“Don’t Shove Me in Your Damned Pigeonhole” and other Thoughts on Writing from Ursula K. Le Guin

So. We lost a literary titan on Monday, Ursula K. Le Guin, who, at 88, died at her home in Portland, Oregon. Her son confirmed the death, and while he didn’t specify a cause, he did say she’d been in poor health for months. Le Guin was an influential and immensely popular author who brought the world the Earthsea epic fantasy cycle, as well as her science-fiction opus The Left Hand of Darkness.

Le Guin was a prolific author, whose pointed use of speculative fiction helped elevate entire genres to the level of literary fiction. A trailblazer in the truest sense of the term, Le Guin thrived in an environment in which she should have failed, forced to employ genre conventions that belied her vision and voice.

Throughout her productive writing career, Le Guin spent an extraordinary amount of time teaching as well. She published a guide to the craft of writing called Steering the Craft in 1998, and she was incredibly forthcoming in interviews with the Paris Review, in an essay published in the Los Angeles Times and later on her website titled “On Rules of Writing, or, Riffing on Rechy,” as well as in a blogpost called “Navigating the Ocean of Story” for BookViewCafe.com.

We could spend years analyzing her work, showing how she inspired so many of the modern literary greats like Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, and Patrick Rothfuss, but today I want to take a look at five insightful thoughts she shared on writing over the years.


1. Begin with a Clear Sense of One Character

In her essay The Wave in the Mind, Le Guin argues that a novel should begin with a clear sense of one character. The best way to start?

“With a voice. With a voice in the ear. That first page I wrote, which the novel progressed from, is simply Lavinia speaking to us—including me, apparently.”   –Ursula Le Guin, from The Paris Review

2. Our Characters Must Fascinate Us

“the characters of a novel and short story fascinate us slowly, deeply, by their passion, their pain, their moral and psychological complexity”   –Ursula Le Guin, from “On Rules of Writing”

As writers, we need to understand that it’s Character that draws us into Story. The characters provide the requisite emotional connection, which then propels us along the journey of the story. Above, Le Guin provides us with the “how” as writers to create that connection with the reader.

3. Exposition isn’t Wicked

“the fear of ‘distancing’ leads writers to abandon the narrative past tense, which involves and includes past, present, and future, for the tight-focused, inflexible present tense. But distance lends enchantment.”    –Ursula Le Guin, from “On Rules of Writing”

Here, Le Guin is lamenting the movement toward the immediacy of the present tense. The use of this tense limits the writer in her mind, and I tend to agree. She argues in the essay the “show, don’t tell” writing cliché has sent the writers in her workshops reeling away from exposition, a necessary element in world building.

As writers, we need to fully envision our worlds and our characters, and the past tense affords us the room to explore the complexities of these elements. It’s the exploration of these elements that lends enchantment to our stories.

4. Find a Rhythm

“I want the story to have a rhythm that keeps moving forward. Because that’s the whole point of telling a story. You’re on a journey–you’re going from here to there. It’s got to move. Even if the rhythm is very complicated and subtle, that’s what’s going to carry the reader.”   Ursula Le Guin, from The Paris Review

As writers, we need to find a groove and settle in. Similarly, what we’re trying to do with our stories also requires a groove. It’s a simple idea, but it’s an archetypal one. We have a predisposition to this journey as readers and writers, and we need to embrace it.

5. You Do You

“where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”   –Ursula Le Guin, from The Paris Review

Le Guin fought and overcame stereotypes throughout her career. By all accounts, she shouldn’t have been as successful as she was, being a female voice in the male-dominated world of speculative fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. Her perspectives on identity and society, her deliberate treatment of race and gender, all of these things helped her breakout of the “sci-fi author” pigeonhole. And thank God she did.

As writers, we need to embrace our Voice, our perspective, and tell the stories we need to tell. We can’t worry about the labels, or pigeonholes, that we or our stories receive later. We have to be true to ourselves. And let our tentacles spread out in all directions.


Here are a few bonus thoughts from Le Guin:

  • Reading is Fundamental

“Real writers read” from “Navigating the Ocean of Story” 

  • What’s our greatest tool as writers?

“imagination working on observation” from “On Rules of Writing”

  • Get to work!

“You can’t waste time” from The Paris Review

  • Because…

“Skill is the product of experience” from “Navigating the Ocean of Story”

  • Be Who You Are!

