Have you ever noticed how similar characters can be to other characters you’ve read or watched in other stories? Sometimes, we watch a movie or read a book and we barely come into contact with a character before we already know exactly what that character is all about. Why is that? In human nature, there are certain emotions and other commonalities that span through all societies that are instantly recognizable. When storytellers present us with certain triggers, such as the existence of a hunky small town bad boy love interest for our Hallmark big city girl who doesn’t realize just what she’s missing in life yet, we respond by not questioning who these people are because we’re already well-conditioned to the type of people they are.
An archetype is simply a familiar emotion, character or thing that we do not question, that recurs countless times not only in our stories, but our lives themselves. In a more strict sense, archetypes in literature are recurring types of characters that you see over and over and over again. They’re the wise wizard who has a quest for the hero in the Hero’s Journey. They’re the best friend who helps the main character find the strength within themself. They’re the pure evil villain bent on world destruction, and the princess in distress. They are the mothers and the fathers, the evil step siblings, the overly stupid brothers and the gossiping sisters. Every story has archetypes, no matter how overt they are in the story.
Archetypes in Storytelling by Master Class
I could explain in my own words what archetypes are, but the staff at Master Class have done a better job at explaining who the twelve most common archetypes in all of our stories are. Here they are:
1. The Lover
The romantic lead who’s guided by the heart.
- Strengths: humanism, passion, conviction
- Weaknesses: naivete, irrationality
- Lover Archetype Examples: Romeo and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet), Noah Calhoun (The Notebook), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind), Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
2. The Hero
The protagonist who rises to meet a challenge and saves the day.
- Strengths: courage, perseverance, honor
- Weaknesses: overconfidence, hubris
- Hero Archetype Examples: Achilles (The Iliad), Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman), Harry Potter (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
3. The Magician
A powerful figure who has harnessed the ways of the universe to achieve key goals.
- Strengths: omniscience, omnipotence, discipline
- Weaknesses: corruptibility, arrogance
- Magician Archetype Examples: Prospero (The Tempest), Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings), Morpheus (The Matrix), Darth Vader (Star Wars)
4. The Outlaw
The rebel who won’t abide by society’s demands.
- Strengths: independent thinking, virtue, owes no favors
- Weaknesses: self-involved, potentially criminal
- Outlaw Archetype Examples: Han Solo (Star Wars), Dean Moriarty (On the Road), Humbert Humbert (Lolita), Batman (The Dark Knight)
5. The Explorer
A character naturally driven to push the boundaries of the status quo and explore the unknown.
- Strengths: curious, driven, motivated by self-improvement
- Weaknesses: restless, unreliable, never satisfied
- Explorer Archetype Examples: Odysseus (The Odyssey), Sal Paradise (On the Road), Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes)
6. The Sage
A wise figure with knowledge for those who inquire. The mother figure or mentor is often based on this archetype.
- Strengths: wisdom, experience, insight
- Weaknesses: cautious, hesitant to actually join the action
- Famous sages: Athena (The Odyssey), Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda (Star Wars), Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), The Oracle (The Matrix)
7. The Innocent
A morally pure character, often a child, whose only intentions are good.
- Strengths: morality, kindness, sincerity
- Weaknesses: vulnerable, naive, rarely skilled
- Innocent Archetype Examples: Tiny Tim (A Christmas Carol), Lennie Small (Of Mice and Men), Cio-Cio-san (Madame Butterfly), Buddy the Elf (Elf)
8. 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
- Creator Archetype Examples: Zeus (The Iliad), Dr. Emmett Brown (Back to the Future), Dr. Moreau (The Island of Dr. Moreau), Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein)
9. The Ruler
A character with legal or emotional power over others.
- Strengths: omnipotence, status, resources
- Weaknesses: aloofness, disliked by others, out of touch
- Ruler Archetype Examples: Creon (Oedipus Rex), King Lear (King Lear), Aunt Sally (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)
10. The Caregiver
A character who continually supports others and makes sacrifices on their behalf.
- Strengths: honorable, selfless, loyal
- Weaknesses: lacking personal ambition or leadership
- Caregiver Archetype Examples: Dolly Oblonsky (Anna Karenina), Calpurnia (To Kill a Mockingbird), Samwell Tarly (The Game of Thrones series), Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins)
11. The Everyman
A relatable character who feels recognizable from daily life.
- Strengths: grounded, salt-of-the-earth, relatable
- Weaknesses: lacking special powers, often unprepared for what’s to come
- Everyman Archetype Examples: Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), Leopold Bloom (Ulysses), Leslie Knope (Parks & Recreation), Winston Smith (1984)
12. The Jester
A funny character or trickster who provides comic relief, but may also speak important truths.
- Strengths: funny, disarming, insightful
- Weaknesses: can be obnoxious and superficial
- Jester Archetype Examples: Sir John Falstaff (Henry V), King Lear’s Fool (King Lear), Frank and Estelle Costanza (Seinfeld), R2D2 and C-3PO (Star Wars)
Identifying and Applying Archetypes
Now that you are more familiar with these twelve archetypes of characters found in most stories, can you identify them in the stories you enjoy? Perhaps there are others that don’t fit into these 12 descriptions that you might be able to identify. It’s important to note that not every character is an archetype, and being described as an archetype does not mean that the character is badly written. It just makes the process of understanding who the character is a little easier on the audience.
As writers, we can use any of these archetypes at any time in our writing. The trick is to build upon the archetypes and do everything we can to still make them compelling, complex characters. You can even present characters as archetypes and then transform them into something else, if you would like to subvert expectations for your audience. A well-written archetypical character doesn’t need to subvert expectations, however, and you should always stick true to your characters’ personality and background in order to make their development as natural as possible.