Introduction to Character Archetypes

By Emma Wright

In storytelling, we often write and can observe recurring character ‘types’; characters who possess specific qualities and recognizable behaviours, and serve particular narrative functions. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung explored these character archetypes, as did American professor of literature Joseph Campbell, and both developed theories based on the patterns they observed. Jung’s universal archetypes underlie all human behaviour. They’re instinctual and resonate throughout time and space, inside and outside of stories. Though the archetypes of both Jung and Campbell may feel ‘mythic’ or ‘biblical’, they remain relevant even in contemporary storytelling.

An archetype is not to be confused with a ‘cliché’, ‘stereotype’, or with ‘stock characters’ – the difference being repetitiveness and predictability do not exist in archetypes to the same extent. With an archetype there must be enough of a twist to somewhat disguise it. It’s not about creating simplified, cookie cutter characters to fit a familiar mould and serve a singular purpose, or a character that lacks original thought or three-dimensionality in their conception like with a cliché or stereotype. Archetypes often subconsciously inform the foundations of our characters, and can provide inspiration in the initial stages of creation. They’re also of use to artists looking at a text and deciphering their character’s underlying purpose or motivation in a story arc. They should not be viewed as a template to, by itself, generate a story-ready character, as more nuance will inevitably be required. Working with archetypes is like painting with broad-brush strokes, so be prepared to go back in with another tool for detailing. Specificity in character creating is key.

It is also worth noting that oftentimes a character will fit into more than one archetype. A character may start the story as one archetype and evolve into another, or possess one dominant character archetype and additional supporting types (think of them as primary and secondary), and you will likely have more than one of an archetype in a story. For example, both Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Stars Wars series can be categorised as Sages/Mentors, and Harry Potter ticks the boxes of being both a Hero and an Orphan/Everyman (perhaps more). It is ultimately up to interpretation, though you’ll observe that the more interesting and complex a character is, the more likely it is they are seeming to tick more than one archetype box.

Finally, I encourage all artists to be wary of and work against the inherent sexism in archetypes in theory and as they’re frequently taught. Campbell’s work uses predominately male pronouns and limits femme characters to those with little power, autonomy or agency. You’ll find outdated gender roles rear their ugly heads in a lot of the work from this time, and so for the purpose of this article I want to be clear in stating that I do not believe any archetype should be restricted, defined or categorised by gender.

Jung’s 12 Archetypes

Firstly, we will explore Carl Jung’s twelve archetypes: the innocent, every[wo]man (sometimes referred to as the orphan), the hero, the caregiver, the explorer, the outlaw (also known as the rebel), the lover, the creator, the jester, the sage, the magician, and the ruler. Marketing and branding experts Carol Pearson and Margaret Mark categorised the above archetypes into those driven by ego (innocent, everyman, hero, caregiver), those driven by soul (explorer, outlaw, lover, creator), and those driven by self (jester, sage, magician, ruler). 

Firstly we’ll explore the Jungian archetype of the hero. The hero is the character with the plan, armed with skills (generally physical or mental prowess), stamina, a moral compass, and willpower, set to conquer the enemy and save the day. This character will suffer a crisis towards the end of the story, which they must overcome in order to rise. Actively learning and doing throughout the narrative, the hero will undergo a transformation and conquer or accept their ‘fatal flaw’. They are typically courageous, strong, and will compete against great odds, though their overconfidence, arrogance, ego, unwillingness to be vulnerable, stubbornness, or ambition may be their (temporary) downfall. Examples of the hero archetype include most of your superhero favourites e.g. Superman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Captain America, but also the likes of Hercules and Brave’s Merida.

Next up is the everyman AKA the orphan AKA the citizen, who are often the protagonist in a story. This is a character who is a champion for equality, who doesn’t like standing out from the crowd, and who the audience probably feel they can most relate to in the story. We often meet them on a journey in search of a new “family”, of acceptance and understanding, dreaming of being plucked from obscurity and elevated to prominence. Or perhaps they’re living an ordinary life until one day they’re deemed to be the ‘chosen one’ and thrust somewhat unwillingly into the spotlight. Either way, ordinary and extraordinary collide. They have the most to gain from good fortune and wish to connect with and thrive alongside others. Oftentimes this archetype commands respect because of their history of survival, and they’re well-liked because they can relate to and speak for the underdogs, those who are underrepresented or of lower status. Their strengths include their survival instinct, empathy, fairness, humility, and perseverance, whereas their weaknesses include a lack of confidence and an over-eagerness to please. It is also possible that the everyman is let down by a fixation with what others think of them, their righteousness or recklessness. Examples of this archetype include Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Frodo, The Matrix’s Neo, and Finding Nemo’s Dory.

An innocent archetype (sometimes referred to as ‘the child’) is a young or naïve character who desires happiness, who fears punishment, and who is set to learn a lesson and discover truths about the world around them. They’re sometimes thought of as a pure presence who enters or finds themselves living in a dark world, resistant to corruption and lifted by their morality. Strengths include optimism, enthusiasm, imagination, and a trusting and honest nature. Weaknesses are often naivete, physical powerlessness, and the fact that they are easy to take advantage of. Examples include The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, Alice in Wonderland, Nemo, Prim in The Hunger Games series, and Snow White.

