Adventure Time and Community: Modern Archetypes and Their Functions

Here’s a little preview of the kind of thing I plan to offer in the near future with Biyuti Publishing.

Archetypes are are something we’re all familiar with, whether or not you know the word. An archetype is a kind of character that is featured in many different stories, and is often instantly recognizable as a “type” to most people. Archetypes are more easily recognized in their character’s motivations and intent than their actions, necessarily. Any kind of media that tells a story, like books, movies, TV shows or video games, will often use archetypes.

In this case, I happened to notice that two of my favorite television shows are using the same character archetypes. Very similar characters in the two shows will often be used to very different effect, and may serve different function within the narrative, but the point that I am making is the character type is the same.

1. The Ingenuous Hero

Troy Barnes/Finn the Human. Our hero may not be the brightest, but his emotional intelligence is through the roof. Just point him at a physical challenge and he will excel. Extroverted and beloved where e’er he goes. He may moonlight as the Chosen One, He Who Shall Become King, and/or The Orphaned Farmboy That Could, but he would like to make sure everyone knows he is really just a Regular Guy. May have deep-seated emotional issues involving Boom Boom and/or Butt Stuff.

2.The Pretty Cool Guy

Jake/Jeff Winger. He’s got this life thing all figured out, except when he doesn’t, ever. Always knows exactly the right thing to say. Open-handedly offers both provocation and encouragement. Shows insecurities on his sleeve while claiming to have none. Comes off as an older brother or even a father figure, despite having a contentious relationship with his own father. Always a hit with the ladies. such a charming rogue.

3. The Mercurial High Femme

Shirley Bennet/Flame Princess. All sweetness until she’s disrespected, or feels disrespected, which is sadly all too often the case. Blooms under positive attention. Has very good reasons for what she does but these reasons are often overlooked or dismissed by others when the Mercurial High Femme shows what’s she made of. Grows angry when people insist on misunderstanding her, or try and force her into a category. Motivated by a heady combination of pragmatism and wanting to be respected for who she is, thorns and all.

4. The Ambitious Young Lady

Comes off as prim and rigid, and she is. Very high intelligence, but insecure about relationships. Takes admiration for granted but craves achievement, pushes other people almost as hard as she pushes herself. Responsibilities weight heavily on her. Obsessed with order and often motivated by maintaining it. Kind and generous with her time and energy, but sometimes her judgement stings others. Often loses perspective when seeking perfection.

5.The Damaged and Aloof Mastermind

Abed Nadir/Marceline, the Vampire Queen. A thorny contradiction in personality: an onionlike mass of defense mechanisms masking terrible vulnerability and longing for interpersonal connection. Often takes pains to seem above it all, but will manufacture complicated situations in order to spend quality time with friends. Feels rejected by natal family; absent mother, contentious relationship with father. Is different than fellows and feels it very keenly, has a history of painful rejections and/or abuse. Can seem narcissistic and selfish much of the time, more so when dealing with emotional problems, but it is obvious they care deeply for their friends and loved ones.

6. Miss Cantankerous

Britta Perry/Lumpy Space Princess. Raging Tryhard who manages to be unintentionally humorous through her foibles. Rarely sincere but too self-conscious to let her guard down. Defensive and often the butt of jokes, but completely transparent and often well-liked by sincere types. Desperately wants to be liked but would never admit it. Careens wildly between overconfident and feelings of worthlessness. Headstrong and motivated by a fierce need for independence. Creates problems through stubbornness and solves them by accident. Hapless and endearing, and occasionally a goofball.

7.The Unrepentant Jerk

Pierce Hawthorn/Magic Man. Always seems to think he’s teaching people a valuable lesson by using his power to belittle others. Bitter and has a pessimistic view of other people’s behavior and intentions. Often demonstrates antisocial behavior and is an explosive hypocrite. Holds grudges while simultaneously expecting forgiveness from others. Rejected from natal family or community of origin. Learns little or nothing from mistakes and always feels persecuted, whether or not he actually is. Always injects self into situations where he is unwelcome and would rather have negative attention than no attention.

8.The Incompetent Nurturer

BMO/Dean Pelton. Is not very qualified to mother-hen those around them but has an endless wellspring of enthusiasm for doing so. Does not conform to gender and may be agender. Motivated by deep longings and a search for identity, desperately wants to be loved and accepted. Undeserving recipient of a great deal of mockery and even abuse from loved ones. Does “weird” stuff when no one is looking, and sometimes when they are. Loves to play characters and has a great sense of drama. Comes off as both “Child” and “Caretaker” in various situations.

9. The Sympathetic Sociopath

Ben Chang/The Ice King. Mentally ill and is often in a state of psychosis. Does not understand why his antisocial (in the purest sense of the word) behavior is unacceptable to others; desperately wants to make friends with other characters and/or destroy them. Very little self-awareness, but is often torn by moments of deep and possibly directionless remorse. Wasn’t always the way they are now, a backstory of trauma and sorrow. Walks a tightrope between absolute villain and possible friend without ever really settling in either role. Cannot resolve conflict between obsessive need to control others and needing to be loved by them. Ruled by obsessions.

10. Mrs. Girlfriend

Lady Rainicorn/Professor Slater. This character is often less fully realized than other characters, and often functions as a plot point more than a person. Usually has a gimmick, or one or two notable characteristics. She is often used as a crucible for conflict and and otherwise seems bland, two-dimensional, or functions as an appendage to another character.

11. The Sad Sack

Cinnamon Bun/Garrett. Awww, poor that guy. Lumpen, hapless, and generally piteous. Inherently vaguely incompetent. Terminally awkward and generally well-liked.

Although the same archetype may serve different functions within the larger narrative, the similarities between character archetypes on both of these shows is remarkable. Moreover, I certainly see a bit of myself in all of them, although I may identify with some more than others. Both shows have the quality of playing with these archetypes, and are written in a self-aware manner that keeps them interesting and fresh. Many of the shows’ jokes are contingent on familiarity with the character archetypes and the ways they can be played up and then subverted.

Archetypes are not necessarily meant to be like real people, they are more like examples of what people can be like. Both shows use these archetypes in brave ways, and weave their narratives into existing ones with both continuity and self-referential humor. And that is probably why I like them.