Analysis: Character archetypes in "Wall Street"

March 15th, 2011 by
Yesterday I posted a response to a reader question from Annika W: Does a Mentor character always have to be right? In comments, a discussion arose about the movie Wall Street, so I figured it would be interesting for us to analyze that movie per its character archetypes.

For background on five primary character archetypes (Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster) you can go here to an early post I put together on the subject.

For a synopsis of Wall Street’s plot, you can go here.

Here is a list of the major characters in the movie:

Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen)
Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas)
Carl Fox (Martin Sheen)
Darien Taylor (Daryl Hannah)
Sir Lawrence Wildman (Terence Stamp)

How would you look at these characters in terms of the five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster.

For an interesting analysis of economics as portrayed in the movie, go here.

10 thoughts on “Analysis: Character archetypes in "Wall Street"

  1. James says:

    Just to continue the discussion, I'm reading up on the idea of FALSE MENTOR.

    Places cite The Big Bad Wolf as a false Mentor. He is clearly a Shapeshifter/Trickster archetype. But I also see the false mentor label as appropriate. Even so far as adopting the guise of Grandma, as opposed to a random stranger Little Red could have met on the way. I'd say this example, might be a stretch, as what is Little Red really learning for the Wolf?

    Another example is Captain Beattey in Faranheit 451. He seems oddly unique. He is neither a Shapeshifter, nor a Trickster. He is never trying to mislead Montag. He simply holds beliefs counter to that of the reader. And continually provides the service of Mentor to the protagonist (Montag) which results in the protagonist being mislead.

    Chris Vogler (of the Writer's Journey) also states that the hero can encounter a false Mentor. Someone who the hero relies on, but steers him in the wrong direction.

    This is the archetype I believe Gekko to largely occupy. Much like The Big Bad Wolf, it also incorporates the Shapeshifter (which Scott is using as synonymous with Trickster) archetype.

    Compare this to the role of say — Burke in ALIENS. I think it'd be rash to call Burke a Mentor. He is clearly a Shapeshifter. Gekko on the other hand does provide the role of Mentor to Bud Fox in a way Burke doesn't to Ripley.

    Thus, Gekko is a false Mentor and Burke is simply a Shapeshifter.

    Love the debate. Really makes me think about narrative structure.

  2. Amos says:

    Is there an earlier post where you talk about attractors, mentors, and tricksters more basically? I'd like to start from an earlier point with this.

  3. Scott says:

    @Amos: There's a link in the OP to an earlier post I did on all five archetypes. You can get to that previous post here.

  4. Scott says:

    @James: For me character archetypes are valuable to a writer for numerous reasons, one of the most important tied to this screenwriting principle to which I subscribe:

    Character = Function

    In a screenplay, every character must have a function directly related to the Plotline and in most cases tied to the Protagonist's metamorphosis arc.

    So I use archetypes to drill down to the core essence of each character's respective narrative function.

    Re Gekko: Is his main function to provide wisdom to Bud? In my view, the answer is no. Rather his main function is to test Bud. He certainly acts like a Mentor, even a False Mentor as you suggest. But that dark wisdom is a tool tied to a deeper existential question: Will Bud lose his soul to greed? Since that wisdom is in service to a larger question — a test for Bud's soul — I perceive Gekko mentoring to be a mask he wears, and at his core he is a Trickster. He plays Bud's ally, but in actuality is his enemy. And Tricksters test the Protagonist to prepare them for the Final Struggle, which is precisely what happens in Wall Street.

    That said characters are organic. And each of us brings our own life-experience to any movie we see. So there is always room for interpretation when use archetypes as analytical tools.

  5. James says:

    @ Scott

    I think our perspectives may be a little different. It seems you're philosophy of archetype sees characters solely rooted in a"pure" archetype.

    I completely agree that character = function.

    I just don't think the secondary characters necessarily are as one dimensional as being pigeonholed into a singular archetype.

    I used the example of Burke (ALIENS) vs Gekko (WALL STREET) because in many ways they are narratively similar characters. They both test, mislead, and ultimately cause the conflict that leads to the Final Battle.

    But the relationship the protagonist has to either character is significantly different. Ripley has nothing to learn from Burke. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Bud, however, has a lot to learn from Gekko. And Gekko exploits that.

    While you're saying they're the same archetype, how they function is quite different. One plays the role of the Shpeshifter to a tee, while the other dons the mask of the Mentor.

    Also, I am curious — of all the archetypes, why do you leave the Shapeshifter out? Or use it synonymously with the Trickster?

