Writerly Sound Bites, Number 9: Character Progression – When Does “Interesting” and “Realistic” Belie Contempt for an Established Archetype and Personality?


Hermes, messenger of the gods

As I mentioned in this Superversive Livestream here, archetypes are the frameworks or skeletons on which one builds a character. They are not the entire character, as Living Anachronism ably explains here, but they give writers the broad design and understanding of the character’s place within a narrative and the kind of personality they will likely have. True, characters can grow to become more than their archetype or climb from one archetypal position to another. But they always have to start out in a certain place that makes them instantly recognizable on an instinctive level to the audience.

When modern authors attempt to make well-known characters in popular culture “more interesting” than they have been before, they invariably do more harm than good. This was not the case throughout the remainder of the 20th century, but it has unfortunately been quite true of the last twenty to thirty years. In the fifth installment of this Writerly Sound Bites series, I listed three characters who exemplified this trend: Seven of Nine, Luke Skywalker, and Quicksilver. The previous two characters’ destruction has been well documented therein, so today we turn to the final one: Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver.

Quicksilver is the American interpretation of the archetype encapsulated by Hermes, the messenger of the Olympian gods in ancient myth. Hermes was not only a speedy envoy (demonstrated by the wings on his sandals and helmet) but the patron of shepherds and the inventor of the lyre. He also represented trade, luck, sleep, language, thieves, and travel. He was associated with fertility as well.

Take a look at this compilation of Pietro Maximoff’s scenes from Age of Ultron* and see if you spot any similarities between the above description of Hermes and Quicksilver’s behavior:

Aaron Taylor-Johnson should have won an award from Marvel fans for his performance as Quicksilver, because his portrayal is far more faithful to the comics than Evan Peters’ (who did a good job in his own right but not to the same degree). The deleted scenes from the film make clear that Pietro is a thief (Hermes was their patron), albeit largely for altruistic reasons; that he can travel great distances very quickly; he is always trying to impress and win affection from the ladies, and he is mischievous as well as impatient with those he can outrun (which is everyone).

Despite these references to the messenger of the gods, however, Pietro is not simply Hermes brought to life. He is the inheritor of that mythical personage’s traits and powers but Stan Lee and the other writers gave him additional attributes that grew over time. For example, in his first appearance in the comics he defused a bomb which would have killed many innocents rather than leave the X-Men to do so, in direct contravention of Magneto’s orders.



Although Quicksilver was led astray by mind-control several times, he always returned to being a hero. Uncanny X-Men Vol 1 304 shows him taking his father to task once again for his mutant-supremacist views which led one of the bloodthirsty members of the Acolytes to commit atrocities in a hospital. Given this history, the writers’ decision to have Pietro run to Magneto to ask him to save his sister Wanda makes very little sense. It was done to make him “interesting.” But it didn’t.

So, one may ask, why does it not make sense and how does it destroy him? Hermes was a trickster and a god of Ancient Greece. It is said he helped Orestes kill his mother Clytemnestra (who had murdered Orestes’ father). That is not a particularly heroic model to work with, is it?

That depends on how you interpret the mythic personage and understand it. Hermes was many things but he never hated humanity or bore any ill will toward mankind. In fact, he was one of the friendlier Greek gods, often acting as a benefactor to men in various stories and aiding them in their endeavors, shown by the number of crafts that called him their patron. Hermes was one of the most approachable and arguably nicest members of the Greek pantheon.

Pietro, whose codename Quicksilver calls to mind Hermes’ Roman name of Mercury, is in much the same pattern. He does not actively hate nor desire the subjugation of non-powered humans; they irritate him, but that is because he is human himself. The fact that he is fast only increases his annoyance, since everyone and everything around him appears to be going so much slower. Nevertheless, if it is a choice between harming an innocent or saving them, Pietro chooses to rescue the person in trouble.

This is where the writers’ decision in 2004’s Avengers: Disassembled and House of M violates the archetype upon which Quicksilver was constructed. It also contravenes his personality as framed by this archetype: as stated in the sixth installment in this series of posts, no one changes their behavior or “breaks” with the character they have been building since childhood. Quicksilver’s previous portrayal makes his decision to rely on Magneto and to ask his sister to give the man they have repudiated so many times what he wants infringes on his established personality and archetype.


Hermes (via ArtStation)

To be blunt, it is a form of abuse. The authors abused the readers by making these alterations. Rather than follow the fundamental aspects of Pietro’s character, they altered and ignored them in an effort to “reboot” Marvel’s comics. This had the two-fold effect of angering long-time fans and inviting new fans to read about the destruction of an historically heroic archetype. In other words, the writers’ abuse went two ways: they mocked original fans and warped new, younger fans’ perception of a model of the human psyche that had long been recognized as inherently good to make it appear mediocre at best. They then claimed this made him more interesting when it did nothing of the sort.

