s basic premise is that in all stories there is an underlying battle between good and evil, with the conflict of these creating the thrust of the story. Good and evil can manifest themselves as hope and fear, right and wrong, peace and war, happiness and anger, clarity and confusion. The truly great stories – ones like The Lord of the Rings, The Great Gatsby, Othello, or The Divine Comedy – move through many of these manifestations, and though on the surface they appear to be a Tragedy or Voyage And Return, there is a much wider scope within them.


What do you think? My mates felt that this was a bit too loose of a definition – do you agree?


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