The caregiver, traditionally known as ‘the mother’, is defined by their empathy and selflessness. These are nurturing characters, and characters who do not like to be but often are exploited. They desire to protect and help others, and it is rare for them to want to take center stage. Their strengths are their generosity and heart, their potential weaknesses their openness to exploitation or deception, a lack of concern for their own wellbeing, vulnerability, and meekness. Examples are John Watson in Sherlock, Nemo’s Marlin, Matilda’s Miss Honey, Hagrid, and Mary Poppins.

Explorers are travelers, wanderers who are driven to push boundaries, open to novelty and adventure, with a deep love of discovering new places and new things about themselves. Ultimately they are in pursuit of freedom and of living an authentic, fulfilling life. Their strengths are their boldness, independence, bravery, passion, nonconformity, autonomy, and ambition. They are often let down by their inability to be satisfied and their perfectionism, and their endless wandering may lead to them to becoming a misfit. They fear stagnation or being physically or metaphorically trapped. Examples include legendary Greek hero Odysseus, How To Train Your Dragon’s Hiccup, Indiana Jones, Mulan, Star-Lord, and the mermaid Ariel.

Now for our rebels/outlaws. In the face of an unjust society, these are the characters with the will to overthrow the status quo and bring about a revolution. They may be charismatic, they may be driven by revenge or thrill-seeking, they may work in secret. Regardless, they want to change the world around them and overturn systems that aren’t working. Their resourcefulness, energy, street-smarts, risk-taking, individuality, and perseverance are their strengths, along with their capacity to inspire the masses. Their low status, cynicism, temper, and lack of resources or access to resources may create barriers, and their journey will not likely be an easy one. This may lead them astray and to a life of crime. Examples include Katniss Everdeen, Game of Thrones’ Arya, and Batman.

Lover’s will do anything for (you guessed it) love. They are amorous, committed, open with their feelings, driven and devoted, seeking belonging, often willing to sacrifice everything for the one/s they love. These are characters who wish not to stand on their own feet but rather attach themselves and become whole in the company of another person. They fear being unwanted, unloved, and alone. Their strength lies in their passion, but their weakness is their willingness to sacrifice identity, life, and liberty in this pursuit, or an obsessive and jealous nature. Examples include Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, X-Men’s Rogue, and Frozen’s Anna.

For the creator archetype, nothing is more important than the need to make something and to leave behind them some kind of legacy. Creators are nonconformists, willing to sacrifice their own well-being and relationships in the pursuit of a greater abstract goal, and who often pay the greatest personal price. Their biggest fears are imperfection and mediocrity. The creator’s strengths are their creativity, imagination, drive, and ability to execute their visions. Weaknesses are their inability to collaborate, personal sacrifice, perfectionism, egotism, over-eagerness, and impulsive nature. Examples include Willy Wonka, John Hammond in Jurassic Park, and Tony Stark.

Jester’s AKA jokers are characters who pursue pleasure and mischief and who live in the moment. They often provide the comic relief in a story, and/or open the eyes of the characters/audience to the absurdities at play. Note that jesters may be on the side of the protagonists or the antagonists. Their primary function is to distract and disrupt in the service/pursuit of their hedonism, and in making their life easy and happy (they fear boredom). They may be designed to act as a cautionary tale, or simply add some good times and laughs. Their strengths are their humor, joyousness, originality, irreverence, and likeability, while weaknesses comprise of their frivolousness, inefficiency, unreliability, selfishness, and sometimes cruelty. Examples are Timon and Pumbaa and the Weasley Twins.

A sage (or mentor) is someone who prepares the protagonist for the trials ahead of them, who provides motivation, training, and insights, and is a guide through the unknown, possessing reputable magic or logic (or both). The stereotypical sage is an older character, seemingly to reinforce the adage “be kind and listen to your elders”, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Sages motivate the hero to overcome their fears and are excellent listeners. Their strengths are wisdom, a calming presence, intelligence, rationality, and experience. Weaknesses include caution, rigidity, occasional inaccuracy or the spouting of/belief in false prophecy, passivity and an inability to act alone. Examples include Obi-Wan Kenobi, Albus Dumbledore, Gandalf, Genie, and Glinda the Good Witch.

Magicians have agendas and make things happen. They’re aspiring masters of the universe, easily able to impress others, driven by inquisition and seeking enlightenment. They are tacticians and see that the puzzle of the universe is in scattered pieces or unaligned, and believe themselves to be able to re-establish order. Unlike sages/mentors, magicians wish to impose their will themselves on the world around them. Their strength is in their knowledge, cleverness, intuition, strategy, and power. Their weakness is hubris, their anger, a war-like nature, and also a tendency towards manipulation and trickery. Examples include Thanos, Dr Strange, Sherlock Holmes, and Ursula.