Audiences were faced with this same abuse in Star Wars: The Force Awakens with Princess Leia Organa, though this was done in the implication that it was more “realistic” than her earlier portrayal. Originally the newest incarnation of the princess archetype – specifically the subtype found in planetary romance and/or space opera – Leia had certain characteristics in the first Star Wars trilogy* that had been modeled by real and fictional princesses for generations before. She was proud and haughty due to her status, which naturally puts her in a position of leadership.

Women, when they are in this position, do not and cannot rule as men do. Even barbarian queens such as Ciara from Black Amazon of Mars do not lead in the same manner as men when they command from the front lines. They may swing a sword and be as good in combat as any man. But, at the end of the day, they are women and everyone knows it.

How does a woman lead men in war? By using her social station and commanding, firstly, men’s adoration and respect. Leia does this by her wit, breeding, and her haughtiness to demonstrate she is first and foremost a princess. She is not going to let anyone forget it – or intimidate her into forgetting it. On her shoulders she carries the expectations, hopes, dreams, and fears of her people. Therefore, Leia has to make bearing the weight look as effortless as possible so her subjects will lose neither heart nor hope.

via Daily Cosplay

Not once in the entire original trilogy does Leia allow her dignity as a princess to slip from her shoulders. Much as he mocks, annoys, and outright antagonizes her, Han loves Leia for her pride as well as her other qualities. When they are separated in the final moments of The Empire Strikes Back, Leia’s admission of love and her grief at Han’s capture does not lead to an emotional breakdown because her training prevents it. She was taught to lead, and so she mourns in a royal as well as a feminine manner: without wails, screams, and curses. Tears are the most obvious sign of her grief and they will not tarnish her dignity, so she sheds them without remorse.

While there are vestiges of this in her appearance in The Force Awakens, they do not make up for the writers’ decision to demote her to a mere civilian by making her a general and eliminating her royal title. The rank of general is well and truly below that of princess because it is a civilian position. A princess commands a nation – or, in this setting, a planet. Losing Alderaan does not and never has rendered her royalty meaningless, particularly since not all Alderaanians were on their homeworld when the planet was destroyed. The Star Wars Expanded Universe, now called the “Legends” timeline, showed a large population of Alderaanian refugees found a new world to call their own. Thus, Leia did not stop being the princess of Alderaan; she remained the princess and representative of her people to the rest of the galaxy.

Making Leia a general demotes her by the simple fact that generals lead armies. More often than not, a general earns his rank by meritorious action that allows him to “climb the ranks.” A general’s job is to win wars as quickly as possible, and/or to advise his nation’s leader in matters relating to military action.

Leia possesses leadership skills, as displayed by her central role in the Rebellion of the original trilogy. However, that outlook is not and cannot be the same as a general who has knowledge of and experience with military tactics. Swapping out the title of “princess” for “general” shows a complete lack of respect for the archetypes and roles of both positions, whether fictional or not. Generals focus on the practice of war, whereas a princess must think of her people at all times in all the circumstances they may face because she is their representative to the world (or the galaxy, in this case). By naming her “General Leia Organa” rather than “Princess Leia Organa-Solo,” the writers divorced themselves from Star Wars’ original fanbase, and rejected the past while confusing newcomers to the franchise about the differences between her title of princess and general.


The Lone Ranger is another victim of this mindset that holds archetypes in contempt, and one of the most egregious because he is an Iconic Hero. Iconic Heroes are meant to have flat character arcs and, not infrequently, to act as representatives of a nation’s culture. One could, in fact, argue that they serve as something of a conscience for the country where they appear. They are typically the coalescence of a nation’s ideals and the residents’ aspiration to reach that pinnacle of perfection.

It may be an error to say the Lone Ranger is a product of Romanticism because he seems too perfect to modern viewers. The pattern of his victories, which were repeated with stringent regularity in the original TV series*, may once have satisfied audiences but not today’s. Although the serial formula may need updating, this does not permit the writers of Disney’s The Lone Ranger film to reshape the titular hero into a bumbling fool who cannot do anything properly. Nor does it excuse them for mocking his ideas of justice – as well as his iconic line of “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!”

Once again, the issue is modern writers holding the archetype and the character of a long-accepted societal standard in contempt. The Lone Ranger is meant to represent the American pioneer spirit, the drive for justice tempered with mercy and understanding yet uncompromising in the recognition of right and wrong. Perhaps his saddle trappings shine a little too brightly but, as demonstrated in the Captain America* films, there are methods by which one can show an Iconic Hero of the Ranger’s status struggling with temptation without succumbing to it. There are also ways to show him making understandable mistakes without compromising either his conscience or his morals. In other words, he can be demonstrably human without being made to act the fool.

