When Professor Chaos first hit South Park, he was hampered in his evil schemes by the realisation, at every turn, that ‘The Simpsons already did it.’ And as any writer or criminal genius will tell you, the quest for originality routinely brings you to your knees. How many promising projects have you abandoned because the story reminded you of something else? And just to add insult to injury, something that has been done before then storms the Booker and the box office just to taunt you.
But when you strip away the individualities of character, setting, and style that form an ‘original’ plot, how many basic storylines are there? Take a minute to think about this.
How many did you come up with?
Never one to dodge a challenge, the controversial journalist Christopher Booker took this on in his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Drawing on narratology and Jungian theory, from Aristotle to The Terminator, Booker distilled all the stories of the world down to seven clearly identifiable archetypes.
So now we know.
Still worried about originality?
Anyway, these archetypes are, in no particular order:
- Overcoming the Monster
The protagonist sets out to defeat a antagonistic force. You can see the roots of this in Beowulf. Jaws is a great example, also The Exorcist (in fact most horror stories – Booker cites Dracula), thrillers in which the hero matches wits with an ingenious serial killer, alien invasions, and basically anything with a villain.
- Rags to Riches
The protagonist is plucked from obscurity to greatness, gaining high status and immense wealth, before losing it all and then winning it back after growing as a person, like Bill Murray in his Scrooged/Groundhog Day period and Q & A (Slumdog Millionaire) by Vikas Swarup.
- The Quest
The protagonist strives to meet a far-off goal, often the acquisition of a significant object, or the discovery of a lost world or a safe haven. The hero is supported by travelling companions, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. Chrétien de Troyes’s Conte del Graal (‘Story of the Grail’) is a key example. Then there’s Watership Down – The Aeniad with rabbits, brilliant.
- Voyage and Return
Much like the ‘Quest,’ the ‘Voyage and Return’ story is based around a journey, and as the name suggests the hero is transported to a strange land and then back again, returning changed by the experience. This may or may not involve a long physical journey, and can be interior, allegorical and spiritual. Obvious examples include The Odyssey and the original Star Wars. And your hero does not have to voyage very far. In Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom’s adventures are based on the wanderings of Odysseus but take place in Dublin in a single day.
In his Poetics, Aristotle described comedy as showing people to be worse than they are and tragedy as showing people to be greater than they are. In comedy, characters are thrown into a state of confusion, darkness and bewilderment. Resolution can only come when these constricting factors have been played out to their extremes, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Booker defines Comedy as: ‘The protagonists are destined to be in love, but something is keeping them from being together, which is resolved by the end of the story.’ You know, like Four Weddings and a Funeral.
In Aristotelian terms, the ‘tragic hero’ is an individual (usually of great status) who has a ‘fatal flaw’ (the hamartia, if you want to be flashy) which initiates a series of actions and decisions that unwittingly brings about their downfall (the peripeteia). Classical drama and Shakespeare’s tragedies are the obvious examples, but George Lucas uses the model in the second Star Wars trilogy, which collectively represent the tragedy of Darth Vader.
In the ‘Rebirth’ story, the protagonist is often cast under some dark spell either instigated by his or herself or an outside force. The protagonist can sometimes be a villainous or otherwise unlikable character who redeems his or herself over the course of the story, for example Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. The hero’s liberation can only be achieved through the actions of other good forces, often the redemptive power of love.
So, there you go. You’ll find different critics use slightly different names for these archetypes, sometimes offering alternative or subcategories. Nonetheless, pretty much the same story groups do come up again and again in the study of narrative – the common root being classical drama.
And archetypes merge and blend as well. The Lord of the Rings is both a ‘quest’ and a ‘voyage and return’ story; the Harry Potter series starts out as a ‘quest’ but becomes ‘overcoming the monster.’ Love stories can be comedies and tragedies, and don’t get me started on the ‘Hero’s Journey,’ the so-called ‘Monomyth’ that reflects life itself.
But regardless of how you chop them up, the essential commonality of story archetypes does seem to be a fact. So, if there are only a limited number of stories available to us to tell, how can we ever be ‘original’ as writers?
The shocking truth is that it doesn’t really matter. There are no new stories, so there’s little purpose in stressing yourself out trying to invent one. In fact, if you look at commercial film and fiction it’s obvious that most writers don’t even bother to try. They just lift an existing story and re-plot it with different settings and characters.
In short, stop worrying about this! Create your own characters and settings, don’t directly copy, and approach your story with originality and insight. Remember how different Ulysses is from the Odyssey. We will never run out of ways to tell the same stories. There are so many potential characters, settings, and events that the combinations thereof should be close to infinite. When you strip it right down, there are only seven musical notes as well.
As Asha Dornfest so wisely put it: ‘I think new writers are too worried that it has all been said before. Sure it has, but not by you.’