In part 5 of my series on archetypes, I will examine the role of the Threshold Guardian:
1. Traditionally, the threshold guardian was a person or thing that stood in the hero’s way just as he or she enters the “new world” of the adventure. This was nearly always the first event that happened at the transition point between Act 1 and Act 2 of a story, and again between Act 2 and Act 3. An example from mythology would be Cerberus, the three-headed dog that protects the entrance to the underworld. When Orpheus travels to the underworld to retrieve his dead love, he must get past Cerberus. (A modern variation of Cerberus is Fluffy, the three-headed dog that guarded the Sorcerer’s Stone in the first Harry Potter book.)
2. In modern fiction threshold guardians may appear at any point in the story, including the everyday world. HOWEVER, when they appear in the first act of a story, they are usually successful at blocking the hero’s desire—and steering them on a path towards the adventure. For instance, in the first act of the 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy encounters Professor Marvel, a travelling salesman, as she is running away with Toto. He persuades her to return home. Then she encounters another threshold guardian (the tornado) that prevents her from entering the basement shelter, and eventually propels her into the land of Oz and her adventure.
In the Coen Bros. movie Raising Arizona, several threshold guardians stand in the way of Ed and Hi’s desire to have a child (Ed’s infertility, doctors who can’t help, adoption agencies that refuse to give them a child). This leads to them stealing one from a group of recently born quintuplets.
3. In the “special world” of the adventure, the major function of the threshold guardian is to test the hero. While the function of threshold guardians in the everyday world is simply to thwart the hero and point them on a road towards adventure, once in the world of the adventure, their function changes to one that tests, challenges and even changes the hero in some way.
In Raising Arizona, it’s when Ed and Hi must contend with several threshold guardians after they steal the baby that they understand the error of their ways and begin to change.
4. Threshold guardians may or may not be antagonistic characters. The most obvious characters to use as threshold guardians would be minions of the antagonist who try to keep the hero from progressing on her path. But friendly, well-meaning characters can also function as threshold guardians. Worried parents, a love interest who distracts from the main objective, an ally who needs help—these are only some of the possible friendly threshold guardians.
Somewhere in between an antagonistic and friendly guardian would be a bureaucratic character who thinks he or she is blocking the hero for the common good. An example would be Walter Peck in Ghostbusters, who works for the EPA and wants to shut them down because the machine containing the ghosts they capture may harm the environment.
5. Another variation of the threshold guardian is the “secret helper.” Usually an ally of the hero’s mentor, a secret helper may seem to be hobbling or tempting the hero away from his progress, but is actually testing him to see if he is worthy of and/or ready to face the most difficult parts of the adventure.
An example of a “secret helper” would be Mr. Slugworth from the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. As soon as Charlie finds the golden ticket that means he wins a visit to the chocolate factory, Mr. Slugworth appears out of nowhere and blocks his path. He offers him money if he will steal an Everlasting Gobstopper from Wonka’s factory. Later, even though disillusioned by Wonka, Charlie refuses to give the Gobstopper to Slugworth. At this point, Wonka reveals that Slugworth works for him and the whole thing had been a test of Charlie’s worthiness as future owner of the factory.
6. There are also threshold guardians who are secret hobblers. Can’t give examples without giving away spoilers, but it is not unusual for stories to have ally characters that secretly plot to stop the hero from attaining his goals.
6. Threshold guardians who are initially antagonistic may turn into the hero’s allies. An example would be Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. He tries to stop hero Westley from saving his true love Buttercup from her kidnapper (and Inigo’s boss) Vizzini. Westley defeats him in a sword fight but Inigo is so impressed by his skill and ability to strategize he seeks him out later on in the story for help with his own goal (revenge against the man who killed his father).
Also from The Princess Bride is Miracle Max. Inigo and Fezzik take the dead Westley to Miracle Max in hopes he can bring him back to life. He stubbornly refuses because he is bitter that Prince Humperdink fired him. When he finds out that by helping bring Westley back to life he will hurt his nemesis, he becomes a willing ally and performs the miracle.
7. It is not unusual to have several threshold guardians in one story that represent many variations of the archetype. The movie Frozen has a wide range of threshold guardians: from concerned parents in Act 1 who thwart one of the heroines from using her power (for her own good), to a monster (Marshmallow the abominable snowman) to animals (the wolves) to physical obstacles (cliffs, mountains, ice and snow) to a bureaucrat (the Duke of Weselton), to a secret hobbler (can’t say who without giving away a spoiler). Even both heroines function as threshold guardians for each other at certain points in the story.
8. There is no limit to the possible ways for the hero to get past a threshold guardian. Obviously, one way is physical force, but heroes may use their wits, persuasion, bribery, etc. They may even find success unwittingly.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are refused an audience with the Wizard. When Dorothy cries about not being able to return home to her Auntie Em, the guard is also moved to tears and lets them through.
9. A common way to get around the threshold guardians is to take on their “skins” (take on the persona of the enemy). In Star Wars, Han and Luke overcome storm troopers and put on their uniforms so they can rescue Princess Leia. The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion get into the Witch’s castle by overcoming her guards and putting on their uniforms.
10. Try to make the way the hero gets past threshold guardians as specific to their character as possible. In The Wizard of Oz example above, it’s Dorothy’s guilelessness and genuine love for her family that helps her get into see the Wizard. Westley in The Princess Bride uses his wits, bravery and superior ability to strategize to get past his threshold guardians. One way Luke in the Star Wars trilogy gets past threshold guardians is by using the Force, a skill that improves as his training as a Jedi advances over the course of the trilogy.
Please check out my previous articles on archetypes: