14 Common Character Archetypes You Should Know
Character archetypes are just one of the many tools a writer has in their toolbelt to make their characters relatable and believable. Based on a recognizable set of attributes, archetypes are a foundation for you to build characters your readers will grow to love.
But to get there, you must understand what archetypes are and how to use (and, maybe more importantly, not use) them.
What are character archetypes?
Let’s start with what a character archetype is. Archetypes are like classes or templates of characters that make use of common experiences, traits, and actions to make them recognizable to most people, no matter where you are from.
Archetypes tell a universal truth that transcends time, geography, culture, and many of the differences that people experience. They are a common thread among the human experience, and this familiarity can be incredibly strong.
When done well, archetypes allow your characters to become instantly relatable and understandable to the reader, making it easier to both read and write your book.
But you really need to use archetypes correctly. If you don’t give your characters the development they deserve, your archetypes will just translate to flat, boring, and hollow. And let’s be real, that sucks to read.
How do you make sure you use archetypes right? I’m glad you asked, otherwise you’re probably in the wrong place.
First, we’re going to look at what archetypes are not, then we’re going to go over the archetypes that you should know to write a better story.
How are archetypes different than stereotypes?
While archetypes are relatable because of a common human experience, stereotypes instead play to unfounded preconceptions and oversimplifications.
When you use a stereotype, you are boiling your character down to a shallow, two-dimensional identity. This, in turn, leads to an equally shallow, two-dimensional story.
Worse, while they can be positive, stereotypes are often based on negative views of people and can be extremely offensive. Furthermore, they’re often based on inaccurate information.
So, while an archetype illustrates a universal truth, a stereotype is built on misinformation. Don’t be the writer that falls back on stereotypes, no one wants that.
How are archetypes different than stock characters?
Unlike stereotypes, stock characters can play a role in effective writing. Stock characters are intentionally flat; they show little or no change (either positive or negative) throughout the story. They often only have one or two personality traits on display, but these traits are immediately recognizable.
A strict librarian, for example, whose only purpose is to emphasize how unruly the main character is, is included for a purpose. They are not an important part of the story but do serve to highlight a trait of the main character.
Archetypes, while sharing the same sense of familiarity, are not used to make static, flat characters. Rather, an archetype is a foundation to build a complex, changing character.
How are archetypes different from clichés?
Clichés are too familiar, too common, too overdone to be considered archetypes. Most offensively, they are predictable. No one wants to read your book if they can guess the ending after a few pages, but that’s exactly what a cliché can do.
Like clichés, archetypes use traits and experiences that the reader can automatically relate to. But that’s where the similarity ends. From the first word you write, be intentional about the use of archetypes and avoid predictable endings.
When do you subvert archetypes?
Subverting archetypes is something that takes a fairly experienced pen (or keyboard). Because readers, even unconsciously, look for the familiarity of archetypes, turning these character types on their head can disappoint or even frustrate readers.
That being said, subverting characters that are bordering on clichés or stereotypes can make for a very strong critique of our own expectations.
When it comes to mixing archetypes, absolutely feel free. You’ll likely find, as you’re reading this article, that Frodo Baggins and Katniss Everdeen can be used as examples for multiple archetypes. Writing is about having fun and being creative, so if you can subvert or blend the following archetypes, give it a shot! Just make sure to do it well.
What are the most common character archetypes?
There are a metric ton of archetypes in writing and other forms of media, and all of them are immediately recognizable to their audience. In fact, there are so many that there’s no way I could cover them all here.
What we will cover, though, are the common ones that writers like you should be aware of. You might know of some beyond this list—if you do, tweet at us to let us know which ones you are using in your writing!
More commonly referred to as the Mother in the past, the Caregiver is someone who selflessly and wholeheartedly supports those around them, often at their own expense. This archetype can be a parent, best friend, partner, teacher, mentor, guardian, sibling, etc.
The Caregiver usually isn’t the star of the show but supports the main character throughout, pushing them to give it their all. It is common to see a Caregiver as an accompanying character to the Hero.
Traits: Compassionate, loving, caring, selfless, loyal, honorable, consistent
Pitfalls: Too selfless, vulnerable from giving too much, lack of personal goals or growth
What to watch for: Subvert expectations of your traditional Caregiver by making them care for or enable the antagonist. Try having them exploited to the point where they become bitter. Show a breaking point or at least a little bit of selfishness. A Caregiver can be so shallow that they become flat, so add some extra complexity to their story.
