What Exactly is an Archetype in Literature?

Abi Wurdeman
February 12, 2024

At its heart, writing is the act of connecting human beings by highlighting the shared experiences weaving through our very different-looking lives.

We might not all know what it’s like to be orphaned because a dark wizard killed our parents. But we can understand Harry Potter’s self-preserving independence and feelings of isolation.

Perhaps we’ve never gambled with a sea witch for a pair of human legs. But we probably understand Ariel’s longing to expand her world.

And if we read multiple myths all from different cultures, we’ll likely find that any mention of cool, clear water represents life or rejuvenation in every one of them.

Some experiences and symbols seem to be universal, belonging to a shared human experience. We call these common patterns “archetypes.” As a writer, archetypes are some of your best tools for crafting stories that resonate and help readers empathize with characters whose lives look nothing like their own.

To get the most out of this storytelling mechanism, however, you need to know a few things. Things like:

  • What an archetype is… and is not
  • The different types of archetypes
  • How they can help you write a better story
  • What they do for the reader experience
  • A ton of archetype examples to drive these concepts home

Fortunately, you can find all those things right in this article. We’ll start with the big picture.

Understanding Archetypes

A person sits on the floor, leans against a library bookshelf, and reads a book.

You kind of have to fumble through some murky water to get a grasp on archetypes. They’re found in several aspects of storytelling and are easy to confuse with other pattern-inspired devices like tropes and stock characters.

To make things even more confusing, writers aren’t the only ones who love talking archetypes. This concept also comes up in areas like psychology and marketing, which can make finding answers trickier than one might expect in the digital age. 

In this article, we’re going to focus on the aspects of archetypes that are relevant to you as a writer. We’ll touch on psychology, but only to the extent that it helps you write a great story.

Let’s start with the overarching question:

What’s an Archetype?

An archetype is a pattern that reveals a universal truth that’s familiar across different cultures and throughout time.

I know that’s offensively vague, so let me give you an example to clarify things.

The Hero’s Journey is an archetypal story structure. The hero(ine) leaves their comfort zone to complete a mission in an unfamiliar space filled with obstacles that force them to confront their fears and weaknesses. After they finally achieve their goal, they return home, forever changed by the journey.

You see this same basic story in myths, legends, fairy tales, movies, and novels all over the world and throughout history. It’s universally relatable. Facing the unknown and being changed because of it is a core element of the human experience. 

That is to say, it’s an archetypal storyline.

What an Archetype is Not

Because an archetype is a pattern that repeats throughout all forms of storytelling, it can be easy to confuse with these terms:

Trope - A trope is something you see frequently in books, TV, and movies, often as a sort of emotional trigger or shorthand for a larger idea.

For example, the ticking clock trope is when the protagonist must achieve their goal by a specific deadline or something catastrophic will happen. This immediately increases the suspense for the audience.

Tropes don’t typically have the same depth as archetypes. They’re also not necessarily based on universal experiences. 

Cliché - A cliché is what you get when a trope has been done so many times that it’s lost its impact. As you can probably imagine, if a trope doesn’t have the same depth as an archetype, a cliché definitely doesn’t.

Stock characters - When you see stock characters, you’re instantly aware of the role they’re supposed to play in the story due to their physical attributes and/or mannerisms. A fumbling, bespectacled person who seems to have no personality beyond “nerd” is a stock character.

This is different from an archetypal character, which comes with a lot more depth and a complex psychological profile.

Stereotype - A stereotype occurs when a character is based on generalizations about the community they belong to. It’s never a good thing or a legitimate storytelling tool.

While stereotypes reduce an individual to broad-reaching assumptions about a specific group of people, archetypes are based on behaviors, fears, and values that appear among all cultures, genders, ages, and abilities.

And as you’ll soon see, applying a character archetype to your story isn’t about generalizing. It’s about exploring the unique ways those familiar qualities manifest in different people. 

Types of Archetypes

Archetypal characters tend to get the most attention in discussions about archetypes. To be honest, they’ll get the most attention in this article, too. 