Rulers are leaders, just or unjust, fair or villainous. Think of your kings/queens, presidents, authority figures and people in positions of power such as police officers and heads of companies. These are authoritative characters who desire control and to maintain hold of their power, and whose primary concern is in preserving order, stability and tradition. Their strengths are often their leadership, charisma, power, and communication skills. Weaknesses are potentially their inability to delegate, entitlement, greed, and suspicion or paranoia which may lead to rashness. Examples include Cersei Lannister, Miranda Priestly, King Triton, Mufasa, President Snow, the Red Queen, and Peter Pan.

Campbell’s 8 Archetypes

Joseph Campbell approached archetypes purely in regards to their existence and function within stories, as opposed to Jung who approached the work from the lens of a psychoanalyst with real world applications. Campbell put forward eight archetypes, three of which were introduced by Jung. From Jung, Campbell repeated the archetypes of the hero, the sage – which he rebranded as the mentor, and the jester – rebranded as the trickster. His new additions are the ally, the herald, the shapeshifter, the threshold guardian, and the shadow.

Allies are characters who support, positively interact with, and humanize the protagonist. The loyalty and admiration allies have for the hero show the hero’s worthiness of the trials ahead. Strengths include selflessness and resourcefulness, weakness lies in their inability to act alone. Examples are Ron Weasley, Batman’s Robin, Chewbacca, and Samwise.

Heralds are characters who primarily serve a narrative purpose, appearing near the beginning of the story to announce the need for change in the hero’s life. Note that they can be positive, negative, or neutral figures. In Campbell’s Hero’s Journey story structure, they are the character who presents to the protagonist the “Call to Adventure”. They are messengers, a catalyst that sets the whole adventure in motion, their primary function being to warn and challenge. Their strength is in the fact that they are impossible to ignore, the problem they present is that they are confronting. Examples include Effie in the Hunger Games (who later shifts *spoiler alert* to more of an ally archetype).

Shapeshifters, referred to by some in their feminine form as femme fatales, blur the line between ally and enemy. They’re impulsive, transformative, misleading, often self-serving, unpredictable and tend to improvise. Their loyalty is questionable and to an audience they present a combination of appeal, suspense, doubt and danger. Their primary function is to question and deceive. Their strong suit is their charisma, their weakness both their untrustworthiness and distrusting or fear of committing to others. They may ultimately turn useful or destructive. Examples include Gollum, Catwoman, Bruce (the shark in Finding Nemo), The Hound (another GOT character), Loki, and Snape.

Threshold Guardians test the hero before they face great challenges. They block an entrance or border of some kind and signify that “this way lies danger”. They can be overcome by being passed or made into an ally. Their primary function is to test the protagonist’s commitment and worth, to ensure they are up to task and fit for the challenges ahead. Their strength is their determination, their weak point is their ultimate incompetence. An example is The Wall Guard in Stardust.

Shadows are our villains, antagonists, and enemies. Shadows exist to create threat and conflict and to give the hero something to struggle against. They are especially effective if they mirror the hero in some way, and their primary function is to destroy. Their strength is their power, while their weakness may be their greed or arrogance (or virtually any of the seven deadly sins). Examples include Voldemort, the White Witch in Narnia, Darth Vader, and Scar. Note that a shadow rarely views themselves as a shadow. More often than not a shadow will view themselves as the hero in their story, and to them their behaviour is justifiable.

Hartwell & Chen

Margaret Hartwell and Joshua Chen expanded on Jung’s archetype work, separating his archetypes into twelve archetype families, under which fall a set of characters laid out below. This essentially expands the vocabulary, and may provide additional prompts and inspiration or stretch your imagination when creating a character.

  • Caregiver family: caregiver, angel, guardian, healer, Samaritan.
  • Explorer family: explorer, adventurer, pioneer, generalist, seeker.
  • Jester family: jester, clown, entertainer, provocateur, shapeshifter.
  • Rebel/outlaw family: rebel, activist, gambler, maverick, reformer.
  • Creator family: creator, artist, entrepreneur, storyteller, visionary.
  • Magician family: magician, alchemist, engineer, innovator, scientist.
  • Orphan/everyman family: everyman, citizen, advocate, networker, servant.
  • Hero family: hero, athlete, liberator, rescuer, warrior.
  • Lover family: lover, companion, hedonist, match maker, romantic.
  • Sage family: sage, detective, mentor, shaman, translator.
  • Innocent family: innocent, child, dreamer, idealist, muse.
  • Ruler family: ruler, sovereign, ambassador, judge, patriarch.

Conclusion

We hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know these archetypes! We love introducing them in our workshops to inspire our participants and give them a foundational structure to which they can personalize and build upon. In a classroom environment, teachers can explore what physicality students might attach to each of these characters, or see what kind of improvisation they can come up with based purely on assigned archetypes. We believe Jung and Campbell’s work on archetypes to be valuable theory to explore in any classroom focused on writing, devising, or studying characters. 

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