The Virgin's Promise - A New Archetypal Structure

Posted by Kim Hudson on

The title The Virgin's Promise has two meanings and in a nutshell, it describes the journey of the Virgin. The first meaning is the community's belief that the Virgin has agreed to live up to their expectations. She has made a promise to them. The second speaks to the Virgin's unproven potential that lies dormant within her, longing to come to life. The Virgin begins by conforming to the wishes of others and eventually learns to hear her inner voice and bring it to life. It is the journey to creative, spiritual and sexual awakening.

Movies such as Bend It Like Beckham, Ever After, The Other Boleyn Girl, Brokeback Mountain, Billy Elliot, Tootsie, Better than Chocolate, Virgin Suicides and Wedding Crashers, to name just a few, all follow this archetypal journey. And when you think about it, none of these protagonists are selflessly saving the community because none of them are Heroes. They are self-fulfilling Virgins.

I hope you noticed that the examples I gave of Virgin journeys include both females and males. Just as females can be Heroes, males can be Virgins, whether or not they are gay. As in yin and yang theory, we all have a Virgin and a Hero archetype in our unconscious. I refer to the Virgin as she and the Hero as he to avoid the clumsiness of s/he, but ask the reader to remember we all have feminine and masculine sides.

This distinction between two archetypes opens up a whole world of storytelling that includes strong feminine plots. I set out to describe the beats of this journey of transformation similar to the work on the Hero by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, and found there are thirteen repeated and pivotal moments or beats in a Virgin's journey:

The Virgin begins her story in a Dependent World. She carries her kingdom's hopes for its continuation, which are contrary to her dream for herself. At first, she is afraid to go against her community and realize her own dream, but then she has a small opportunity to follow her dream in secret. She acknowledges her dream by dressing the part she was meant to play, if only temporarily. Enlivened by this first experience, the Virgin goes back and forth, juggling the two worlds, enhancing her dream in the Secret World, while appeasing her Dependent World. Eventually she no longer fits in either world and she gets caught shining. In this crisis the Virgin has a moment of clarity and gives up what has been keeping her stuck and recognizes she has the ability to realize her dream. The kingdom goes into chaos. Now, she wanders in the wilderness trying to decide whether she will make herself small again to make people happy or choose to live her dream. She chooses to be true to herself! She loses her protection and it is grim, but the kingdom re-orders itself to accommodate the blossoming Virgin, and the kingdom becomes a brighter place to live.

So when writing a story of being true to yourself, you want to include these thirteen beats:

1. Dependent World
2. Price of Conformity
3. Opportunity to Shine
4. Dress the Part
5. Secret World
6. No Longer Fits Her World
7. Caught Shining
8. Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck
9. Kingdom in Chaos
10. Wanders in the Wilderness
11. Chooses Her Light
12. The Re-ordering
13. The Kingdom is Brighter

The order can be re-arranged and some beats can be explored more deeply or repeatedly while others may be represented by a single line of dialogue, a look, or even implied. The range of ways these beats can be represented is infinite.

Looking at the Hero's journey, it is quite different from the Virgin's journey described above. The Hero lives in an Ordinary World until one day he receives a Call to Adventure. At first he Refuses the Call, because of the great danger, but after Meeting with the Guide, the Hero Crosses the First Threshold to a foreign land. Suddenly away from everything familiar, the Hero is tested in his ability to survive. Clear in his purpose, he meets Allies who can help him and learns about his Enemy. The Allies make Preparations to enter the Enemy's lair and increase their chances of success. The Hero faces near-death in a Crisis in the lair, escapes with his life, and is Rewarded with an advantage when next he faces the Enemy. He takes the Road Back and meets the Enemy in a Final Battle. The Hero defeats the Enemy, sometimes at the cost of his life, and Returns the Elixir that will keep the village safe.

