Archetypes and Symbols are for Everyone

A picture is worth a thousand words.  When I show you a picture it communicates everything visually.  I don’t have to use words to describe it.  But how can you use a minimum of words to get your audience to visualize what you are saying?  By incorporating archetypes and symbols into your writing.

Venus de Milo is all about love and beauty and femininity.

Ulysses is all about the hero and masculinity.

Modern day equivalents are Barbie and GI Joe Dolls.

You get the picture.

Both of these symbols can be considered archetypes.

Carl Jung considered archetypes to be universal in the human psyche.  He found they persist throughout history and across cultures.  He based many of his theories on delving into his patient’s unconscious and comparing their symbols with symbols in ancient myths and legends.

They are commonly used in many different ways to get us to feel something.  You could say it’s all manipulative, but you have to be the ultimate judge of that.

Symbols and Archetypes in Cinema and Fiction

That Red Sled

Remember that Orson Welles’s movie we all had to watch in high school?  Citizen Kane?  What was up with that red sled?  Rose bud.  I don’t know about you but it drove me nuts trying to figure this out.  All it was was a symbol of happiness before Charles Kane was forced to leave home.

Like my fiction teacher used to say, all fiction can be boiled down to these two motiffs: a hero takes a journey, or a hero comes to town.  Charles Kane had to leave home.  And it haunted him even though he became very powerful.  Charles Kane was in reality, William Randolph Hearst, the paper mogul.  A very interesting story, by the way.

How You Can Weave Symbolism into Your Fiction

Consider smell.  It is said that the sense of smell brings back the oldest memories.

Say you have a character who had an happy childhood.  We will call her Shiela.  She has this sickeningly sweet aunt who is nice to everyone.  Except Shiela.  The aunt wears a cloying lavendar smelling perfume.  The aunt is sitting next to Shiela and when no one else is looking pinches Shiela, leaving bruises.  Now, Shiela is grown up and everytime she sees or smells lavendar she wants to throw up.  You can see how this lavendar symbolism could lead into a multitude of possibilities.


I do not know why the critics go on and on about James Joyce’s Ulysees.  Oh it is brilliant!  The book of the century!  Joyce is a genius! 

They say all this nonsense because they think the book is hard to understand and it is unique.   First of all, all Joyce did was flip a switch unto this collective unconscious symbolism and let all of the myths and legends of the Irish come pouring in.  Some of it sounds like jibberish and some of it sounds coherent, but really, that’s all it is.

Second of all, it wasn’t that unique.  Virginia Woolf was doing the same stream of consciousness writing.  And later on Jack Kerouac joined the pack before he drank himself stupid and silly.

You too, Can Flip this Switch

Try this exercise sometime.  Pick a common archetype:  the hero, the mother, the child, the trickster, or the shadow.  See what resonates for you and then jump in.  Write it all down as a stream of consciousness activity.

Advertising:  Making Money on Your Unconscious Desires

One of my passtimes when I actually do turn on the TV is to laugh at the commercials.   These advertisers have a thing or two up their sleave.  It seems they know a great deal about psychology.

That Ford Explorer

Like a rock.  This vehicle is seen climbing over rough terrain and racing into the wilderness. It plays into our American mythology of being tough, adventurous pioneers.

The Explorer was a very popular vehicle.  But with the rising cost of gas we can no longer be adventurers.

I wonder what will replace it?

Photo Credit:  Ellen Wilson

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33 thoughts on “Archetypes and Symbols are for Everyone”

  1. Steph,

    ALL of your story ideas will come from your experience. Even if you write about space aliens.

    Your great references – about the bulging eyed woman in the Paris cathedral – she could easily be a character. How would she think or act or think in a particular situation? Put yourself in her shoes. Imagine what it’s like. Does she wear clean underpants? Does she wear perfume? Who were here parents? Did they love her? This is why fiction is most freeing. It’s really not about us. But about everyone.

    It’s just up to you to jot it all down. Too preserve everything.

  2. When Bob Seger was in this 20’s, he worked for GM for a crummy wage.

    Fast forward, years later, when he was a superstar. GM paid him a bajillion dollars for the rights to use his song “Like a Rock” for their TV commercial.

    Pay back time, huh?

    Now we come to associate that song with tough pick-up trucks. It’s become it’s own archetype.

    That’s pretty cool, when you think of it. In his small way, Bob Seger has influenced our culture.

