The Ideal and Imperfect Parent Figures: The Emotional and Mental Story Archetypes

by James Bonnet

In previous story course articles, we saw the love interests who help lure the hero and the antihero (the conscious archetypes) into the adventure; the tricksters who goad the conscious archetypes forward when they get stuck; the threshold guardians who test their preparedness and resolve; the negative physical mentors who try to physically corrupt and addict us; the positive physical mentors who try to guide us to a physical well-being; the negative spiritual mentors who pressure us to participate in the selfish, competitive, dog-eat-dog world; and  the positive spiritual archetypes who are trying to guide us to the unselfish, cooperative world of our full potential and true destinies. In this article, we’ll look at the ideal and imperfect parent figures and their emotional and mental roles as antagonists, mentors, helpers and guides.

Following our evolutionary path from reptiles to human beings, the R-complex (reptile complex) was superseded by our emotional brain, the limbic system, and this gave rise to the emotional archetypes, which I call the positive and negative emotional father and mother figures. And by emotional, in this case, I mean our social selves and our social feelings – feelings that reference the special things we feel when we interact with other people (i.e. love, empathy, compassion, camaraderie, a sense of duty, jealousy, anger, prejudice, hatred and greed, etc.). The emotional parent figures are concerned with personal relationships and the roles we were really meant to play in society.

Unlike the spiritual and physical self, the emotional self does not have an agenda, other than to make the social entity, whatever its mores, function as a harmonious or effective whole. A social entity can be a family, a community, a corporation, an invading army, or a mob, and it can give its allegiance to either positive or negative ideals, to a Hitler or a Christ. The group’s character is determined by its objectives.

In real life, when people play the positive emotional father and mother figure roles, they are guided by the objectives of the higher self. They are the people who love us, who nurture and protect us and teach us our social responsibilities. They teach us how to get along with others, when to say please and thank you, how to be good parents, how to love, how to give and receive affection and how to cooperate with others and share. They give us advice concerning the professions we should choose. They encourage us to be good citizens and work for the common good, admonish us for being selfish, help us work out our social and emotional problems, and give us the social skills we need to achieve our emotional desires and goals. Psychologically, they are all of the feelings and other inner promptings that inspire and guide us in a similar fashion.

All of this is revealed in story. And, as in real life,  this parent figure can be played by any friend, colleague, relative, or stranger who fulfills that positive emotional role. In Toy Story 3, Woody, who is the hero trying to solve the problem and keep his family of toys together, is also an emotional mentor trying to guide his toy mates back to a sense of loyalty toward Andy, who they think put them in a trash bag, while packing to go to college, and threw them away. In Lincoln, President Lincoln’s henchmen and congressional allies are trying to persuade their bigoted colleagues to vote for the 13th Amendment , which will abolish slavery in the U. S. forever. In Shakespeare In Love, at a time when England is dominated by an inauthentic and dysfunctional system of social class and arranged marriage, Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench) challenges Shakespeare to write a play that will reveal the very truth and nature of love. In Groundhog Day, Andy MacDowell inspires Bill Murray to transform himself into someone who is both capable and worthy of love. In The Dark Knight Rises, Michael Caine, Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) loyal man Friday, reminds him of his parent’s emotional legacy and his true purpose. In Charlie Wilson’s War, Julia Roberts helps awaken Charlie Wilson’s (Tom Hanks) social conscience. In The Verdict, Jack Warden helps rehabilitate Paul Newman, an emotionally bankrupt ambulance chaser and alcoholic, into a lawyer of integrity who puts the needs of his client above his own personal needs.

The negative emotional father and mother figures are just the opposite. They are guided by the objectives of the lower self, and teach us prejudice and hatred and intolerance, and criticize all our efforts to develop a genuine social conscience. They believe human beings are basically evil and have to be dominated by a proper iron fist or they will run amok. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and we have to accept that. We should be ambitious and ruthless and use any means to become king of the hill. If we fail to reach the top, we will be nothing. Psychologically, they are the impulses and promptings that give rise to the negative emotional archetypes that motivate us in this direction

In real life, they are the social forces that helped create Hitler and Stalin, and sociopaths like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. They are lower self motivated and teach us how to lie, how to coerce, how to take advantage of, and gain power over, others. Prior to World War II, this was Hitler’s speech-making coach who taught him how to make a powerful, crowd stirring speech that would emotionally arouse and control his audience.

