21 May 2014

A Greek God in Every Book


Jim Winter
Born near Cleveland in 1966, Jim Winter had a vivid imagination – maybe too vivid for his own good – that he spun into a career as a writer. He is the author of Northcoast Shakedown, a tale of sex, lies, and insurance fraud – and Road Rules, an absurd heist story involving a stolen holy relic.

Jim now lives in Cincinnati with his wife Nita and stepson AJ. To keep the lights on, he is a web developer and network administrator by day. Visit him at JamesRWinter.net , like Jim Winter Fiction on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter @authorjimwinter.

There’s a Greek God in Every Book

by Jim Winter

Lately, a lot has been made about the Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s template for myths and legends. It’s most obvious examples in modern times are Star Wars and the Harry Potter series. But sometimes, trying to plot around the Hero’s Journey can lead to formulaic writing. It can also lead to some very shallow clich├ęs. There’s a difference between paying homage to The Maltese Falcon and creating unintentional parody.

Not that I know anyone who’s ever done that.

A few years ago, however, someone introduced me to a pair of books by psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen. The first was called The Goddesses in Every Woman. It had a companion book, which I also read called The Gods in Every Man. In them, Bolen posits that the pantheon of Greek gods served as a personality spectrum for the human race. If you find a Greek god or goddess to attach to a character, I discovered, you can use that to flesh out a character. Does it apply to crime fiction?

Oh, come on! Really? Let’s take a look at some of the more common ones. You’ll be surprised.

ZEUS: Zeus is the king of the Greek gods. His personality is simultaneously the calm, solid leader and the petulant overlord who will preserve his position at all costs. Think of most CEO’s. They range from the brilliant innovators (Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google) to the self-absorbed jerk with too much money and power (Donald Trump). Perhaps the darkest crime fiction example is Noah Cross, the water baron in Chinatown.

ATHENA: Athena was the goddess of wisdom and the goddess of the law. Athena types tend to be a bit aloof, a little ruthless if only because their mission calls for it, and extremely logical. Hilary Clinton is an Athena, as are tech CEO’s Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina. In crime fiction, they are the female judges, who tend to be less hot-headed and more strict than their male counterparts.

POSEIDON: Brother of Zeus, king of the seas, Poseidons either wish they could be leaders, blaming others for their shortcomings, or they are leaders lacking confidence. History’s best known Poseidon is Richard Nixon, whose worst enemy was himself. A more benign example might be Bill Lumberg from the cult classic movie Office Space, who can’t relate to his underlings and speaks with a huge lack of confidence. Many male PI characters are Poseidons, such as Philip Marlowe. Marlowe does not play nice with others and vents his cynicism and anger at the system through wisecracks and semi-poetic similes.

ARTEMIS: Artemis is the twin brother of Apollo. Like her twin, she is often competitive and fiercely independent. Artemis types are a good model for female PI characters as they don’t really like being told what to do. Erin Brokovitch, the brassy activist, is a good example of an Artemis, refusing to accept the status quo. In crime, Kinsey Millhonne is a prime example.

HADES: The lord of the underworld is a tough one to figure out. He’s the role model for both Obi-wan Kenobi and for Hannibal Lecter. It all depends on which direction you want to go. Hades types spend a lot of time up in their heads. When it works, they’re contemplative philosophers. When it doesn’t, they’re in a world of their own that can be dangerous to those around them. The Dalai Lama and Ted Bundy are two sides of this very strange coin. Dexter would be a crime fiction example. Then again, so would Joe Pike.

HERA/DEMETER: Hera is the wife of Zeus and goddess of marriage. Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone. I put these two together because they are defined by fierce loyalty. Hera is fiercely loyal to her husband. Demeter is loyal to the point of murder to her daughter. One is proverbial woman behind the man. Think Nancy Reagan. The other can easily be the overbearing mother. Think Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

HERMES: Messenger of the gods and the Greeks’ answer to the Trickster archetype. (Think Loki, Thor fans.) Hermes is forever boyish and forever the smartass. A typical Hermes response to a stressful situation is to crack wise. That’s almost every male (and quite a few female) PI character you ever met. Spenser is the king of the Hermes PI character, followed very closely by Elvis Cole.

APHRODITE: You’d probably think Aphrodite is the archetypal slut. You’d be right, but you’d also be wrong. It’s much deeper than that. The movie There’s Something About Mary is a whole treatise on the Aphrodite personality. Cameron Diaz’s Mary is hardly a loose woman, but every male character in the movie falls hopelessly in love with her to the point of insanity. Sometimes, a woman of this time knows how she affects those around her and uses it. That’s the classic definition of the femme fatale. Other times, they seem oblivious to it. They may or may not be the damsel in distress, but men either want to her or to possess her.

DIONYSUS: This is the strangest one of all, and you need only look at the prime examples of this personality type. Dionysus, the god of wine and debauchery, also had a rebirth component to his myth. So Dionysus is either the eternal hedonist or the martyred messiah. In crime fiction, rock star Johnny Boz dies at the hands of Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. Both are hedonistic Dionysus types. From the more messianic perspective, take a look at Sean Chercover’s The Trinity Game, where huckster televangelist Tim Trinity finds himself becoming an unwilling mouthpiece for God. You know where this is going to end.

There’s more, of course, and Dr. Bolen’s books aren’t really writing guides. Nonetheless, they offer a fascinating insight into how ancient cultures tried to use their religions to sort out the confusing vagaries of human behavior. They were almost the first psychology guides ever written.

7 comments:

DoolinDalton said...

Great article and wonderful to see you here posting under your own byline, my friend!

I don't think writers pay near enough attention to archetypes such as these. They are eternal and multi-faceted for a reason: namely, they are both born of and feed a need within human beings for stories that feature characters such as these.

So I guess that would make them (archetypes) Dionesiac, in your milieu. Or would that be Cthonic...

Anyway, as I said, great post!

David Dean said...

Thanks for posting with us, Jim--great blog! In our household we went with the Norse and Arthurian archetypes and came to the same conclusions: If you don't know mythology you're depriving yourself of a great resource in both writing and understanding human nature.

Robert Lopresti said...

Makes me want to pull out my D'Aullaire's Book of Greek Myths. (Fourth copy I have owned, I think.)

Ever read Rex Stout's WHERE THERE'S A WILL? It involves three sisters named June (nicknamed Juno, married to the Secretary of State), May (a college president), and April (an actress). Clearly thinking of Hera, Athena, and Venus, but what it has to do with the story I have never been sure of.

Anonymous said...

Rob, I think Stout was trying to wrap his head around there personalities. Without having read it, I picked that out right off the bat.

Eve Fisher said...

Don't forget their dark sides:
Zeus - screwed everything that moved, at any cost
Hera - violently, murderously jealous of everyone Zeus screwed
Artemis - ruthless huntress, who killed every male who dared spy on her (but she's really good with pregnant women)
Apollo - music, love, sunshine... he swung both ways, and when he got tired of you... bye-bye
Aphrodite - her favorite lover is Ares, God of War, hinting at a yen for rough trade

Leigh Lundin said...

I've found myself thinking of one person or another "There goes a Greek tragedy," OJ, Tiger Woods, and so on.

I think Greek archetypes are not only an interesting approach, but damn clever, a step up from business personality measurements and astrological profiles.

DoolinDalton said...

Leigh: Jungian archetypal astrology is a fascinating melding of the two. In fact Jung's work with archetypes is certainly worth a look for any writer looking to inform the traits of their characters.