    I’d love to be able to say I’ve done that. Whether it’s a song, painting, book, play….but to say you’ve done that, that would be a great legacy.

    Even if it’s a TV commercial.

    Friar’s last blog post..How come?

  3. Friar,

    You are influencing us now. We love to go to the Deep Friars! Your site is a culmination if all things Friar: paintings, cartoons, widgets and Splat Creek humor. It’s great!

    I know how you feel, though. I’m in the same boat. I want to be published (books and print magazines) and I wish it would happen sooner than later. I feel like I have wasted a lot of time and energy on education and jobs that a. didn’t suit me, or 2. didn’t pan out into anything. And I’m still paying back my loans. That REALLY hurts!

    This is the time in our lives that we feel this most acutely. It’s stuck in our face and we have not choice but to honor the call to do the creative things or be stuck in unhappiness.

    As far as I know GM workers always made a great wage. They made more than a lot of college graduates!

    Part of Michigan’s shitty economic problem was that they can’t be competitive with the Japanese and others in the auto industry. Who knows what will happen here. But the last time I checked our state was doing the worst in the nation.

  4. Ellen, I love getting these tips from other writers. This was a great piece that comes along at a time when I am delving more into fiction. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I love the sidebar changes by the way. 🙂 You and Friar are already influencing culture. I think what I’m learning lately is that the sphere of influence has shifted, and so my definition of writing success has had to shift too. I haven’t let go of the old fashioned dream of a traditional publishing deal but I have made room for writing success in new media. These are interesting times in which we live. *sigh* The Michigan economy is sad. Changes that should have been made many years ago would have not prevented the housing crisis but certainly would have positioned the state better. While the US economy sucks everywhere, Michigan is much worse off than everyone else. Sadder still, the auto industry and their control resulted in no transportation alternatives here at a time when they are sorely needed. I’ll stop now, because it irritates me.

  5. @Ellen

    Same thing over here. There are major auto plants in Oshawa Ontario and one of the might shut down and affect at least a thousand workers.

    The paper industry is taking a crapper too. (Which is why I got out of it).

    Sooner or later, everything is going to be out-sourced to China or India. Makes me wonder…do we MAKE ANYTHING anymore in North America?

    @Karen and Ellen
    Thanks for the compliment, but I dont’ think I”m influencing culture. I’m probably influencing an audience of, oh….I dunno….say a dozen. 🙂

    Friar’s last blog post..Discussing Popular Culture with a Nine-Year-Old

  6. @Karen – We all influence eachother in many ways. In ways we don’t even understand. I like publishing online, but it has it’s drawbacks. Online reading is very rushed. How many people actually savor a post? Not many. There are too many to get to. I have often thought of visiting not more than five blogs a day and really savoring the writing. And then writing a well seasoned comment. It’s very hard to do that. But with the printed word, you get to savor it.

    Yeah, I get pissed off too as far as Michigan’s economy is concerned. There was a lot that could have been done about it a long time ago, but it never happened. The rich are greedy and want to pump every last living cent out of us. I was reading the other day that the filthy rich Americans are even getting richer. Is it any wonder with the oil prices the way they are? Someone is skimming all that profit.

    You know, now that I think about it, I’m happy we haven’t seen Paris Hilton around lately.

    @Friar – There are so many forests in Canada, I can’t believe the paper industry is taking a hit, too! Wow. We used to make a lot of stuff in North America. Not any more. It’s cheaper for industry to exploit workers over seas. They also have to deal with less environmental regulations.

    Most of the stuff the US gets from China is junk goods. Like little doll shoes and Spoony (Snoopy) t-shirts. Seriously, I saw this on 60 Minutes or some other type show about the black market and China. They got mixed up with their spelling of Snoopy. Spoony! I love that! I really want a shirt that says Spoony on it!

  7. @Ellen

    Paper is expensive to make..the trees are getting further away. Cost of energy keeps increasing. The paper industry in Canada is going into a downward spiral.

    The forests are taking a real hard hit in Canada….they’re clear-cutting all over the place. Dont’ be fooled by the scenic highways..(they really know how to hide the logging from the main roads).

    You ougtha check out the city of Prince George (British Columbia) on Google Earth…zoom out and see all the clear cuts. It’s amazing.

    Regarding China. Oh, Man. I just saw the STUPIDEST made in China thing imaginable (That’s going to be one of my next posts!)