Examples: Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins), Hagrid (Harry Potter), Samwise Gamgee (Lord of the Rings), Charlotte (Charlotte’s Web)
The Common Person/Everyman
The Common Person is the one that everyone can easily relate to. They are the ones who work with their hands, real salt-of-the-earth kind of folk. While they usually don’t have a higher education or experience outside of their everyday life, they aren’t necessarily clueless.
The Common Person seeks security more than grandeur. People get along with them easily, but they often lack the means to stand out and can easily fade to the background.
Traits: Empathetic, hard-working, kind, virtuous, accepting, belonging, grounded, relatable
Pitfalls: Lack of power or uniqueness, Unprepared
What to watch for: It’s easy to write a Common Person as an Innocent, who you will learn about later. While blurring the lines between archetypes can be handled well, be careful about exposing how oblivious your Common Person is if they are the protagonist—and don’t just make them stumble around as an inept Innocent for cheap laughs.
Examples: Bilbo Baggins (Lord of the Rings), Ron Weasley (Harry Potter), Anastasia (Anastasia), Leslie Knope (Parks & Recreation)
Someone who … creates.
The Creator isn’t happy unless they are making or building something, usually working towards a single creation that consumes their every thought. They are compelled to always push the limits and leave a legacy. Their creation can be physical (an inventor) or divine (gods and creation stories).To the Creator, there is nothing that is more important than what they are trying to make, and they are willing to sacrifice themselves and others to reach their goal.
Traits: Obsessive, imaginative, creative, driven, strong-willed, non-conforming
Pitfalls: Single-minded, perfectionist, selfish, unreliable, egotistical, willing to sacrifice themselves or others
What to watch for: The mad scientist is a bit of a cliché at this point, but those types of characters tend to be more tertiary stock characters. Creators are often more complex than mad scientists, even if they are all obsessed with a single goal: their creation. Be sure to explain the motivations of your Creators to make their obsession seem reasonable.
Examples: Zeus, God, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein), Alexander Hamilton (Hamilton), Wednesday Addams (The Addams Family)
When you read about someone who isn’t satisfied with their life as it is, who wants to get out there and see the world, or who yearns for more than a “normal life,” then you’re reading about an Explorer.
Explorers are always pushing boundaries. Those boundaries might be physical ones—going beyond where they should—or unseen ones in society or themselves. They feel confined in their daily lives.
Traits: Courageous, independent, nonconforming, driven, curious
Pitfalls: Never satisfied, aimless, alienated and self-alienating, selfish
What to watch for: Similar to the Outlaw, an archetype later on this list, the Explorer hasn’t been done to death—yet. But a lot of Disney princesses fall under this archetype, while being shared with others as well. If you are going to create an Explorer, be careful of repeating the same old “I’m so bored of being rich” cliché.
Examples: Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Moana (Moana) Mulan (Mulan), Jasmine (Aladdin), Star-Lord (Marvel), Captain Kirk (Star Trek)
The Hero is the character that rises to meet whatever challenge is presented in your book. They can be a reluctant hero who is resistant to their new role or someone born to wear a cape and fight villains.
Whatever their origins, the Hero is one of the most common archetypes in writing. They might wear spandex, chainmail, or just stand up to a schoolyard bully, but almost every story has a Hero.
Traits: Strong, persistent, courageous, honorable, stands up for those who can’t stand up for themselves
Pitfalls: Arrogance and hubris
What to watch for: When writing your Hero, be careful of making them too good. They shouldn’t be untouchable, as that removes any form of suspense, nor should they go their whole lives without encountering a moral dilemma. A superhero who has to choose between saving their loved one or a bus of children makes for a much more compelling character than one who can easily accomplish both.
Examples: Frodo Baggins (The Lord of the Rings), Joan of Arc, Harry Potter (Harry Potter), Captain Marvel (Marvel)Want to know more about the Hero archetype? Click here to continue our character archetype masterclass.
Defined by their unending optimism and naivety, the Innocent, who is often a child or child-like, is morally pure in action and intent. They usually start from a good, comfortable place until a singular event radically alters their world, opening their eyes to a reality that was either blissfully ignored before or did not impact them until now.
Traits: Honest, trusting, enthusiastic, open, caring, loving, sincere
Pitfalls: Naïve, too trusting, unskilled or powerless, inexperienced, unaware, vulnerable
What to watch for: The Innocent is usually the starting point of a character. They are someone who grows and changes throughout their journey. “Chosen One” cliches (i.e. The Innocent who then becomes incredibly powerful for no reason) can be easily mishandled, but the Innocent has so much room for growth (or a descent into darkness) that it is hard to make them into a cliché beyond the first act.
