The Caregiver Archetype - Everything You Need to Know

This is the eleventh article in our fifteen-part masterclass on archetypes. Learn more about archetypes in our first article.

Just like their real-life counterparts, you do not want to underestimate a Caregiver archetype.

This character is not just a brow-mopping, soft-spoken saint who fades into the background. A well-formed Caregiver can be a source of hope or conflict, comedy or heartache. They can be every bit as feisty and bull-headed as they are gentle and wise.

The Caregiver is that neighbor who made you a casserole because she heard about your ingrown toenail. You know who else is a Caregiver?

The crusty, sarcastic, mustard-stained attorney who’s working pro bono to stop an eviction.

As we’ve said throughout our character archetype masterclass, an archetype isn’t a template for cookie-cutter characters. It’s a collection of universally recognizable traits that give us a skeleton for designing a character that is both familiar and distinctive.

So, who will your Caregiver be?

To help you answer this question, we’ll go over:

  • The defining traits of the Caregiver archetype
  • The function of Caregivers within their stories
  • Caregiver archetype examples you’ll recognize from your favorite books and movies

Let’s do this.

"When you love something, you don't threaten it. You don't punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first." –Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation

What is the Caregiver Archetype?

Also known as the Saint, Helper, Parent, and Nurturer, the Caregiver lives to serve others.

This character is infinitely selfless and self-sacrificing. But that doesn't mean they're perfect. The Caregiver’s tendency to self-neglect can create a burden for other characters who find themselves caring for the Caregiver. They also get serious tunnel vision.

We often think of this archetype as a side character, but we do sometimes see them in a leading role. If your protagonist is a Caregiver, don’t forget to give them flaws. A Saint who’s too saintly has no room to grow and no cause for conflict.

Caregiver Characteristics: the Good, the Bad, and the Overbearing

Caregivers run the full personality spectrum from mousey to mouthy. But there are a handful of defining traits that help your readers immediately understand your character’s Whole Deal.

Motivation

The Caregiver is driven by compassion and lives for helping others. As for what “help” means, that’s an area where you can play around. Do they strive to be a protector for their family or a savior to society?

The Good

The Caregiver archetype tends to be:

  • Generous
  • Selfless
  • Protective
  • Quick to forgive
  • Optimistic
  • Humble
  • Stable
  • Reliable
  • Structured
  • Proactive

Caregivers need very little to feel complete in their lives. While their mission is never-ending, they themselves are satisfied with a simple life as long as there is love in it.

The Bad

The Caregiver archetype also tends to be:

  • Over-protective
  • Self-neglecting
  • Easily deceived
  • Single-minded
  • Over-involved

Caregivers know that their capacity for compassion and problem-solving surpasses that of the other characters. As a result, they can have a hard time backing off and allowing loved ones to solve their own problems.  

“At an early age I learned that people make mistakes, and you have to decide if their mistakes are bigger than your love for them.” –Lisa Carter, The Hate U Give

What Do Caregiver Archetypes Do?

Here are some typical ways a Character archetype might influence your plot.

Fix Things

Sometimes the Caregiver is the hero that the Hero fails to be, especially when a problem can only be solved by compassion or communication.

This is partly because the Caregiver is so hands on. This character is a doer, not an advisor. While the Mentor or the Jester are offering the Hero their best insight, the Caregiver is stepping in and taking action.

Sometimes they save the day by doing this. And sometimes they…

Make Things Worse

Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation) is the perfect example of a Caregiver whose single-minded over-caring exhausts her loved ones, crosses boundaries, and births chaos.

The Caregiver archetype can zero in way too hard on their pure-hearted mission. As a result, they might fail to recognize when their help is not helpful. They can also steamroll others, convinced that they truly do know best.

Humanize the Villain

Whether it’s for the benefit of the protagonist or the benefit of the audience, Caregivers have a powerful skill:

They can help us see the suffering or moral complexity within your story’s biggest jerkface. While everyone else is reeling from the villain’s villainy, it’s the Caregiver who asks, “What’s your damage?” without sass or irony.

Give Refuge to the Protagonist

There are several character archetypes your protagonist can turn to for advice, cheerleading, and insight. But it’s the Caregiver who’s there with a warm blanket and a bowl of soup.

In other words, this character is less about empowering the protagonist and more about creating solutions for them… even if all they can do is provide a listening ear and a safe place to recover.

“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.” –Little Women

Caregiver Archetypes Examples in Popular Culture

Trying to figure out where you’ve seen this character before?I can help.

Beth March, Little Women

Beth actually relishes sitting back in the shadows as a silent support while her sisters shine. She eagerly cares for those in need, even when it means exposing herself to scarlet fever and devastating over a century’s worth of readers whose mothers could have warned them but didn’t.

Sorry. I thought I was ready to talk about Beth, but I’m not. Let’s move on.

Lisa Carter, The Hate U Give

Lisa Carter is the voice of compassion in a story full of conflict. She provides nuanced perspectives for her children and for us as readers. But despite her ability to empathize with dangerous people, the safety of her family is the only consideration when she has a decision to make.

Gary Walsh, VEEP

Selina Meyer is The Worst, but her body man does not care. Gary sacrifices everything for her mental, emotional, and physical protection, including taking a sneeze bullet for her. As most Caregivers would, Gary does get discouraged by Selina’s complete lack of appreciation. But he still shows up.

Marlin, Finding Nemo

Sometimes a Caregiver takes the form of a helicopter parent. Marlin’s whole life revolves around Nemo’s wellbeing, but his father-knows-best attitude drives his son into dangerous waters.

If you want to study the character arc of a Caregiver archetype, Marlin is a great place to start. He never loses the over-eager-dad qualities that make him lovable but he does learn to let Nemo speak for his own needs.

A child caregiver archetype sits with an elder who is in bed, drinking a glass of water.

Craft Your Caregiver

Archetypes help us ground unique characters in traits and motivations that feel real to our readers.

But it’s up to you and your story how your Caregiver talks, who they prioritize, and how they spend their time. You decide what their wounds are and how they define “the good of others.”

And of course, you choose the flaws that make them stand out and give them room to grow.

It’s a lot to balance, sure, but Dabble can help. The Story Notes feature allows you to keep extensive notes on your characters and the Plot Grid helps you track your Caregiver’s arc. To try all Dabble’s premium features for free for fourteen days, click here. No credit card required.

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.