“When people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer.”  from The Paris Review


 

10 Hero-Character Archetypes

pexels-photo-269923.jpegArchetypes are recurring patterns (plot structures, symbols, character types, themes) that occur in mythology, religion, and stories across cultures and time periods. They embody universal meanings and basic human experiences and can evoke unconscious responses in a reader. For writers, archetypes are tools to employ that can deepen a reader’s understanding and emotional connection to a character or a story.

Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who founded analytical psychology, first applied the term archetype to literature. Jung recognized universal patterns in all stories regardless of culture or historical period. He hypothesized that part of the human mind contained a “collective unconscious” (a sort of universal, primal memory) shared by all members of the species.

American mythologist Joseph Campbell took Jung’s ideas and applied them to world mythologies. In his seminal work A Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Campbell refined the concept of hero and developed a theory he called the mono-myth (later dubbed the hero’s journey), an idea that famously served as the framework for George Lucas’s Star Wars saga. The theory is based on the observation that a common pattern exists beneath the narrative elements of most great myths, regardless of origin or time of creation.

Archetypes can be applied to a number of different facets of storytelling, including images, symbols, settings, situations and plot patterns–even colors and numbers. But for our purposes here, we’re going to look at character archetypes.

kmweiland4Author K.M. Weiland examines 8 1/2 Character Archetypes You Should Be Writing on her website, and proffers the graphic here.

These five characters are all integral parts of any story, but they are not all necessarily archetypal. We could argue that Protagonist and Antagonist are requisite roles to be filled in any story, regardless of genre. However, the other three, Sidekick, Mentor and Love Interest, have an archetypal nature. I realize I’m arguing semantics here, but it’s an important distinction when using the term “archetype.”

Most people associate the role of Protagonist with a Hero, and Hero, often times, can be generally presented as archetypal. But the question becomes, what type of Hero are you talking about? That’s my focus here.

At it’s most basic level, the general “Hero” archetype can be a character with great strength and courage; known for having honorable purposes; willing to risk life for the good of all; who often leaves the familiar to enter a new, unfamiliar, challenging world, and then returns to his/her “ordinary” world. This definition borrows heavily from Campbell’s work, but it’s a solid foundation from which to build upon. Here are 10 Hero-Character Archetypes to consider for your Protagonist role.


1. EPIC HERO, or, HERO as a WARRIOR

The Epic Hero is mostly closely associated with Epic Poetry (i.e. OdysseyBeowulf, etc.) and is strongly identified with a particular people or culture. The circumstances of his birth are unusual, and he is raised by a guardian. He will have to leave his kingdom, only to return to it upon reaching manhood. Characterized by courage, strength, and honor, the hero will endure hardship, even risk his life for the good of all. The Epic Hero leaves the familiar to enter an unfamiliar and challenging world. Examples here include William Wallace (Braveheart), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and even Wonder Woman.

This archetype can include sub-archetypes like The Young Man from the Provinces, who returns home after being raised in secret. Examples of this include Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.

2. ROMANTIC HERO, or, HERO as a LOVER

I’m using the term “Romantic” here to refer to the modern conception of romance and romantic relationships, not as a reference to literature during the Romantic period, with works by such authors as Byron, Keats, and Goethe.

Here, I’m referring to a Hero whose primary motivation is love. It’s this love that drives the hero to complete his/her quest during the story. However, there is a connection between the classic “Romantic Hero” of Romanticism. This Hero-character must understand the value of his experiences through emotion and intuition, rather than logical reasoning. Also, the reader must be able to emotionally connect with this hero on some level so that no matter the journey of the hero, the audience will relate to his experiences.

Think of basically any protagonist from any romance (comedic or dramatic) that you’ve ever read or watched as an example.

3. TRAGIC HERO

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 10.21.16 AMIt was the philosopher Aristotle who first defined an ill-fated protagonist as a Tragic Hero. Aristotle suggested that a hero of a tragedy must evoke a sense of pity or fear from the audience. The Tragic Hero is someone whose misfortune is brought about some fatal flaw. The Tragic Hero’s fatal flaw initiates his downfall, but not before he achieves some kind of transforming realization or wisdom.

Famous examples include Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello, but modern examples are Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman) or even Walter White (Breaking Bad).

