Writing

Writing 101: The 12 Literary Archetypes

Written by MasterClass

Mar 6, 2019 • 6 min read

For thousands of years, narrative artforms have featured archetypes—characters built on a set of traits that are specific and identifiable. The heroes and villains of today’s books and films may be based on the same heroic and villainous archetypes found in the novels of Charles Dickens, the poetry of John Milton, and the theater of the ancient Greeks.

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What Is an Archetype?

An archetype is an emotion, type of person, or event that is notably recurrent throughout the human experience. In the arts, an archetype creates an immediate sense of familiarity, allowing an audience member to relate to an event or character without having to necessarily ponder why they relate. Thanks to our instincts and life experiences, we’re able to recognize archetypes without need for explanation.

What’s the Difference Between Archetypes, Stereotypes, Stock Characters, and Clichés?

Although there is overlap among archetypes, stereotypes, stock characters, and clichés, the words are not synonyms. As a general rule, stereotypes and clichés are negative—the product of bad writing or shallow thinking.

  • A stereotype is an oversimplified notion or characterization. Some stereotypes are negative (“the dumb jock”), others are positive (“the innocent child”), but all are considered reductive and undesirable in literature.
  • A cliché is something that’s so repeatedly used that it’s predictable and even boring—such as the TV firefighter haunted by the memory of the one distressed damsel he couldn’t save. An archetype, by contrast, does not imply predictability or intellectual laziness. Most of the time, it suggests that a character or situation will speak to a universal truth. Archetypes will by definition be familiar, but they aren’t so predictable that we already know what will happen in their story.
  • A stock character is somewhere between an archetype and a stereotype—someone who fits a narrow, predictable description, but often for intentional reasons. A well-selected stock character can make a great supporting role, particularly in comedy, but they aren’t compelling as protagonists. Stock characters are borne out of the classic European tradition of commedia dell’arte where actors would wear masks and perform over-the-top versions of stock characters like a foolish old man or a puffed-up military officer.
A white mask

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12 Archetypal Characters to Use in Your Writing

Some archetypal characters are well known—the hero, for instance, or the lover—while others, such as the sage, are less discussed outside of literary circles. Today’s scholars generally speak of 12 literary archetypes:

THE LOVER: The romantic lead who’s guided by the heart.

  • Strengths: humanism, passion, conviction
  • Weaknesses: naivete, irrationality
  • Famous lovers: Romeo, Juliet, Scarlett O’Hara

THE HERO: The protagonist who rises to meet a challenge and saves the day.

  • Strengths: courage, perseverance, honor
  • Weaknesses: overconfidence, hubris
  • Famous heros: Achilles, Luke Skywalker, Wonder Woman

THE MAGICIAN: A powerful figure who has harnessed the ways of the universe to achieve key goals

  • Strengths: omniscience, omnipotence, discipline
  • Weaknesses: corruptibility, arrogance
  • Famous magicians: Prospero, Gandalf, Morpheus

THE OUTLAW: The rebel who won’t abide by society’s demands.

  • Strengths: independent thinking, virtue, owes no favors
  • Weaknesses: self-involved, potentially criminal
  • Famous outlaws: Han Solo, Dean Moriarty, Humbert Humbert

THE EXPLORER: A character naturally driven to push boundaries and find what’s next.

  • Strengths: curious, driven, motivated by self-improvement
  • Weaknesses: restless, unreliable, never satisfied
  • Famous explorers: Odysseus, Sal Paradise, Huckleberry Finn

THE SAGE: A wise figure with knowledge for those who inquire

  • Strengths: wisdom, experience, insight
  • Weaknesses: cautious, hesitant to actually join the action
  • Famous sages: Athena, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Hannibal Lecter (an evil sage)

THE INNOCENT: A morally pure character, often a child, whose only intentions are good

  • Strengths: morality, kindness, sincerity
  • Weaknesses: vulnerable, naive, rarely skilled
  • Famous innocents: Tiny Tim, Lennie Small, Cio-Cio-san

THE CREATOR: A motivated visionary who creates art or structures during the narrative

  • Strengths: creativity, willpower, conviction
  • Weaknesses: self-involvement, single-mindedness, lack of practical skills
  • Famous creators: Zeus, Dr. Emmett Brown, Dr. Moreau

THE RULER: A character with legal or emotional power over others.