    SPOONY. Heh heh heh. That is so LAME.

    (Gives you an idea of the kind of quality control they have over there, eh?)

    Friar’s last blog post..Discussing Popular Culture with a Nine-Year-Old

  8. Hi Ellen,

    Like you, I love to analyze TV commercials. They know how to “get us”, or at least try. Earlier tonight I saw the one for McDonalds with the two people playing tunes with the free Coke glasses. It was so ingenious, I wondered how many people went out to get the LARGE meal deal, so they could get the free glass. Problem is, they need a lot of them to create the music, so they’ll continue to go back. Brilliant marketing.

    Barbara Swafford’s last blog post..FEFF – How To Get More Hits On Old Posts

  9. @Friar – Sounds like Canada is going downhill with its environmental regulations. You must have a conservative government. Everytime we get a conservative in government the first thing they do is out all the environmental people and put in people from the oil industry. Seriously. I’m amazed at the people who head up large agencies like the Deparment of the Interior and their credentials. It’s all big business.

    If the clear cuts are too large there will be some serious run off problems. Smaller clear cuts are the way to go. One thousand acre clear cuts are not a good idea. Forest openings are good for all kinds of species, and it keeps the ecosystem diverse.

    China is having some serious environmental problems due to its rush to industrialize. I wrote an article on it that’s supposed to be published.

    @Vered – Oh, for sure. They are. That’s how they get to us. The thing is we need very little to be happy. But it seems once we start acquiring things, we need more and more. It’s the disease of the civilized world. Civilized. Now there’s a concept.

    Yeah, I think at an unconscious level it creates a little itch that wants to be scratched.

    These botox commercials on my Yahoo main page are starting to drive me nuts. You know the ones where they show a woman with wrinkles and then the picture is ironed out to make her look 80 years younger? C’mon people!

    @Barbara – I haven’t seen that commercial, but that is brilliant. It’s interesting how these little commercial tidbits get buried and then suddenly pop into awareness when you’re driving down the strip looking for something to eat.

    My favorite commercials are the drug commercials. Some drug is advertised, something called, “Largalis,” and people will skate on a rink, hold hands, then snuggle by a fire. Then the announcer will say ask your doctor about this drug, and list all the affects, like droopy head syndrome and seizures. But they never state what it’s for! We have a pill for everything nowadays. If your happy meal doesn’t make you happy, well there’s a pill that will. Man, I love that line I just wrote. Maybe I’ll make a poem or something.

    Large meal deals are ridiculous. Way too much food for one person.

  10. @Ellen

    Well, I dont’ want to get into politcs too much.

    But actually, we’ve only had a Conservative government for the past 2 years…the previous 14 years, it was a Liberal Government.

    So, really, right now, who is largely to blame on the state of things in Canada?


    I think there’s equal stupidity on both sides.

  11. Friar,

    I don’t know that much about Canadian politics, all I can do is comment on what happens in the US and how it might be similar other places.

    People that manage natural resources recognize the fact that 1000 acre clearcuts are generally not a good thing. Sometimes, but not always. An aspen stand takes around 20-30 years to regenerate. Aspen being a very fast growing tree.

  12. Another thing you can check out on Google Earth is the boundary between Idaho and Wyoming, where Yellowstone National Park is.

    You can see the border from space….the clear cuts go right to the edge of the park. It’s really amazing (and sad!)

    (I admit..I’m a bit of a tree-hugger). But I know we need paper and wood…I don’t know what the solution is….

  13. Friar,

    I wouldn’t label yourself. Labeling yourself creates a small box you must fit into. Labels are for canned goods.

    I haven’t been on Google Earth much.

    I don’t worry too much about clearcuts. Unless they get to big. The problem with wilderness planning is really about diversity. Foresters are all about lumber and not creating habitat. They create vast stands of aspen and red pine because that’s what sells. Of course they all don’t believe this, I can think of one guy who was a forester and took on the forest service…I can’t remember his name off hand. But when you work for a big bureaucracy this is the kind of mentality you get. You have to shut up and tow the line. It’s a hierarchy and you have to listen to, and do what your superiors want. I could site some examples from MDNR, but it’s kind of like you and the widget factory.

    It’s good to have all manner of ecosystems, from the pioneer stage to old growth. Of course nature is never static, the whole system is dynamic. Everything is in a constant of flux.

