Monday, April 22, 2019

Tribal Archetypes as Characters in a Mystery

Annamaria on Monday

Let me begin with a disclaimer:  I don't think I could ever write a story that I would want to read by following a formula.  But, that said, my stories pretty much always wind up with three people who play archetypal roles and who must cooperate and communicate if the mystery is going to be solved.   No teamwork = no solution.  Keeping secrets means screwing things up and delaying the process, which in storytelling can be a good thing.  Somehow in my novels, I always wind up with characters who assume the three tribal roles: The King, the Priest, and the Warrior.

In my old day job as a management trainer and consultant, these archetypes were an interesting way to analyze and figure out what might be going wrong in the leadership/management of an organization.  The roles have nothing to do with the person’s actual job title or position in society.  They are defined by how the people behave in the context of their tribe.  Here’s a way to think about them in real life and in mystery stories:
  • ·         The King is the person who defines the goals, who gives the group its vision of itself and helps it rise above its self-imposed limits.  Kings can do this with words, like “I have a dream…”  Mostly they do it by example.  And image.  The King doesn’t have to be charismatic, although that helps.   She does have to see beneath her followers’ surfaces and beyond their horizons.  He has to know their potential and declare it to them.  Spur them on.  Unleash their power.   Good Kings harness people’s idealism.  Bad ones tap into their fears and selfishness.  In mystery stories, the King is usually the character charged with or motivated to get to the bottom of the crime.  Often, he has others around him who are not so gung-ho but whose cooperation he needs.
  • ·         The Priest is the one who defines right and wrong, who tells anecdotes that remind people of who they are and how to judge what they do.  She asks the challenging questions and tells the old war stories—happy ones that define right behavior, and sad ones that warn against mistakes.  Many good mysteries have detectives—amateur or otherwise—who can easily go astray and want to break the rules to find and punish the evildoer.  This kind of character needs someone to keep him from straying too far from the straight and narrow.  In police procedurals, the Priest is hardly ever the detective’s boss.   More likely, it’s his or her sister or son.

  • ·         The Warrior is impatient for action and gives the group its sense of urgency.  He is the brave soul willing to go out and wrest victory from the jaws of defeat.  She is not afraid to make a mistake.   Many mystery novels give us a younger sidekick who is the warrior, but who can easily turn into a loose cannon.
       In many mystery novels, we get a loner detective, alienated from the world, perhaps despised by his fellows at work and plagued with a dysfunctional family or none or all.  He (almost all these characters are men) must embody all the tribal roles or the story has to do without what the missing ones would add.  That this hero has to be everybody at once would make him hard to accept as an ordinary human.  Therefore, he must have a huge flaw to prove to us that is he is a person not a super hero.  Usually, his creator solves this problem by making him a drunk.   I have no capacity at all to imagine what it would be like to live in such a person’s skin.  So I have to give my characters other people to work with.

When I was writing City of Silver and Invisible Country, three characters in each story fell into the archetypal roles without my really knowing what I was doing.  In retrospect I can see them for what they are.  The King is an Abbess in City of Silver, and the pastor in Invisible Country actually fulfills the role of the King.  Strangely enough, though both stories have characters who are priests, neither man fulfills the role of Priest.  In one the Priest archetype is a nun and in the other the Priest is a shy village woman.  In both those books, the Warrior is a young woman.  

In the mystery plot of Blood Tango, the detective is the King, the dressmaker—a woman in her forties—is the Warrior, and the dressmaker’s father—a man in his seventies—is the Priest.   The subplot deals with the political turmoil of Buenos Aires in 1945.  In that story Juan Perón is the King.  Evita, his mistress, soon to be his wife, is the Warrior.  They do not have a Priest.  If you ask me, they could have used one.

In my Africa Series, the series characters sometimes switch around the roles.  But for the most part, Justin Tolliver is the King.  In the white male-dominated world of early Twentieth Century Colonial Africa, he is the one who automatically will be deferred to by the population around them.  Vera McIntosh Tolliver is definitely the warrior.  She's the one who jumps into the breech, takes chances,  works her hunches.  Kwai Libazo is the priest.  He has an African's understanding of the place and its people and an instinct and reverence for what is right, what is humane.

As I said, I don't plan these things consciously when I am drafting.  But the stories seem to fall into my head this way.  When I am in rewrite mode, I sometimes see that my characters are at sixes and sevens with one another.  And when I analyze why, I find that someone has stepped out of their role, and the others  feel either let down or as if their territory has been invaded.  And I understand why.


  1. Fascinating perspectives, Annamaria. I can easily spot these roles in the Kubu novels too.

  2. I might be quoting this at crime fest! in a long series, with the same 3 or 4 characters, do they think their roles could change slightly. Could a king become a Priest? A warrior a king when promoted? Interesting thoughts.

    1. Be my guest, Caro. But put in a big plug for MIE. People who want the inside dope on crime writing should show up here every day!

  3. Thank you, Michael. In some of the early Kubu stories, as I recall, the warrior role was played by a local constable. In one case, he was unreliable— great choice for creating suspense. The other was a young San policeman, a true warrior, who was so vivid and interesting that I begged Stan to make him a regular. I loved it when he showed up in a short story.

  4. Sis, I don't know how I missed your post until now. Sorry about that. An interesting breakdown of character types that rings true, though I'm not sure how the qualities you attribute to the King archetype play out when applied to those who are or would be king in US politics today.

    1. It's right there, Bro:
      "Good Kings harness people’s idealism. Bad ones tap into their fears and selfishness."