Examples: Scout (To Kill a Mockingbird), Merry and Pippen (Lord of the Rings), Rapunzel (Tangled)
The Joker or Jester is someone who can either purely provide comic relief or they can use humor to shine a light on some sort of issue.
This archetype is funny, either intentionally or unintentionally so. They live in the moment, don’t really plan ahead, and have a very casual attitude. When it comes to the plot, they don’t usually care about achieving the same primary goal that the Hero is working towards.
Rather, they march to the beat of their own drum and are proud of it.
Traits: Fun-loving, humorous, likeable, surprisingly insightful
Pitfalls: Superficial, obnoxious, impulsive
What to watch for: One of the best subversions of the Joker is Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect. Fat Amy goes against the stereotype of the quiet, self-conscious overweight character and is instead one who is confident and loud. Amy owns her body while making a point about society’s view on other people’s bodies.
Examples: Fat Amy (Pitch Perfect), Harley Quinn (DC Comics), R2D2 and C-3PO (Star Wars), Dory (Finding Nemo)Want to know more about the Jester archetype? Click here to continue our character archetype masterclass.
Guided by their heart and emotions, the Lover is a character that can range from hopeless romantics to playboys. They will often change or sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of acquiring or maintaining love. To them, the person or thing that they love is the most important thing in their life, similar to the Creator and their creation.
It’s important to keep in mind that, despite the connotations of the name, Lover archetypes do not have to be consumed by romantic love. They can act solely for their love of their friends or family, often overlapping with traits found in the Caregiver.
Traits: Devoted, compassionate, caring, protective
Pitfalls: Obsessive, willingness to sacrifice themselves, scared of loneliness, jealousy, lack of own identity
Stereotypes: Starstruck women who get weak in the knees the second they see a man is a tired cliché that I think we can all get over, though I know there are romance readers out there who might have my head for saying that. That said, if you want to create a unique Lover, focus on non-romantic love.
Examples: Luna Lovegood (Harry Potter), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Romeo and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet), Edward Cullen (Twilight)Want to know more about the Lover archetype? Click here to continue our character archetype masterclass.
The Magician is an archetype that can apply equally to both heroes and villains.
Even if they don’t wield literal magic (though they can, depending on your genre), the Magician is so skilled that it almost seems inhuman. Magicians also search for more power for themselves rather than to help someone else. It’s important to note that Magicians and other archetypes who seek “power” aren’t necessarily magical or supernatural. Power, in this article, can refer to knowledge, political capital, wealth, physical or mental strength, etc. Magicians have an abundance of their power and strive for more.
This doesn’t mean they must be good or bad, but all Magicians continually seek more.
Traits: Intelligent, powerful, disciplined, omniscient and/or omnipotent, intuitive, perceptive, clever
Pitfalls: Arrogance, hubris, selfishness
What to watch for: We don’t need more villains who are evil for the sake of being evil. I think we’re over the evil genius or super villain who just wants to watch the world burn without relatable motivation. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been better at subverting the stereotype of an evil Magician lately. Look at Thanos; he is evil and seeks ultimate power but is someone we can empathize with at times.
Examples: Hermoine Granger (Harry Potter), Doctor Strange (Marvel), Regina George (Mean Girls), Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes)Want to know more about the Magician archetype? Click here to continue our character archetype masterclass.
While not always an actual orphan, the Orphan is a character who is taken from a state of unimportance or poverty and dropped into one of excitement or grandeur. This message resonates very well with readers, since the excitement of these life-changing events is something most of us yearn for.
Beyond that, Orphans are looking for a group to belong to, a sort of family to create or join in lieu of the family they never had or lost.
The Orphan can overlap quite a bit with the Common Person or the Innocent, so be mindful of that when using this archetype. You can draw on the strengths of the other archetypes, just watch out for their shortcomings.
Traits: Survivalists, empathetic, determined, driven
Pitfalls: Lack of access to resources, underdeveloped from their isolation, unconfident
What to watch for: Take a look at the Innocent and Common Person archetypes to better understand clichés to watch for and how to make a unique Orphan. Orphan archetypes, especially in speculative fiction, can easily fall into the “Chosen One” cliché if not written well. Bear in mind that the Orphan often transitions to other archetypes over the course of their character arc.
Examples: Simba (The Lion King), Harry Potter (Harry Potter), Annie (Little Orphan Annie)
When society is broken, the Outlaw or Rebel leads the charge against flawed leaders and power structures.
