In literature, an archetype (AHR-kih-typuh) is a character, situation, emotion, symbol, or event that is recurrent throughout different stories from many cultures. Because of the frequency with which these are seen, they’re considered universal symbols.
The term is also connected to psychology. According to Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, archetypes are universal ideas or images that arise from humans’ “collective unconscious” and are indicative of a deeper realm of myths, yearnings, beliefs, and dreams that help illuminate each individual’s psyche.
The word archetype first appeared in English in the 1540s and indicated a “model, first form, original pattern from which copies are made.” This word derives from the Latin archetypum, from the Greek arkhetypon, meaning “pattern, model, figure on a seal.”
Popular Character Archetypes
There are many common characters who appear in stories from across the world and have thus become archetypes. These are some of the most frequently seen:
- The creature of nightmare is a monster the protagonist—generally the hero, a character that is explained below—must face. Examples of this archetype include Grendel in Beowulf and Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula.
- The femme fatale or seductress is a provocative woman who brings danger and catastrophe to the hero. The sorceress Circe from The Odyssey or Natasha Fatale from the Rocky and Bullwinkle series are examples of femme fatales; the latter even takes her name from the archetype. These women frequently appear in detective novels, particularly noir fiction like the novels of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.
- The friendly beast is an animal companion who assists the hero and shows that nature is on the hero’s side. Examples include Falcor the Luck Dragon in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, Reepicheep in The Chronicles of Narnia, and Toto in The Wizard of Oz.
- The hero is a protagonist whose life is filled with adventures. They are often raised by a guardian and must leave their native land to enter an unfamiliar and challenging world. Beowulf, Harry Potter, and Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars movies are examples of heroes.
- The star-crossed lovers are two characters whose love affair is fated to end in tragedy. Examples include Romeo and Juliet from William Shakespeare’s titular play, as well as Tristan and Iseult of 12th-century European courtly tales.
- The mentor or wise sage is a wise, older teacher who often serves as a mother or father figure to the hero. The mentor or sage frequently offers gifts (magic, weapons, food, advice), serves as a role model, and imparts necessary wisdom. Some examples are Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings; Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars; Merlin in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; and Mrs. Watsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
- The mother is a symbol of abundance, fertility, and nourishment (spiritually and emotionally, as well as literally). She may appear as an earth mother, connected to the natural world, or as a fairy godmother offering advice and magical guidance. Galadriel from J.R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series or Mother Goose from nursery rhymes are mother archetypes.
- The villain’s role is to thwart and oppose the hero and often commit wider acts of destruction that threaten the world. Examples include Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, James Moriarty in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, and the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Other common character archetypes include the anti-hero, the father figure, the witch, the trickster, the orphan, the jester, the ruler, the scapegoat, the martyr, the caregiver, and the innocent.
Popular Thematic or Situational Archetypes
In addition to character archetypes, there are themes and situations so enduring that they become archetypes. Some of the most common situational archetypes include:
The Battle Between Good and Evil
A battle must be fought between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The revolt of Lucifer against Heaven as described by John Milton in Paradise Lost is an example of this situational archetype, as is Indiana Jones facing off against the Nazis in The Raiders of the Lost Ark.
This situation occurs when a character tumbles into difficult circumstances because of their own actions. Examples include Oedipus’s fate at the end of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex; King Lear’s madness and death in Shakespeare’s King Lear; and Jamie Conway’s downward spiral with drugs, alcohol, and job loss in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City.
This is when a main character takes an adventure to better understand themselves and the world. This thematic archetype frequently includes a quest, which often involves a search for a sacred or magical object that will help heal the protagonist’s troubled land. Dante’s voyage through the underworld, Limbo, and heaven in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy is a journey, as is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Stories of the search for the Holy Grail, for example, appear in Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King as well as in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
Other situational archetypes include characters returning from the dead (either literal death, like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, or presumed death, like Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), initiations, orphans from humble beginnings who achieve the heights of greatness, love lost, and lovers reunited.
Popular Symbolic Archetypes
There are many archetypal symbols as well. The following are just a handful of examples:
- Crossroads often symbolize a turning point or a moment of meaningful change in a character’s life or personality.
- Darkness often represents death, sorrow, or ignorance.
- Dawn symbolizes new life or rebirth.
- Fire is often a symbol that represents knowledge, creativity, and ingenuity. It can also symbolize destruction or romantic passion.
- Fog represents ignorance or uncertainty.
- A harvest represents death.
- Green represents growth, fertility, new life, and hope.
- Light represents hope, intellectual illumination, the Divine, or moral goodness.