But your fictional friends aren’t the only elements of your novel that reflect ancient patterns in the human experience.

The protagonist’s long and formative journey is an archetype. So is the formidable fortress and the dark forest. There are story beats, settings, and objects you see time and again in literature because they symbolize deeper things on a universal level.

You can get really specific in categorizing archetypes if you want to. For simplicity’s sake, we’re just going to break them into two broad types.

Character Archetypes

A statue of Juliet from Romeo and Juliet.

To be clear, archetypal characters can be one-of-a-kind. In fact, the best ones are. You see, when you use a character archetype, the goal isn’t to create a cookie-cutter fictional friend. It’s to explore universally recognizable traits in a unique package.

Allow me to clarify by offering some archetype examples. 

Character Archetype Examples in Literature (and Beyond)

The Jester archetype rarely takes things seriously, if ever. They go for the joke, especially when everyone else is unwilling to.

One of the best (and most obnoxious) things about the Jester is that they’re often the smartest person in the room, so their jokes reveal truths that other people miss or aren’t willing to accept.

Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet) is a Jester, loyal to Romeo but unafraid to taunt him for his faults just as he does with everyone else. Peik Lin (Crazy Rich Asians) also fits this archetype. She’s our best guide to the world of the rich because she’s not afraid to call ‘em like she sees ‘em.

Eleanor Shellstrop (The Good Place) is possibly my all-time favorite Jester because she brings so much vulnerability to the archetype. It becomes pretty clear that her biting wit is a defense mechanism, and her journey to live with greater sincerity really squeezes a person’s heart.

In my experience, anyway.

Symbolic Archetypes

A path through a dense forest.

An archetypal symbol holds the same general meaning within several different cultures.

For example, light symbolizes hope, goodness, and new beginnings in most societies. Darkness, on the other hand, is more likely to represent secrecy, evil, or hopelessness.

It’s important to note that not all symbols are archetypal. That is to say, they’re not all universal. In one culture, red might symbolize luck or prosperity. In another, it might represent power or danger. In fact, your novel will likely include symbols that are specific to only your story.

Symbolic Archetype Examples in Literature

The forest/jungle archetype is extremely common in literature. This densely wooded setting is associated with fear, the unknown, and deep, psychological challenges. It can also symbolize a character’s inner journey as they discover profound truths about themselves. 

In many cases, it accomplishes both. The forest is where a character goes to confront powerful and mysterious obstacles. As a result, they learn who they really are.

As for real examples from literature, you see this archetype in the Javanese tale about Sutasoma, whose pacifism is challenged several times over as he encounters dangerous creatures in the jungle.

The forest is also where Hansel and Gretel stumble upon the witch's house, Little Red Riding Hood encounters the wolf, and Snow White sees her terror come to life as she flees for her life

In modern literature, Harry Potter’s Forbidden Forest—known as a dangerous place hiding mysterious creatures—serves as a refuge for Voldemort and is the place Harry goes when he chooses to take on his responsibility as the Chosen One.

The 12 Jungian Character Archetypes

Colorful masks hanging on a wall.

Now that you’ve gotten the broad overview of archetypes, let’s get psychological with a deeper look at archetypal characters.

I’ll keep this fairly brief, as we’ve already done an entire series on fourteen common character archetypes, starting with this article. Right now, we’ll just lightly cover the twelve archetypal figures laid out by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.

Carl Jung theorized that three components comprise the human psyche: the ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. For our purposes, we’re just going to talk about the third one.

The term “collective unconscious” refers to patterns, knowledge, and experiences we all share just by virtue of being human. Archetypes are essentially a way of organizing aspects of the collective unconscious into recognizable models of behavior and psychological response. 

To put it in a simpler way, archetypes are psychological and emotional profiles that make sense to us because we’ve either seen them before or recognize them within ourselves. 

Here are the twelve Jungian archetypes, all of which you’ve seen approximately one trillion times:

The Caregiver Archetype

Also known as the Mother archetype, the Caregiver selflessly tends to those around them, often neglecting their own needs. 

