This is your brain on structural anthropology.

Human beings are hardwired to classify things in pairs, particularly in opposing pairs. Salt and pepper. Hot and cold. Cats and dogs. Left and right.

Order and chaos. Yin and yang.

One can argue that our propensity for arranging the world in dichotomous pairs has contributed to some of our most telling social issues of the day. Black and white. Male and female. Haves and have nots. Domination and integration. Nuance is a challenging thing to describe, let alone embrace. But that’s why we’re writers, eh?

So here we are. Me and you.

I am me. You’re not.

The concept of “otherness” is the foundation of structural anthropology. It’s key to understanding the shared experience of humanness (If you can see the irony of that, extra points to you. DM me. Let’s talk.).

When I draw a line between you and me to show we are individuals, I introduce the condition of opposition.

With opposition comes underlying conflict because I am right, therefore you must be wrong. I am impelled to change your mind.

And that, gentle reader, is the root of all story.

Story is how we change things.

Carl Jung, who gave parthenogenic birth to the concept of archetypes, defines the panoply of archetypes in sets of two that look inward rather than outward. Instead of Me and You, all archetypes proceed from Self and Shadow Self.

Still with me?

Of course you are. Because you’re hardwired for this stuff.

Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is an archetypal structure that uses internal symbolism to tell a story. Maureen Murdock and Kim Hudson have reframed Campbell’s archetypal structure from a female perspective. (See my Afterword below.)

Choose your poison. Any of these archetypal journeys is a story of change, of how a person can move from one side to the other and back again with understanding. It helps us make sense of all the shades of grey between light and darkness. It turns Me and You into Us.

These archetypal structures help us find meaning in our lives, at least from a Western “if-then” worldview. There are other “universal” forms of story that aren’t so linear, but the archetypes they use remain consistently identifiable.

We don’t always get a happily ever after.

What we get is change that will make us stronger or change that will break us.

When you understand the deceptively simple idea of conflict between linked opposing pairs, you will write better stories.


Hudson’s Virgin’s Promise stands closer to a non-gendered story form than either Murdock or Campbell, though her explanation of the final crucial step of integration seems less an integral part of the journey’s natural progression and more of an afterthought, almost deus ex machina in nature. IMO. Between the two, I prefer Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey.

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