- Spring is a symbol of rebirth.
- Trees represent nature.
- Water represents rebirth, renewal, and life.
- The wilderness often represents danger and ignorance.
- Winter is a symbol of death.
Archetypes vs. Round and Flat Characters
When people discuss characters in literature, they often refer to characters who are round vs. flat or static vs. dynamic. Round characters are fully developed, three-dimensional characters. If these characters undergo major changes over the course of the story, rather than staying the same, then they are also dynamic characters. Flat characters are not fully developed. They tend not to change during the story, making them static characters as well.
Archetypal characters can be flat/static or round/dynamic depending on how the author chooses to tell the story and how much characterization they employ. For example, the wizard Merlin is an archetypal mentor figure. When Sir Thomas Malory describes Merlin in Le Morte d’Arthur, he is a flat character who doesn’t change and isn’t given much characterization. On the other hand, in Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, the wizard still is a mentor, but his character is round and dynamic, undergoing changes and growth throughout the books.
Another example of this is the hero archetype. Handled by one author, a hero might be presented as a round, dynamic character, while another author might leave their hero static and flat. Harry Potter fits the definition on a hero archetype. Throughout J.K. Rowling’s series, Harry grows and changes. The warrior king Beowulf is also a hero, but in the Anglo Saxon epic poem that bears his name, he doesn’t undergo very much change or growth.
Archetypes and Other Common Story Elements
There are some similarities between archetypes, stock characters, clichés, and stereotypes, but the terms are not interchangeable.
Clichés are descriptions, events, details, or ideas that occur so frequently in literature and pop culture that they become predictable and lack originality. For example, the idea of a hardboiled detective who falls for the femme fatale is a cliché. Archetypes, while universal, are not boring and overused. They illustrate universal truths in a way that gives deeper understanding to their audiences, rather than relying on shopworn ideas or situations.
A stock character is similar to an archetype because it’s a character who fits a familiar role, such as the lecherous boss or the wisecracking cabdriver who has seen it all. Unlike archetypes, stock characters do not reveal universal elements of humanity; instead, they tend to serve as comedic foils.
Stereotypes are reductive and overly simplistic characterizations. They can be positive, like the wise older person, or negative, like the ditzy blonde. Regardless, stereotypes should be avoided as they’re examples of lazy writing. Like stereotypes, archetypes can be positive or negative, but they aren’t reductive. Archetypes are used to illustrate deeper universal truths about humanity, while stereotypes rely on false judgements and shallow thinking.
Archetypes in Pop Culture
Archetypes appear frequently in pop culture, particularly in movies, television shows, and comic books. Some of the most famous examples from pop culture include:
- The benevolent Professor X and evil Magneto from the X-Men series serve as mentor figures to the mutants who they guide, though they are attempting to achieve different ends with their mentees.
- In the newer Star Wars movies, Finn and Rey are heroes who come from uncertain origins and go on quests to help save the world.
- In Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: End Game, Thanos destroys half of all life in the universe, making him a perfect embodiment of the villain archetype.
Examples of Archetypes in Literature
1. Lucille Clifton, “blessing the boats”
Water appears in Lucille Clifton’s short poem uses as an archetypal symbol. The poem appears in its entirety:
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
Here, Clifton makes use of water as a symbol for renewal, healing, and growth. This is a common symbolic use of water, making it a common archetype.
2. William Shakespeare, Othello
In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Iago is an archetypal villain. In Act 1, Scene 3, Iago even confesses to his villainy:
…..I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He’s done my office. I know not if ‘t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well.
The better shall my purpose work on him.
In this speech, Iago confesses that he hates Othello and plots to undermine him. He mentions it’s rumored that Othello slept with his wife; even though he doesn’t know for sure, Iago will go forward and take revenge. He even acknowledges that Othello’s trust in him will better suit his purposes.
3. Bram Stoker, Dracula
In Chapter II of Stoker’s novel, Jonathan Harker describes his first unsettling interaction with the Count:
Strange to say, there were hairs in the center of (his) palm. The nails were
long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and
his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that
his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me
Although Harker and the reader haven’t yet learned that Count Dracula is a vampire, Stoker’s description of his pointy nails, foul breath, and hairy palms begin to establish him as the creature of nightmare he is.
Further Resources on Archetypes
Ken Miyamoto wrote a great list for Screencraft of 99 archetypes and stock characters useful for screenwriters.
If you want to dive deep into ideas of archetype from mythology, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a wonderful resource.
The Storycrafting blog has a nice round up of 12 common archetypal characters and how to use them in stories.