Characters who fall under this archetype are unapologetically themselves and inspire others to join them. They might be the public head of a rebellion, a charismatic outsider, someone who works in the shadows, or just someone whose style mimics that of My Chemical Romance (don't worry, I love Welcome to the Black Parade, too).More than anything, the Outlaw wants change and nothing will stop them.
Traits: Natural leaders, courageous, inspiring, strong, charismatic, virtuous, resourceful
Pitfalls: Obsessed with their goals, uncompromising, lacking resources and means of power, lawbreaker, fanatic
What to watch for: The perfect “bad boy” image. Though some romance readers will crave this, most stories won’t benefit from a strong, beautiful, perfect Outlaw. Make them flawed. The Outlaw hasn’t seen as much spotlight as the Hero, but that doesn’t mean you are immune to clichés and stereotypes.
Examples: Robin Hood (Robin Hood), Han Solo (Star Wars), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Tally Youngblood (Uglies), Starr Carter (The Hate U Give).
The Ruler is in charge, either through legal, emotional, or military means. They are responsible for others—from one person to a kingdom—and can either rule with an iron fist to benefit themselves or be viewed as compassionate.
The biggest fear for a Ruler is some sort of threat to their control that can force them to lose their power or cause harm to those they are protecting.
Traits: Powerful, stable, high status, access to resources, charismatic
Pitfalls: Controlling, out of touch, disliked, many enemies, greedy, fear of losing their position/status
What to watch for: Just like a villain who is evil for the sake of being evil, a villainous Ruler whose entire personality is just greed gets old quickly. Oppositely, a benevolent Ruler who knows everything is just a wealthy Sage.
Examples: Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Mufasa (The Lion King), Peter Pan (Peter Pan), King Arthur, The Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland)
The Sage, also known as the Mentor, is similar to the Magician in many ways but has different motivations. Whereas the Magician wants to further themselves—whether for malicious reasons or not—the Sage wants to help out. They are powerful or knowledgeable like the Magician, but Sages are the ones who pass their knowledge to a pupil.
Parents and teachers are examples of realistic Sage characters though, like their mystical counterparts in speculative fiction, they have a tendency to be vague about their teachings.
Because you can’t learn from a lesson unless you work to first understand what the lesson is, right?
Traits: Wise, caring, patient, insightful, rational
Pitfalls: Passive, cautious, arrogant, isolated
What to watch for: Seeking out all-knowing masters, especially those who end up dying to the villain (only to be avenged by their new pupil) is bordering on tiresome. If you’re going to go with this trope, mix it up a little. Also, like other powerful archetypes, be sure to add a flaw to Sages to keep them interesting.
Examples: Professor McGonagall and Dumbledore (Harry Potter), Gandalf (Lord of the Rings), Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), The Oracle (The Matrix), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars), The Ancient One (Doctor Strange)
One of the archetypes that leans more towards the villainous, the Seductress uses their means of power—their intellect, wits, body, leverage, etc.—to get what they want. That doesn't mean they need to be evil.
The staple of a Seductress is their tendency to make promises that always come with a catch. The strings attached to what they offer will benefit them more than whatever they are giving up. This archetype is usually used to highlight that something is too good to be true, but a well-written Seductress can shine a spotlight on the dangers of greed and ambition.
Traits: Manipulative, charismatic, amoral, independent, clever, survivor
Pitfalls: Isolated, unfulfilled (even if they don’t know it), standoffish, selfish
What to watch for: Just from the name, you can tell this archetype is based on the stereotype of a woman who seduces and dupes a man to get what she wants. It’s 2021—your Seductress isn’t confined by gender, sex, age, motive, or means. There are many avenues of power (political, economical, magical, etc.) that a Seductress can use to get what they want.
Examples: Black Widow (Marvel), Mystique (X-Men), Sirens (The Odyssey), Mephistopheles (Faust), Lucifer (Supernatural)
What Archetypes Will You Use?
Archetypes are a fundamental part of writing. Whether you are using them to instantly make a character relatable or to throw a curveball to subvert your reader’s expectations, understanding the different archetypes is important for growing as a writer.
Feel free to experiment, too! Some characters blend two or more archetypes into one. Just make sure that, when creating your characters, you are giving them the time, detail, and love they deserve. While archetypes are familiar, they are not cookie-cutter.
Hopefully reading about these archetypes will help you avoid writing bland, predictable, one-dimensional characters in your work. And when you’re ready to bring those characters to life, do it in the best novel-writing software out there. Click here to get started with a 14-day free trial of Dabble, and make those characters the ones that people will remember long after they’ve finished your story.
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