    I think the biggest problems we have with land use planning issues in the US are over development and lack of protection for old growth areas. Around 120 years ago the US had vast stands of old growth, and then it was all logged for farms. And once it was logged, it wasn’t worth anything. My ancestors came to Northern Wisconsin and pulled stumps out of the ground to set up a subsistence farm. Land was real cheap back then.

    Yes, I agree. There is stupidity on both sides. I wish we had more political parties in the US. They don’t have enough funding. More choice is always good. I don’t think the founding “fathers” had any idea that this would happen. They most certainly didn’t figure in big business. Anyway, I’m rambling.

  14. Never mind the clear cutting here. Have a look some time at what is being done in South America, by farmers who want to grow crops for ethanol production for biofuels. Which are a crock, as far as I can see – at least, if they figure on growing corn or soybeans to make the alcohol. Any legit study will show that neither of those crops is capable of a workable biofuel solution. Yet the subsidies are there from the various governments…

    I wonder how much of all of this is stupidity. I prefer to call it “greed”.

    Brett Legree’s last blog at a time.

  15. @Brett

    Yeah…actually corn is pretty crummy for fuel. Sugar cane has the highest yield…if they’re going to grow biofuel, at least they should use THAT.

    But clear-cutting isn’t just about the mean old loggers. It’s about dirt-poor people who need to land to grow farms and earn a living. That’s what a lot of deforestation is about in South America…(Especially with some countries that are over-populated).

    So what are we supposed to tell a poor dirt farmers? “You can’t have that land to grow food because we Western yuppies say the trees are important.”. What’s their alternative?

    Dunno what the solution is….this is too heavy for a Sunday afternoon. I’m punching out and going for a beer….

    Grow and be well.

    (Or shrink and get sick). It’s all good! 🙂

  16. Brett,

    There goes the rainforest! Now I see what is happening. In Michigan corn fuel is being touted as the next best thing as sliced bread. As far as I can see making fuel out of corn takes as MUCH fuel as making gas. Everyone is still addicted to oil. It would make much more sense in developing solar sources, or some other type of safe energy source. Ethanol will not solve anyone’s problems.

    Yeah, it is all about greed.

  17. Friar – I understand what’s going on in South America and people trying to make a subsistence living from slash and burn agriculture. But it sounds like it could easily turn into another “banana republic” like the US had with many other South American countries. Like Cuba, for instance.

    I don’t know. I will have to investigate it all and form an opinion. All this information would make for a great article, though. We need better journalists who are on top of things. Forget Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Oh, and in the checkout line at Meijers today I learned that a lot of teenage girls got pregnant to emulate Britney Spears’s sister. This, from the Star. This is what makes the world go round.

  18. The problem in South America is now that the farmers realize that they can make *more* money growing crops for biofuel to power the cars of the yuppies in NA who are not telling them to stop clear cutting. So now instead of growing food for their own people, they are growing gas for us. And the poor people cannot afford to buy imported food. It’s a double whammy.

    Hemp is another alternative – not quite as good as sugar cane, but more versatile, plus any idiot can grow it (ref. Trailer Park Boys) – so maybe we should all be growing THC-free hemp in window boxes…

    Brett Legree’s last blog at a time.

  19. Brett,

    You crack me up. I always new you weren’t a fence city.

    Where is NA?

    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about in South America. It’s one of those things that I don’t think many people know about. Like genetically modified (GM) food. And like GM food, we don’t have a choice about who makes and controls our energy resources. Because guess who owns all of them?

    I really don’t mind talking about this stuff because it’s factually. It’s not like I’m trying to convince anyone of what’s going on. Really, anyone can do some good investigative reporting on their own if they want. This just gives me more article ideas.

    Knowledge is a good thing. And it’s nice to have educated widget friends who know a thing or two about biofuels.

  20. Ellen,

    🙂 sitting on the fence gets a bit uncomfortable after a while! (NA, North America – it was easier to type the way I was sitting last night…)

    I know exactly what you mean – GM food, terminator seeds, and so forth. Monsanto. Aspartame. (Agent Orange… funny how the company that made Agent Orange also makes Aspartame.)

    I agree – I think it is important to educate people and then let them decide what to do. I have this little side project I’m working on – it isn’t a big secret. I figure there has to be about 8 to 10 crops you can easily grow in your back yard that will give you the bulk of what you need to survive. I aim to find out what those are, learn to grow them, and then share the knowledge with everyone I know. When gasoline hits $10/gallon, it might be nice to be growing our own food…

    Brett Legree’s last blog at a time.

