The Psychology of Writing

By Ken Johnson

What if I could tell you how to prevent the #1 reason why readers will either stop reading a book altogether or give it a bad review? Would that interest you? Would you believe it isn’t because of poor grammar or plot structure? It isn’t even due to erratic changes between third-person omniscient and first-person narrative voice. Indeed, many readers say they will overlook these issues with a new author. Instead, the pivotal turning point for most readers is when the author exhibits no fundamental understanding of character types (archetypes) and therefore no concept of their hidden meanings (allegories)!

While marketing my latest book, A Quick Guide to Archetypes & Allegory, one professional reviewer recently shared with me 75% of her yearly reading list will be duds. She expects that number to grow by 85% next year alone. Another told me about 90% of the stories she reads are not even memorable. In both cases, they say the authors’ lack of acumen in character mechanics caused them to waste chapters in needless descriptions and contrived storylines. Of the few that understood some of the basics, they complained the authors worried more about inclusion of certain demographics more than they did crafting memorable storylines using archetypal allegory as a filter. This made the stories, at times, off-putting.

In other words, it would be the equivalent of having an author write a story about an epic airplane dog fight – only one of the characters is flying a submarine. Imagine spending two-thirds of the book reading what a submarine looked and acted like while the remaining third of the book was wasted trying to make it fly. How would you feel if someone tried to pawn off such an absurd story? Naturally, you’d be upset! Unfortunately, the market is showing this very frustration now as less than 1% of all new titles printed in 2019 will sell 1,000 copies in entire life of the book.


The frustrating part for me is the literary world has known, at least since the nineteenth century, about how to use archetypes and allegory. Starting with Sigmund Freud, Fredrich Nietzsche, and others – Carl Jung ultimately hand-delivered the world of fiction writing a concise reference guide for how to write characters that are instinctively known by the audience, characters that do not need to be described, their behavior is innately understood, and more than that they also have a hidden meaning which is also instinctually known by the audience. 

Ultimately, Jung created a form of psychological shorthand for writers to employ. Using the tools he provided, artists could now quickly create memorable stories with no wasted words. 

So, what did the writing world do with this knowledge? For a while, new voices improved upon the concept. It was learned allegory could be changed. We also learned the difference between humanoid and non-humanoid archetypes. Over time, we learned non-humanoid archetypes could be changed into humanoid archetypes to change their inherent allegory. Indeed, for a time, some great innovations were coming out!

Then, almost overnight, it was all rejected. Colleges and universities quit teaching the subject of psychology in literature.

Today, it is shocking how the literary world has regressed in just a few short decades.

The truth is, a well-written story will always be appreciated by readers. And, once you can command knowledge of archetypes and allegory, it opens up doors not only to storytelling but also to marketing. In many ways, that is why I wrote A Quick Guide to Archetypes & Allegory


Character archetypes essentially fall into two types: humanoid and non-humanoid. 

Humanoid archetypes are rather easy for us to understand. They represent elements of humanity. The more human the character looks, the more it resonates with our humanity. 

Non-humanoid archetypes tend to represent more obtuse concepts. From a historical perspective, the most popular force represented by a non-humanoid is nature. However, God, natural order, science, and other obtuse topics have also been used as literary and cinematic allegory.

Even here, things can vary dramatically. For example, just because a witch and a mermaid both typically represent elements of feminism, it doesn’t mean their allegories are interchangeable. We see this with vampires and aliens as well since both archetypes are representative of cultures, subcultures, and countercultures. Yet, in all truth, they are quite different. In many ways, one could even draw similar conclusions about the leviathan and the mummy. Here, this is particularly interesting because you have a non-humanoid and a humanoid representing similar allegories and yet they are drastically different. Another odd similarity between humanoid and non-humanoid allegories is how both a vampire and a unicorn represent female sexuality.

What is important for the writer to remember here is to focus specifically upon the unique allegory being portrayed by the given archetype based upon the archetype’s intrinsic allure to the reader. Look at how the archetype behaves and ask yourself why the audience is being drawn-in by its charms. If needed, research various authoritative guides on the subject. 

To better understand what is being suggested, let’s look at the previous examples of the witch and the mermaid. Witches represent a desire to exert feminine will and power over men through a belief that the natural order favors females over males. Mermaids, however, represent a need to command emotions as well as various, and sometimes stormy, life situations. And, while it is true both witches and mermaids do not always have to be female – the market almost always dictates these archetypes engender feminism whenever possible. This is especially true in the Young Adult market.

Looking back at two other previous examples, vampires and aliens both talk about cultures, subcultures, and countercultures but in drastically different ways. For at least four decades now, both have specifically addressed the issues of bisexuality, transsexuality, pansexuality, and homosexuality in one form or another. Here, the archetype truly colors the allegory since the vampire character addresses the issue from an almost purely sexual perspective whereas the alien character addresses the issue from a contextual social interplay that’s somewhat analogous to what one would find in everyday society. In other words, one talks about your bedroom and dating life while the other is talking about your workplace and your neighborhood.