4. ANTI-HERO

The Anti-Hero might be the most popular hero-character these days. The Anti-Hero features traits that are uncommon or unbecoming of a Hero. They display qualities that are more in-line with a Villain, such as conceitedness, immorality, rebellion, and dishonesty. Like many of the other heroes, Anti-Heroes start out as average people who are flawed but inherently good at the same time. An Anti-Hero, by definition, is a central character who lacks conventional heroic attributes. This hero-character can range from a good person with an unattractive vice to a criminal mastermind who has a heart of gold. Often times, this character has no interest in being an actual “hero.”

Anti-Heroes can be given the vocation of failure, frequently humorously, such as Homer Simpson, or they can be irreverent killers like Deadpool.

5. UNRELIABLE HERO

The Unreliable Hero is one that has (or must pretend to have) mental or emotional deficiencies (think Hamlet, or Randle Patrick McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). These hero-characters are often First-Person Narrators who manipulate the reader or viewer (think Holden Caufield from Catcher in the Rye or Edward Norton’s narrator in Fight Club).

The treatment of this hero-character’s mental state can be hidden, as in most of the examples above, or obvious, as seen in Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. The unreliable nature of the narrator calls into question all of their observations and declarations to the audience, and it’s used particularly well in USA’s Mr. Robot. 

6. SUPERHERO

The superhero archetype has become a widespread phenomenon in popular culture today. This hero-character exaggerates the normal abilities and proportions of humanity. It frequently has divine or supernatural origins. In some sense, the superhero is one apart, someone who does not quite belong, but who is nonetheless needed by society.

Classical examples include mythological heroes, and modern examples come largely from the comic book realm. Superheroes can start out as classical heroes or even everyman heroes and be given a power that makes them ‘superhuman’. They can also be born with a ‘superhuman’ power.

7. THE EVERYMAN 

The Everyman archetype often acts as the stand-in for the audience. This hero-character is an ordinary person, but for some reason, he/she must face extraordinary circumstances. Unlike the Epic Hero, the Everyman doesn’t feel a moral obligation to his/her task; instead, these characters often find themselves in the middle of something they have barely any control over. Unlike the Epic Hero, the Everyman isn’t trying to make a great change or work for the common good: these characters are just trying to get through a difficult situation.

Most protagonists in realistic fiction represent the Everyman archetype. Some famous examples include Marty McFly from Back to the Future, and classical literary heroes Huck Finn and Atticus Finch.  

8. THE INNOCENT

The Innocent archetype is often represented by women or children. This hero-character is pure in every way. Though often surrounded by dark circumstances, the Innocent somehow hasn’t become jaded by the corruption and evil of others. The Innocent is often curious and adventurous, and isn’t stupid, just inexperienced. The Innocent trusts in faith and optimism, has exceptionally high ideals and aspirations and a belief in hard work and doing the right thing. They’re so morally good that the badness of others doesn’t seem to mar them.

Some examples of the Innocent include Cinderella, Alice (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), Dorothy (The Wizard of Oz), and Forrest Gump.

9. THE OUTCAST

The Outcast is a character who is separated from society due to an impairment or an advantage that sets him/her apart from others. This hero-character is banished from a social group for some real or imagined crime against his/her fellow man, usually destined to wander from place to place apart. The Outcast is often seen as The Other, and that status or essential Otherness makes heroism possible.

A classical literary example is Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man. A modern example is Juno MacGuff from Juno. 

10. THE INITIATES 

The Initiates are young heroes or heroines who must go through some training and ceremony before undertaking their quest. This group of companions progress through the situational archetype known as Initiation, where they come into their maturity with new awareness and problems. The Initiates are loyal companions willing to face hardship and ordeal in order to stay together. This archetype often combines the Innocent archetype with a Young Man from the Provinces archetype. The Initiates often find themselves under the tutelage of another archetypal figure known as the Mentor.

Modern examples of the Initiates include the young mutants in Marvel’s X-Men comics, as well as the main characters in Netflix’s Stranger Things series.


As writers, archetypes are tools we get to manipulate while fashioning our stories. The classical definition of a Hero has set a solid foundation for these 10 Hero-Character types to grow from. Some of these archetypes might be better suited for certain types of stories, but they are all potentially engaging protagonists that can all emotionally connect with a reader.