In Batman Begins, it’s Liam Neeson’s brain-washing of Bruce Wayne, so he will do the unthinkable and obliterate Gotham City. In August: Osage County, Violet Weston (Meryll Streep) has nothing positive to say to or about any of her children and is responsible for an incredibly dysfunctional family. In Othello, it’s Iago, who is determined to destroy Othello’s perfect love for his wife, Desdemona, with jealousy.

The mental archetypes are the denizens of our thinking brain, the neo-cortex.  They are our knowledge, our intelligence, our understanding — our ability to reason, to judge, to think creatively or plot strategies.

Like the emotional self, the mental self doesn’t have an agenda.  It’s neutral, a tool that can serve the objectives of either the higher or the lower self.  If you want to save the world, the mind will help you do that, providing you with a strategy and a master plan. On the other hand, if you want to rob a bank or kill someone, it will help you do that as well. It’s a tool. Werner von Braun, the father of the German V-2 rocket that nearly destroyed London, became America’s leading rocket scientist for thirty years after World War II and was apparently just as comfortable working for the U. S. as he was for Hitler. He was neutral. All he really cared about was making rockets. So, the metaphors that reveal these archetypes can serve the interests of either the higher or the lower self.

In great stories, the metaphors that personify the positive male and female mental archetypes possess a special knowledge which can help the hero achieve his or her goal. This is Yoda in Star Wars, the psychiatrist in Ordinary People, Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, and the Olympian goddess, Athena, in The Iliad. In Shakespeare in Love, it’s Will’s shrink. But it could take the form of a wise child, as in the Hindu myth, Parade of Ants. In the legends of King Arthur, it’s the magician, Merlin. Without the power contained in the invincible sword, Excalibur, Arthur cannot unify England and create Camelot. And without Merlin’s help, Arthur cannot possess and control the sword. In fairy tales, it is frequently an animal. In Jungle Book, it’s the panther, Bagheera. In The Lion King, it’s the  shaman baboon, Rifiki.

In real life, it could be the mentors who influenced Jonas Salk and Albert Einstein, or the advisers who helped the allied leaders defeat Hitler and win World War II.Psychologically, again, it’s the inner promptings that influence us in this way.

The negative mental helpers, can also take the form of sorcerers, witches, traitors, evil geniuses, wizards, computers (Hal in 2001), or spies. They have the special knowledge and powers that can undermine the hero and guide him to his doom. This is Mephistopheles in Faust, who tempts the ill-fated antihero with the power that will bring about the corruption and damnation of his immortal soul.

In real life, it’s Machiavelli, Goebbels, or Adolf Eichmann playing those roles. They show the tyrant how to enslave their citizens or fight a Blitzkrieg war. They concoct the secret formulas, design the death camps and construct the doomsday machines that will give the tyrant the power to carry out his diabolical schemes. Psychologically, it’s the thoughts and ideas that drive us in this same direction.

Together, these seven creative unconscious archetypes make up a complete set of the archetypes necessary to help the conscious archetypes make the journey to higher stages of being. And this is what the great characters in extraordinary stories are designed to tell us about ourselves. Namely, that the creative unconscious self is potential consciousness and these same archetypes are the stewards that can guide us through the passages that will transform the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energies we possess into the higher states of consciousness that were achieved by our ancient ancestors during our evolutionary progress from reptiles to human beings.

Why is this important to novelists and filmmakers? Because if you support your characters with these archetypal patterns and dimensions, your characters will become charismatic, make a significant psychological connection, and have universal appeal.

In the next story course article, I will talk more about the creative unconscious source of our creativity and how to use it to create powerful archetypal characters.

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