Writers, Know Your Archetypes: The Herald


In Part 3 of my series, “Writers, Know Your Archetypes,” I will examine the role of The Herald archetype in a story:

1. The primary function of herald characters is to give the protagonist “The Call to Adventure.” Or, to put it in more modern terms, their function is to kick off the plot. The herald says or does something that notifies the protagonist that he or she must deal with something of critical importance. In mythology, the god Hermes, literally the messenger of the gods of Olympus, would inform the protagonist of tasks the gods wanted him to accomplish.

2. The herald is usually the agent of change for the hero. He or she tells about/causes/cautions the hero about the event that will be critical to bringing about the hero’s character arc.

There are exceptions, however. M in the James Bond series, for instance, is an example of a herald whose calls do not lead to change in the character.

3. It is typical for heroes to initially refuse the call. People don’t want to change. Even in cases where the hero CLAIMS he or she is desperate for a profound change, when confronted with an actual call to adventure they tend to retreat back to the comfort of their known world. For example, Luke Skywalker complains about his life on Tatooine and yearns to leave to find adventure. When told he must leave his home to save Princess Leia, he immediately comes up with excuses for why he can’t do it. He only agrees when he finds his home has been destroyed and his aunt and uncle have been killed by Imperial stormtroopers.

4. Heralds may issue warnings along with the call to adventure. Which the hero may or may not heed, at least initially. Think the witches in MacBeth or Hamlet’s father’s ghost.

One of my favorite examples is in the movie Death Becomes Her. A mysterious woman named Lisle von Rhuman offers the two protagonists, Madeline and Helen, a miracle elixir to make them young again. She warns them both to take extra care of their bodies after drinking it. Both disregard the warning. Every time they are injured their bodies deteriorate exponentially.

5. The herald character doesn’t have to disappear from the story after issuing the call. Hermes would usually disappear (to appear again only to issue more instructions from the gods) but herald characters in modern stories often stick around. Hagrid in the Harry Potter series, C-3P0 and R2D2 in Star Wars, and Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games series are examples of herald characters who stay in the story beyond the initial call to adventure.

6. Heralds don’t have to be characters. Aside from Hagrid, another herald for Harry Potter is simply the letter informing him that he has been accepted at Hogwarts. An invitation, a photograph, a disaster warning, a bequest in a will, an item from the past, a story in a newspaper, magazine or on the internet—these and many other things can serve as heralds for the hero.

7. Heralds can have malicious intent. Depending on the genre, it is perfectly acceptable to start the hero’s journey with a herald who lies or at least misleads the protagonist.

This is quite common in detective fiction. In the movie Chinatown, a woman pretends to protagonist Jake that her husband is cheating on her. In the movie Vertigo, the protagonist Scottie is asked by a friend to follow his wife because he is afraid she will commit suicide. In both cases these are lies that still eventually lead to a character arc for both protagonists.

8. It is not unusual to combine the mentor and herald archetypes into one character. Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings series and Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz would be two examples.

9. Protagonists can sometimes also function as a herald character.  In Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic vampire novel The Passage, the protagonist FBI agent Brad Wolgast serves as the heraldic character for 12 death row inmates by talking them into agreeing to a “treatment” which is actually the virus that eventually turns them into the vampiric creatures. Brad, of course, gets his own call when he is offered the assignment in the first place.

Do you have a favorite herald character? Let us know in the comments section!

11 thoughts on “Writers, Know Your Archetypes: The Herald

  1. Pingback: MOON IN GEMINI

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