Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
—Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself
Many years ago, I had a dream that I was swimming in the middle of a vast, dark ocean. Nearby, I saw a human head bob above of the water. The face was in shadow, but I could see that the figure was trying to speak. Then another head surfaced. And another. And another.
Twenty figures, all moving their mouths. In my dream, I realized that they were singing.
That dream was the image that sparked my novels, Siren’s Storm and Fury's Fire. I’ve since learned that water is often a symbol of the subconscious. In my dream, the voices of my unconscious wanted to speak.
Carl Jung believed that we all hold ancient, primordial images that predate our conscious understanding. These archetypal images are essential for understanding parts of ourselves and are stored in our collective unconscious.Myths and fairytales often have familiar characters and images—ingenues, dark forests, monsters, witches, castles, warriors, tricksters...they appear again and again, representing familiar elements of our own psyches: innocence, danger, evil, strength, cleverness, and so on.
C.S. Lewis used this concept in his fantasy work. As he wrote in the New York Times, “I fell in love with the Form [of fairy tales] itself: its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections, and ‘gas.’” Like Jung, Lewis understood that the images in fairy stories are understood on a subconscious level that makes laborious explanations unnecessary. They’re shortcuts straight to understanding and often work across cultures.
When we create characters, we often draw on these elements to understand the complex people we’re crafting on the page. And we sometimes want to use these archetypes to set up (or subvert) reader expectations and assumptions.
This Applies To More Than Just Fairy Tales
As I write, I often like to think about the “energy” of the character or place I’m writing as I try to capture it on the page. This energy is often best captured by a particular archetype. That doesn’t mean that I will necessarily write it in a stereotypical way...a "dark forest" does not need to be a dark forest. For example, a school might have “dark forest” energy. I might then describe the school to bring that energy forward to the reader, with dead ivy clinging to the walls, a crumbling facade, and windows that open no more than three inches. When I imagine someone with “evil queen” energy, I reflect on my own pettiest thoughts, grievances, and insecurities and find a way to reflect them in the character.
We are large, we contain multitudes. Let those multitudes whisper into your ear as you create. They say you should write what you know, but you may discover that you know far more than your conscious mind realizes.