    To me, The Shapeshifter is the proof that characters can be hybrids of archetypes because by definition, the Shapeshifter has to wear the mask of other archetypes.

    This means, when they are in the guise of that role, they are actively filling it.

    I also think that's more true to life. I don't think we as individuals only wear one mask. Assume one role. When we teach, we are Mentors. When we learn from another, they are Mentors.

    P.S. I'm not really arguing against what you're saying. For the most part, I agree. Because Gekko is also the Shadow/Nemesis.

    It's sort of a Devil vs. God argument. Is the Devil really a Mentor if he's leading the Hero to his destruction? The Mentor leads the Hero to salvation.

    But my comments are more towards the reality of writing. And keeping things fresh. I've read too many screenplays in which the haggard old man was clearly the helpful old Mentor. Rather than understanding the function of the archetype, a lot of novice writers simply fill in the role.

    I don't think archetypes are a paint by numbers solution. An overly simplistic view of archetypes comes off that way.

    Ultimately, I think my view is more an instantaneous glimpse of a character at a given moment. Where what you're talking about is a net sum.

    Simply put, I just think character can assume an archetype when there's a void.

    This is clearly what Gekko does. Bud rejects his father. Gekko fills the role.

    Bleh — longwinded response. Sorry about that.

  6. Scott says:

    @James: The subject matter is too complex to get into in depth here. It's why I teach courses on character archetypes and am working on a book to lay down my ideas in a comprehensive fashion.

    I don't see archetypes as an attempt to reduce a character to a type, but rather to identify their core essence and relationship to the Protagonist as a basis of understanding them, then using that knowledge to develop each character and the plot so the narrative is centered and focused, and the characters come alive as flesh-and-blood individuals.

    This all starts with another premise — that a story can be seen as a psychological journey. Most often that journey is shaped by the Protagonist's metamorphosis, generally from Disunity to Unity.

    Per Jung, we are tasked with getting in touch, confronting, and connecting with the various aspects of our psyche. That's a key dynamic of the process of individuation. As a writer, I've found it interesting to extrapolate from that the concept that various characters in a story are – in essence – projections of those aspects of the Protagonist's psyche.

    For example Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope.

    Luke is the story's Protagonist. His Disunity:

    * He's an orphan.

    * He's a young man with a spirit of adventure stuck in a rut as a moisture-farmer on a remote planet.

    * He's got Jedi blood coursing through his veins as yet unrecognized.

    * He has a destiny that will pull him far away from his existence in the Ordinary World.

    So let's look at the movie's other key characters:

    Nemesis: Darth Vader. What does he represent but the potential for evil / the Dark Side of the Force that exists within Luke.

    Attractor: Princess Leia. She represents Luke's passion to be involved in a cause bigger than himself.

    Mentor: Obi-Wan Kenobi. He represents Luke's higher / Jedi wisdom which exists latent with him.

    Trickster: Han Solo. He represents Luke's youthful zeal and impatience, his ability to do great things, but also get into trouble.

    Each character connected to Luke's psychological journey, each in some way a reflection of various aspects of his psyche.

    [Of course, I'm simplifying each character for purposes of our discussion. Obviously the characters are much more than this.]

    BTW, the reason I chose these five character archetypes [Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster] is because that's the collection I see over and over and over again in movies. I have some theories as to why it's those five, but again too much to get into here.

    And yes, I pretty much collapse shapeshifter into the Trickster because I see their functions as related to movies as pretty much identical.

    Let me reiterate the point: Character archetypes when properly used are not reductionistic, but precisely the opposite, tools writers can use to understand the essence of their story's characters, then develop them into full-blooded, multilayered individuals.

    Finally: I think we are largely in agreement. And even if we weren't, I'd appreciate your thoughts and ideas. I find this whole subject area to be fascinating and offers what I hope is a character-based approach to screenwriting as distinct from a vast majority of paradigms which focus most if not all their attention on structure. In my view, the character archetypes approach enables a story's plot to emerge from the character development process – in theory the best of both worlds.

  7. Annika W says:

    It's been a while since I've seen Wall Street, but why isn't Gekko Bud's Nemesis? Is there another Nemesis in the film… or is Bud's Nemesis himself, or an intangible, like greed???

  8. James says:

    As always, interesting stuff.

  9. Christian H. says:

    Bud Fox – Protag
    Gordon Gekko – Nemesis
    Darian – Trickster
    Carl Fox – Mentor
    Wildman – Attractor

    I know it's usually opposite sex for the Attractor but Wildman is not the Trickster.

    Bud was "attracted" to Wildman's position to help him with the nemesis.

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