“Nature herself demands a death and rebirth.” -C.G Jung
Death and Rebirth has to be one of my favorite plot and character archetypes. I know what you are thinking, “Amanda, it is only your favorite because it deals with death.” You would not be completely incorrect in that assumption, because I love me some dead things! However, what really draws me to this archetype is the transition that occurs for a character who is placed with a Death / Rebirth situation.
This archetype is a clear cut and dry transition, where a character transform from one type of person into a completely different kind by the end of the story. There is a hard, black line drawn in that transformation, differentiating the two ends. That differs from many other archetypal transformation, because with those types, there is usually a gradual change from one end of the spectrum to the other. Usually this results in a blending of the character from the beginning with the character at the end, where the final character exhibits traits of the old and new character.
When you see “Death and Rebirth” that does not necessarily mean that a character dies and is resurrected (though, that kind of scenario makes for fantastic horror stories). You can have a character that transforms in a way he or she completely cuts out their old life and takes on a new life. This can be a physical, mental, or emotional transformation. The key is to have there be a clear definition of a past life as one character and a new life as another character.
There also has to be an event or some sort of episode that triggers this transformation. A character cannot just haphazardly begin a transformation without a catalyst. The forms that a catalyst can take on is innumerable. It can range anywhere from a character’s wife leaving him for another man or a character witnessing something so horrific, that her entire life is changed because of that event. A perfect literary example that shows a blatant catalyst, which sends a character spinning into the transformation phase, can be found within H.P Lovecraft’s Dagon (If you have not read it, I suggest you do so… right now… or else). Without giving away the story, because it is deliciously creepy, the narrator happens upon an “island” to where he uncovers cosmic horrors that end up scarring him for the rest of his life, so much so that when he returns to civilization, he is a completely different (and mad) man. The catalyst of that story is the narrator stepping foot on the island. That is where the line was drawn, his “death”, and the point of transformation from his past life towards his future self. The narrators rebirth occurs when he steps foot off the island, leaving the island as a completely different man.
The part that I love most about this archetype is that the outcome of the plot can be good or bad. A character can come out of the transformation as good or evil. There is no one set way that the Death / Rebirth archetype has to flow, except for remembering that there is a hard line in the transformation that the ending character / setting / etc. has to be different from the beginning.
When you are working on your own material and if you think that you want to use the Death / Rebirth archetype, remember to play up the Symbolism. Symbolism can be an intellectual piece utilized in portraying a Death / Rebirth plot. Somes examples are: Morning and Spring usually represent birth or youth, while evening and Autumn can represent death or old age. You can slip in Death / Rebirth nuances all through your story just by using symbolic references. I have a habit of doing this with my stories all the time!
Have no fear over using this archetype because because it has “death” in its name. It is okay to kill your character (ahem, Kirsten). It is also perfectly acceptable to use this archetype and NOT kill your characters, though where is the fun in that?
If you have enjoyed this topic, be sure to check out other posts in The Archetype Series.
I so want to say something clever here, but I’ll end up just saying what I’m thinking. Though I understand death and rebirth have a clear line of demarcation, I do use the elements a lot in a bit of a softer transition. Leaving one mindset for another, loss of innocence, all those scenarios carry a strong death/rebirth vibe, at least in my head, and I love to write them.
Agreed, there are many ways that you can use certain elements from this archetype in softer transitions. For instance, if a character has a horrible evening, after she awakes the next morning, she may feel renewed and refreshed. Though she didn’t go through the full Death / Rebirth archetypal lifecycle, the setting of the morning plays an element of rebirth for the character. The night has passed and she is awaking to a new – and hopefully better – day.
The major takeaway from using the elements from this archetype, instead of the complete archetype, is that she is mostly the same character after the “transition”. She did not go through a full Death / Rebirth transformation into a new character.