  21. Brett,

    Yuck, I checked on the articifial sweetner, Aspartme. Looks like it’s poison!

    I think when gasoline hits $10/gallon people will move out of the suburbs and into the city because it’s way too expensive to commute from their million dollar homes.

    I would rather grow my own food.

  22. Eventually, the era of Cheap Oil will end. But I don’t think we’re there yet.

    Every decade or so….been going on since the 70’s, there’s an oil crisis, prices go up. People preach about doom and gloom. This is it…we’re finally at the peak, and things will only get worse. All the Big Discoveries have been made…etc. etc..

    We stop using as much oil…driving the prices down, and suddenly the greedy oil companies open up the taps and make it plentiful again.

    It’s a boom-and-bust roller coaster ride. Watch…mark my words. Within a year or so….oil will be cheap again and people will have totally forgotten about this…until next time.

    Friar’s last blog post..Discussing Popular Culture with a Nine-Year-Old

  23. Ellen,

    That’s right. People will have to move into the city if this happens. Because traditional companies (like mine) will refuse to release the iron grip they have on us, and allow us to telecommute or go to a 10-hour / 4-day week, like some progressive companies do. Too bad.


    Well, the price of oil will go down. The price of gas will adjust, but just like last time, it will not go back down to where it was before the spike. Witness the last one – at the peak, the price was about what it is now where we live – $1.30 per litre. Then it readjusted to about 25 percent less, about $1.05 or so. I figure this summer it will spike to about $1.50 or 1.60 a litre, then adjust back to about $1.20 or $1.25 – I think it will just continue like this.

    As you know, prices *never* go back down to where they were before the “crisis” (and there’s a reason why crisis is in quotes, because as usual, this is all manufactured for the markets).

    Brett Legree’s last blog at a time.

  24. @Friar – I’ve never thought about it like that. I guess we don’t know how much oil is available. But if the price of oil stays high, everything is reflected in this – food (shipping costs) and other goods and services. Everything is adjusted price wise to reflect the price of oil.

    @Brett – Something has to give if people can’t afford their living situation. People will move if they can. And if they can’t they’ll start a victory garden. Who knows?

  25. Ellen,

    I think there is something else at work here. I’ve noticed that all of the major car companies have “suddenly” been able to develop more fuel efficient cars that should be on the market within a couple of years.

    (For instance, VW claim to have a two-passenger car that could be ready for market by 2010, that will get over 200 mpg.)

    So maybe if cars were lasting longer these days… and people weren’t buying new ones fast enough… if the price of gasoline goes up, people need new cars that are more efficient. I don’t know. It just seems a coincidence in a lot of ways.

    No doubt something will give. Or we’ll all take up gardening. Me, I’m going to learn to garden… 🙂

    Brett Legree’s last blog at a time.

  26. Brett,

    Holy moly! 200 mpg! Wow. I haven’t heard that yet.

    As long as the prices of these cars are with in reach, people will by them. If not, they will have to contend themselves with their old cars and get by. Not everyone can afford hybrid cars right now, either. I wonder how many people are waiting to see what happens with the fuel “revolution.”

    What will give? I wonder if it will be like Friar said, and the companies will manipulate supply and demand of oil, or if we will be manipulated to by these new cars. And the auto industry always wants us to buy new cars. There will always be those people out there who need the best and shiniest new thing.

  27. Thanks Ellen for this thoughtful post! I agree that our life is really affected by a bunch of past events and symbols that are left deep in our mind and just waiting to be triggered at sometime.

    I think it would be really helpful if someone succeeded in changing what a symbol can lead him/her to, or what a symbol means to him/her. Some symbols bring negative events and effect upon us, I can imagine how life can be if someone either erased such kind of symbols out of mind, or linked it to some other positive attitude.

    AxeCity’s last blog post..Manage your artwork online

  28. @Brett – Nothing beats (beets!) veggies from your own garden.

    Thanks for those links. I hear it all depends on how you drive and what kind of gas mileage you can expect. Don’t drive too fast, and coast before you get to a stop sign.

    @Axe City – That’s true, symbols can be manipulated, but it takes a massive occurence or a long period of time for that to happen. An example would be the meaning and origins of the swastika, which we all link now to Hitler and the Nazi party:

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