This character tends to be reliable, generous, and forgiving, though they’re far from perfect. A Caregiver can be overbearing, single-minded, and self-neglecting. They might also invest in other characters’ well-being as a way to avoid grappling with their own fears or need for growth.

Caregiver archetype examples: Marlin (Finding Nemo), Beth March (Little Women), Lisa Carter (The Hate U Give

The Common Person/Everyman Archetype

The Common Person is virtuous, hard-working, and empathetic. They’re relatable in their ordinariness, which is why writers love to plug this archetypal character into the Hero’s Journey, where this Average Joe or Jane will have to rise to extraordinary challenges.

The Common Person is easily overwhelmed and reluctant, especially at the beginning of their adventure.

Common Person archetype examples: Alice (Alice in Wonderland), Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), Anastasia (Anastasia)

The Creator Archetype

The Creator is obsessed with whatever it is they’re trying to create. This character has a single-minded vision that pushes the limits of what’s possible and will ultimately become their legacy. That’s the dream, anyway.

The Creator archetype is imaginative, passionate, often unreliable, and willing to sacrifice anything or anyone for their creation. 

Creator archetype examples: Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein), Wednesday Addams (The Addams Family), Alexander Hamilton (Hamilton)

The Explorer Archetype

In the words of Disney’s Belle, the Explorer wants more than this provincial life. They’re bold, independent, and non-conforming. These qualities often allow them to expand horizons for themselves and the people around them.

They’re also restless, might have some selfish inclinations, and tend to isolate themselves by constantly looking for something better and shaming their neighbors for being super basic baguette sellers and egg buyers. 

Explorer archetype examples: Moana (Moana), Captain Kirk (Star Trek), Erin Brockovich (Erin Brockovich)

The Hero Archetype

Of all the archetypal characters, this is the one you’re probably most familiar with. Whether they enter their adventure reluctantly or are a born Hero, this character rises to meet the challenge and reigns victorious. 

The Hero(ine) is persistent, courageous, and looks out for the little guy. However, they can also get tripped up by their own arrogance or hubris.

Hero archetype examples: Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Mulan (Mulan), Frodo Baggins (The Lord of the Rings), T’Challa (Black Panther)

The Innocent Archetype

Also known as the Child, the Innocent archetype is an absolute delight. Innocents love life, believe everyone deserves to be happy, and generally see the world through the lens of naïve optimism.

They’re inspiring and kind, but they’re also a bit of a handful. Characters that fall under this archetype may take foolish risks, be easily disappointed, or resist acknowledging the darker aspects of the human condition.

Innocent archetype examples: Stereotypical Barbie (Barbie), Scout (To Kill a Mockingbird), Jason Mendoza (The Good Place)

The Jester Archetype

The Jester isn’t the only archetype where you can find humor, but they are the experts at treating comedy like a tactic.

Jesters joke deliberately, using their talent for getting laughs to ease tension, cheer up the Hero, or speak the truth. They’re often intelligent, mischievous, impulsive, and emotionally guarded. 

Jester archetype examples: Harley Quinn (DC Comics), Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing), Statler and Waldorf (The Muppet Show)

The Lover Archetype

Unsurprisingly, love is everything for the Lover. They’re driven by their emotions and would sacrifice anything for the person at the center of the world, whether it’s a romantic relationship, a familial one, or a friendship.

The Lover is compassionate, protective, and good at accessing big feelings. They can also be obsessive, terrified of abandonment, and lack their own sense of identity.

Lover archetype examples: Edward Cullen (Twilight), Princess Anna (Frozen), Luna Lovegood (Harry Potter)

The Magician Archetype

The Magician might possess actual magic. Or they might exist in a non-fantastical world where they wield unparalleled power due to exceptional skill, high status, or extreme wealth. The main thing to know is that this archetype is mighty. They’re also highly perceptive and know how to get what they want.

Sounds super villainous, but Magicians can be heroes, too. It’s all in how they manage their great power and control the arrogance that often comes with it.