The writers for Disney’s The Lone Ranger could have done that just as well as did the writers for The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier, and Civil War. It would have entailed an effort to study the source material and respect it – as well as the original audience – so they could welcome newcomers to the story. Instead, they chose to tarnish the character for a new audience, making a cheap movie few remember or watch.


Robin Hood and his Merry Men

The character of Robin Hood has suffered from the desire to be made more “interesting” and realistic. As noted in this article here, Robin and his Merry Men have not been seen in any media for at least twenty years. This is a sign of contempt, since most modern attempts to tell his tale strip away the romance in the name of realism, forgetting the “Merry Men” as best they can so as to make Robin a rebel. This, as the linked piece shows, does not work because Robin Hood’s archetype does not permit it.

Robin is not rebelling against the system, as too many stories and their protagonists in the past two decades have portrayed him. He is, rather, rebelling against an illegitimate ruler in that system. The system of government in the Middle Ages does not trouble him nor any of the other Merry Men*. The person running it, however, does. Prince John is a spoiled and corrupt king trying to usurp the throne which rightfully belongs to his brother. If King Richard were a poor monarch or an evil one, there would be cause for resistance to him as well.

But in that case the resistance would not take the form modern audiences have been taught to recognize, either. The idea of Robin Hood is not to destroy the system, just to restore that system to its proper order. It is the same idea expressed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier: SHIELD itself is not a bad institution, and the idea of it is not evil. It is, however, a corrupted organization so diseased it has to be brought down and rebuilt from the bottom up.


In this case England does not need its governing system overhauled, especially to suit modern ideas of democracy. Prince John’s malice and poison is not covert, as HYDRA’s infiltration of SHIELD was, but open. There is even a sheen of legitimacy added to John’s claim to rule by the fact that Richard’s whereabouts are unknown. He can take the throne and hold it so long as his brother remains lost and the people do not force his hand from their collective throats.

Robin and his Merry Men fight in the hope Richard will return and set things right. Until that time, they stand between the people and John who has stolen the throne from its rightful ruler. Once Richard returns the Merry Men cease their thieving and become honest citizens again, joining in the next Crusade under Richard’s leadership.

Break an archetype and you break the connection between the past and the present, between the original audience and the new. You disconnect new generations from the benefits of the collected wisdom of previous generations and leave them with no direction. The past gives us a guide in the present and points to hope in the future.

Archetypes do not make a character, but they do give a writer a starting point upon which to build him. They allow the audience to intuit things about him and understand his place in the narrative – and/or their national psyche. C.S. Lewis said, “You cannot study men, you can only get to know them.” Through an archetype truths about various human characteristics or “personality types” are made manifest for all to see.


Sir Galahad

Do not deny your audience these things in an attempt to be “interesting” or “realistic,” readers. Most certainly, do not deny yourself the benefits of this authorial shorthand that saves you time and effort. Using an archetype allows the writer to communicate through subtext with the audience, something both sides can appreciate for different reasons. Archetypes are, quite literally, your friends. Treat them well, and they will travel with you through thick and thin, helping you convey your stories to those who will read them over and over again before handing them on to the next generation.

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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10 thoughts on “Writerly Sound Bites, Number 9: Character Progression – When Does “Interesting” and “Realistic” Belie Contempt for an Established Archetype and Personality?

  1. What’s is interesting is also how a “mythical” character can change.

    The earlier stories of Robin Hood have him as more of a trickster character without any mention for Prince John or Richard the Lion-Hearted.

    IIRC One early story has a different King of England.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Quite true! Robin did start life as a trickster but he grew to become an Iconic Hero with some trickster traits still intact. Prince John and Richard the Lionheart were both added to his legendarium later on, when he became more noble and less of a trickster.

      Isn’t it fun seeing which characters fit which archetypes, only to learn some of those original “mythical” characters grew out of their first role and took up a second, stronger one? Spock’s “Fascinating” doesn’t really do it justice. It’s downright *amazing*!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Robin is not rebelling against the system, as too many stories and their protagonists in the past two decades have portrayed him. He is, rather, rebelling against an illegitimate ruler in that system.

    :startled recognition:
    He’s BATMAN, but instead of replacing corrupt law enforcement, it’s the corrupt ursurper– and it’s a very Christian sort of thing, I even just realized the unjust taxes are STRAIGHT out of the Bible, which works nicely with the Good King being crusading ….

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Nice catch, Foxfier! The Batman connection is a great one. ’90s and early ’00s animated Batman is definitely one of the best versions extant, you’re right. I wish the filmmakers had studied him more closely when making their movies.

        Hm. Robin Hood was a vigilante, and I believe that the X-Men and the Avengers have a lot in common with the Arthurian saga, fairy tales, and other Medieval romances. Funny how many places superheroes show up, once you know where to look! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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