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Writing

Learn About the Maiden Archetype in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 2 min read

Most characters in folk literature can be broken down into archetypes. By using characters that represent a pattern, a writer can skip over a lot of characterization or subvert a reader’s expectations. One of the most famous archetypes, the maiden can be a powerful writing tool, but that character type could also be a total cliché.

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What Is the Maiden Archetype?

The maiden archetype, also known as the damsel in distress, is one of the most famous stock characters, represented by a young, powerless female character in need of rescuing, usually by a male hero. The maiden character both creates conflict, moving the plot along, and represents the hero’s desires and motivation.

Archetypes are important to fiction writing, movies, TV, and other types of storytelling, but also makes its way into other disciplines. For example, psychologist Carl Jung took archetypes from storytelling—the wide knowledge of which he considered part of a “collective unconscious”—and developed them into a Jungian theory of archetypes, including the maiden.

5 Common Characteristics of the Maiden Archetype

Since the maiden is an archetype used to create conflict and motivation, she usually isn’t a well rounded character with motivation and desire of her own. Characteristics vary, but a maiden is often:

  1. Young or youthful
  2. Helpless, powerless, or asleep
  3. Imprisoned or captured, either externally (in a tower, dungeon, or tied to railroad tracks) or internally (bound by a curse, doesn’t know she’s a princess), or both
  4. Wronged by the villain
  5. Feminine in nature
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3 Examples of the Maiden Archetype

The maiden archetype can be found everywhere from thousand-year-old epics to video games.

  1. In the fairy tales “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty,” the maiden character is the ultimate form of defenseless: They both are asleep until their prince rescues them.
  2. In Greek mythology, one famous story is about the origin of winter. Persephone, the daughter of Greek goddess Demeter, is taken to the underworld by Hades against her will. Her mother comes to rescue her, but since she eats a few pomegranate seeds while waiting to be rescued, she must spend a third of each year in the underworld, during which time Demeter ravages the earth.
  3. In the Sanskrit epic poem Ramayana, the Rama’s wife Sita is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. Sita insists that Rama himself rescue her, and Rama kills Ravana to do so, overcoming the story’s villain and ending the epic’s central conflict.

When to Use the Maiden Archetype

Using archetypes save you some time in character-building, since readers already know what to expect. The maiden archetype is a powerful tool, since it creates both motivation and obstacle (ordeal). But using the maiden archetype also flattens and objectifies (usually female) characters, making it nearly impossible for them to play an active role in the text, no matter how quirky or “empowered” they are.

Using an archetype like the maiden archetype also puts your writing at risk for seeming very clichéd. Read your writing and see if any characters correspond to archetypes. Is there a rescue dynamic in your story? Who is in power? Would the story be more impactful if that changed? You can use readers’ familiarity with the maiden archetype to subvert expectations and create surprising twists.

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