Magician archetype examples: Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes), Regina George (Mean Girls)

The Outlaw Archetype

Also known as the Rebel archetype, the Outlaw is authentic, outspoken, unapologetic, and unafraid to take on the powers that be. They’re natural leaders who are great at getting others to join their cause.

On the flip side, an Outlaw can also be obsessive, uncompromising, and even prone to fanaticism.

Outlaw archetype examples: Robin Hood (Robin Hood), Starr Carter (The Hate U Give), Elle Woods (Legally Blonde)

The Ruler Archetype

The Ruler archetype is largely what you probably think it is. Characters that fall under this archetype tend to be commanding leaders who are powerful, stable, and charismatic. They can rule in a political, professional, or personal sense.

The downsides of Rulers are that they’re prone to greed, tend to be out of touch, and might become a bit controlling.

Ruler archetype examples: Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada), Peter Pan (Peter Pan), Mufasa (The Lion King)

The Sage Archetype

You might also know the Sage as the Mentor archetype. This character is typically wise and/or powerful like a Magician, but instead of using their skills for their own advancement, they choose to guide someone else.

The Sage is typically wise, caring, and patient, but they can also be arrogant, isolated, or aggravatingly passive. 

Sage archetype examples: Professor McGonagall (Harry Potter), Uncle Iroh (Avatar: The Last Airbender), The Oracle (The Matrix)

The Role of Archetypes in Creative Writing

A person writes in a notebook at a cafe table.

Hopefully, all this talk and all these examples have given you a better sense of what archetypes are. Now we need to answer the big question—the one that’s most relevant to you as a writer.

What is all this for? How do archetypes enhance your writing?

Here are a few of the major roles archetypes play in storytelling: 

Tap Into Universal Experiences

Like tropes, archetypes provide a shortcut for creating specific associations or emotional responses. But because archetypes tend to connect with deeper concepts that reflect the very core of the human condition, the effect is even stronger.

When readers see the main character venture into the forest, they experience the tingle of mystery and the wonder of the natural unknown. 

And when the Lover falls for the Explorer, the audience gets tense, knowing that between the Lover’s constant clutching and the Explorer’s fear of captivity, only heartbreak lies ahead.

None of these things have to be articulated or thought out. They’re just understood. 

Create Relatable Character Arcs

While stock characters and character tropes are recognizable to readers due to their external behaviors, archetypal characters are emotionally familiar.

Readers know when a Jester is using a joke to mask their pain. They can feel the fear of a Lover who’s been left alone and now has to figure out who they are as an individual. They relate to the Caregiver who is more comfortable tending the wounds of others than their own.

And because readers are already familiar with the emotional subtext that lies beneath archetypal characters, they can easily understand the choices those characters make and what it takes for them to change.

Deeper Character Development 

Simply studying character archetypes will get you thinking about your fictional players on an advanced level. 

Archetypes dig into fears, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and even trauma. They encourage you to ask why your characters are the way they are and think strategically about the challenges you create for them.

As a result, you’ll be better equipped to create more complex characters who grow throughout the story in a way that rings true emotionally and psychologically.

What Readers Get out of Archetypes

Finally, we’ll end this analysis with the question that should really be at the top of a writer’s mind: how does this skill benefit readers?

By this point, you can probably answer this question yourself. If archetypes help you write better characters and a more emotionally resonant story, readers are going to benefit because that’s exactly what they’re after.

I’ll just add that because archetypal symbols and characters touch on universal patterns, these tools make it easier for readers to see themselves reflected in total strangers.

As we discussed in the beginning, empathy and connection are what literature is all about. A Sage is a Sage, a Common Person is a Common Person, and a Forest is a Forest, regardless of geography, time period, culture, race, ability, or gender. 

An archetype is a touchstone of commonality that reveals how our wildly different lives are just varying expressions of a shared human experience.

I guess what I’m saying is that, as an author, you’re basically a Magician. So get out there and use your powers for good.

And If You Could Use a Little Extra Help…

Screenshot of a Dabble character profile for a character who fits the Orphan archetype.

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Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.