Taking a closer look at the key differences between these two archetypes creates a powerful tool for writing gripping stories. Each of the archetypes becomes more vibrant and compelling when the contrasts are portrayed. The classic example of this is when the self-fulfillment drive of the Virgin is played against the self-neglect drive of her shadow side, the Whore. We see this in Cinderella stories where the protagonist is spending her life serving others at the cost of her self as in Working Girl, The Other Boleyn Girl, Pretty Woman, and Ever After.

The first difference between the Virgin and the Hero is in their relationship to their community. The Hero comes from a village that is basically good. He seeks to preserve the village and it remains relatively unchanged from beginning to end. The Hero leaves the village to ward off danger before it arrives and creates havoc in a foreign land. The antagonist is the personification of this foreign land and is basically evil and rightly destroyed.

The Virgin lives in a Kingdom that is in need of change. The kingdom is stagnating and needs to allow more individual freedom. Growth of the Virgin forces growth of the Kingdom. The antagonist is again the personification of the kingdom and may have benevolent feelings towards the Virgin despite being the obstacle to her archetypal transformation. Their love for each other is sometimes the inspiration for the transformation of the kingdom.

The Hero ensures stability and the Virgin brings chaos to the community; the Hero goes to a foreign land and the Virgin stays home.

Another key difference is the motivation of the protagonist. The Hero is learning to be self-sacrificing. His highest purpose is to overcome his Mother Complex and learn to live without the comfort, ease, and security he feels living at home. He must face his fear of death and expand the limits within which he understands he can survive. He is about being rugged, strong, and brave as he challenges the boundary between humans and immortals.

The Virgin is learning to be self-fulfilling. Her highest purpose is to overcome her Father Complex and make choices in her life based on her own values. She must follow her passion and know joy and love. She is about awakening her sexuality, spirituality and creativity and making her dreams come true.

The Hero is learning to do and the Virgin is learning to be.

The Hero and the Virgin both face the challenge of knowing oneself as an individual. The Hero is challenged to physically know he can survive. Without this self-knowledge he cannot live with others without feeling the need to appease or control them as seen in the behaviors of the Hero's shadow side, the Coward or the Bully. The risk to the Hero is death.

The Virgin is growing to stand as an individual psychologically and emotionally. That is why a Virgin story is set among the people who have a history of emotional and psychological attachment to her. Her challenge is to hold her own counsel among strong psychological forces. Without this self-knowledge the Virgin is in danger of becoming a Victim or occupies her shadow side of the Whore. She may become depressed or suicidal if her true self never comes to life.

The Virgin journey includes a friend while the Hero is aided by allies. The Virgin's friend sees her potential and supports her in her quest to be true to herself out of love rather than personal gain. The Hero meets allies along the way who share a common goal. They don't have to like each other; they simply have to share a common purpose.

The Hero and the Virgin are not only unique from each other, they are polar opposites of each other. When you recognize a feature in one archetype you can identify a feature of its counterpart by recognizing its opposite. Just as black is seen most sharply against white, the Virgin is most clearly understood in contrast to the Hero.

Knowing this you can write really strong characters by grounding them in the fundamental aspects of the Virgin and the Hero. You can also surround the protagonist with characters of highly contrasting archetypal natures to increase the impact. Put the Coward next to your Hero or place a Virgin opposite a Hero and notice the feeling of resonance it brings. Think of Lord Farquaad played off against Shrek in Shrek, or Cypher compared to Neo in The Matrix. Shrek and Neo look very heroic compared to their cowardly counterparts. Notice how feminine Vivian is in contrast to Edward in Pretty Woman. Playing with the points of balance between opposite archetypes is a very powerful way to strengthen a story and draw people in.

So next time you create a Virgin protagonist, try these writing techniques:

- Set the story among the people she is emotionally attached to;
- Show how the community needs to change;
- Give her a secret world in which to grow and have her afraid her two worlds are going to collide as she moves back and forth between them;
- Give her friends rather than allies;
- Include the shadow side and masculine counterpart
- Focus on the Virgin's creative, sexual or spiritual awakening rather than a drive to find love or save someone.

Enjoy the journey!

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