  • Strengths: omnipotence, status, resources
  • Weaknesses: aloofness, disliked by others, out of touch
  • Famous rulers: Creon, King Lear, Huck Finn’s Aunt Sally

THE CAREGIVER: A character who continually supports others and makes sacrifices on their behalf.

  • Strengths: honorable, selfless, loyal
  • Weaknesses: lacking personal ambition or leadership
  • Famous caregivers: Dolly Oblonsky, Calpurnia, Samwell Tarly

THE EVERYMAN: A relatable character who feel recognizable from daily life

  • Strengths: grounded, salt-of-the-earth, relatable
  • Weaknesses: lacking special powers, often unprepared for what’s to come
  • Famous everymen: Bilbo Baggins, Leopold Bloom, Leslie Knope

THE JESTER: An intentionally funny character who provides comic relief but may also speak important truths

  • Strengths: funny, disarming, insightful
  • Weaknesses: can be obnoxious and superficial
  • Famous jesters: Sir John Falstaff, King Lear’s Fool, George’s Parents (Seinfeld)

These 12 archetypes, each with highly identifiable traits, populate our books, poetry, films, and theatrical productions.

The History of Archetypes

Although character archetypes transcend many centuries and cultures, the academic study of them is a more recent development.

The modern concept of identifying archetypes is generally thought to have begun with the 1890 publishing of The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion by Sir James George Frazer of Cambridge University. In this text, Frazer traces commonalities among religions from many eras and geographic regions. In doing so, he alerted his 19th century contemporaries to the ancient origins of their own beliefs and customs.

The book touched on taboo subjects. For instance, Frazer observed the similarities between the Jesus Christ crucifixion narrative and the sacrificial rites of pagan cultures. While he didn’t use the word “archetype,” he nonetheless noted a universal commonality among these seemingly disparate rituals. This dry, analytical look at the Christian origin story won Frazer enemies in the clergy and general public, but it also heightened awareness of his work.

Carl Jung and the Development of Archetypes

Frazer’s treatise influenced many prominent 20th century writers, including Robert Graves, T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, H.P. Lovecraft, and James Joyce. But perhaps most notable was its impact on the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who shared Frazer’s interest in the commonalities among disparate world religions, mythology, and culture. And while Frazer did not use the word “archetype” in his writings, Jung did, appropriating it from the field of anthropology.

Jung presented the theory of the collective unconscious, whereby members of the same species share a communal understanding of the world they mutually occupy. As humans, Jung observed, we share certain instincts, like bonding with our parents or falling in love. Meanwhile, by living in human society, we can all recognize certain character types like a “wise old man” or an “innocent child.” We also experience life events, like birth, death, creation, and destruction. All of these things—whether feelings, events, or character types—fit Jung’s definition of an archetype. They are instantly familiar to nearly all humans due to our shared unconscious beliefs about certain universal truths.

However Jung considered most archetypes to be ineffable: they are difficult to adequately represent with just a description. Archetypes are best understood when they are embodied, whether that’s by a god in a particular religion or a by a character in a book or play.

Joseph Campbell and Archetypes

Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College who specialized in comparative mythology and comparative religion. He was well versed in the writings of both Frazer and Jung, and he subscribed to the latter’s theory of archetypes. Although Campbell was an academic, his writing was engaging and cogent, and he reached a larger public with books such as The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), which articulated the concept of “the hero’s journey,” which Carl Jung might have called an archetypal motif. The book resonated with Hollywood filmmakers, and George Lucas was particularly vocal about crafting the arc of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker around the story beats of Campbell’s hero’s journey. This made Luke more of a “classical” character, since Campbell’s theory came out of extensive study of classical literature and theater.