We see this sexuality-based allegory again with the vampire and the unicorn example. Here, the vampire is, in many ways, representative of female sexual ecstasy, seduction, and lust. The unicorn, being a non-humanoid figure, represents God’s favor and championing of one who is able to keep her virtue, avoid seduction, and cast aside any lustful desires before they have a chance to take root. In many ways, this is also why you now see the unicorn being used as a pariah in certain genres and crassly fun of in certain television shows and even commercials.

And, since we brought God into the picture, let’s go back to the mummy and leviathan archetypal examples. It’s easy for most American’s to equate leviathan-based stories with being religious since most, if not all, of us know the story of Jonah being taken in by a leviathan. True, most churches, and some Bible translations, get it wrong by saying it was a fish or whale. However, mistranslations aside, the story’s allegory stands pretty much untainted that God’s will is inviolable. Mummies, for most people, are a harder thing to equate with religion – until the culture of the mummy is considered in proper context. For example, in The Mummy (1999) a pharaoh was brought back to life. It was his reliance upon his faith’s multiple deities that almost allowed him to take over our world and supplant our mostly-Christian culture with the long dead Egyptian pantheon. Thus, the mummy archetype almost always represents an allegory of a religious takeover.


In regards to this last example, I brought up The Mummybecause it was an absolute flop at the box office. People hated it! Then, something remarkable happened which caused home movie rental sales to spike. What was this milestone in our culture? It was the 9/11 terrorist attacks!

We were, for the first time in decades, attacked on our own soil by religious zealots – and the allegory of the mummy archetype helped us make sense of it all!

To be fair, this tragedy also ushered in a brief, new era of superhero-based songs, television shows, books, etc. However, one did not need a crystal ball to know such a trend would not be long lived. It was ultimately a knee-jerk response whereas the mummy uptick in popularity was a desire to understand.

Later, as our economy tanked, and our societal discourse turned into nothing more than waspish, the zombie entered the scene to take center-stage with its unique sort of allegory. This marketing gold mine had more staying power because it was society’s acknowledgement of our own falling away and decay. Everything from car decals and shirts, to books and movies, to beef jerky and preserved foods, to knives and guns, and even our own national security was branded using the zombie. Yes, the federal government actually used the “zombie apocalypse” as a way to test our nation’s security systems to make sure we were ready for any disaster that might befall us. 

If anything, the 9/11 aftermath gave market data to further prove what psychologists have contented for years. And, when this data was paired with previous market data, the conclusions are nothing short of undeniable. We gravitate to certain archetypes based upon given needs and moments in our lives. Furthermore, when banned from accessing certain archetypes, it would appear we’d also accept new substitutes.

For example, there once was a period of time when no comic book company could get a werewolf-themed story approved by the Comic Code Authority. This is because the werewolf allegory represents puberty and aggression in males. As a workaround, one comic book company developed a certain green, hulking monster based upon the old Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story – which was nothing more than a variant of the old werewolf story that had to be reinvented due to social pressures of the day. Naturally, this new green monster was marketing gold!

Using marketing data, we now can craft manuscripts based upon perceived economic trends, projected political trends, the psychological needs/desires of a targeted audience demographic, and more. In fact, prolific and savvy authors can even squirrel-away multiple manuscripts, just in case a certain trend has yet to manifest itself yet, and then release the work later when the time is right – thus getting a jump on the competition!

To better assist you, here are five basic steps to follow in the writing and marketing of your manuscript using archetypes and allegory:

1. Have a marketing plan in place before you ever write the outline to your story. Your marketing plan should take into account the specific demographic(s) you will be marketing to, how you will be marketing to them, and any relevant competing works.

2. Consider your archetypal character well and the markets it might best sell in. For example, zombies and pirates do very well during times of economic turmoil whereas werewolves, vampires, and witches tend to do very well with pre-teens and teens regardless of economic situations.

3. Don’t be afraid to utilize a less-popular archetypal character if it will resonate best with a targeted niche audience. Readers always want something new and fresh that calls out to them. In my book, A Quick Guide to Archetypes & Allegory, I mention how rural and suburban Americana would gravitate to a positive hunter-based story even as it would do poorly in major cities.

4. Stay true to your archetype’s allegory. Writing is a sacred trust between the author and reader. The reader will expect a plot twist or so. The reader may even appreciate an innovation to an allegory. However, it must be natural and true to the archetypal character. Moreover, it must psychologically ring true to the reader’s own mental and emotional state.

 5. Use your archetype’s traits to your advantage. Sometimes, this means you can use the archetype as a filter for a sensitive subject – just as what Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. Other times, because the archetypes are so strong, and yet so flawed, you can put numerous opposing types together for a unified cause. This practically writes the story for you and give boundless interplay as is seen in “Firefly,” “Ocean’s 8,” “Leverage,” and others.


Ken Johnson is a consultant, culturalist, and award-winning author. His latest book, A Quick Guide to Archetypes & Allegory, is available wherever fine books are sold.

Until we read again…📚


Dana L. ❤️

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