Archetypes are tools used in literature and film to represent common elements of the human experience and life in general.
They’re universally recognizable, and even used in psychology to identify behavior patterns based on the symbols and myths of different cultures.
Being able to recognize character and situation archetypes can make reading a much more rewarding experience, since you’ll be able to make connections across different works and understand key symbols.
Generally speaking, an archetype is a typical example of a person or thing. It can also serve as a pattern or model from which future things are copied or built on (like a prototype).
However, archetypes can take on more specific meanings when placed in the context of literature or psychology.
In literature, archetypes are universal symbols, which might present themselves as characters, themes, symbols, or settings. These are the archetypes we’ll be focusing on today.
What Are Jung’s Archetypes?
In psychology, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung used the term archetype to refer to “a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., that is universally present in individual psyches.”
The 12 Jungian archetypes represent behavior patterns, and they’re based on the symbols and myths of many different cultures.
- The Sage: The goal of the Sage is to use their intelligence to find the truth and better understand the world.
- The Innocent: Their goal is to be happy, and their strategy is to do things right, thus avoiding their greatest fear, which is to be punished for doing something bad or wrong. They’re known for their wits and wisdom.
- The Explorer: Explorers are bold travelers who set out with no clear path, leaving themselves open to adventure. They love discovering new things about the world and themselves.
- The Ruler: The Ruler is a born leader. They always strive for excellence and believe they are the ones who can bring order to every situation.
- The Creator: Creators love novelty and have a deep desire for freedom. They’re clever non-conformists, but sometimes prefer thinking to doing.
- The Caregiver: Caregivers strive to provide maternal protection to others and try to prevent any threats or risks of danger. However, they may risk becoming martyrs who remind everyone of their sacrifices.
- The Magician: They like to renew and regenerate, both for themselves and for others. Magicians are constantly growing and transforming.
- The Hero: The Hero uses their vitality and resistance to fight for power or honor. They never give up, which sometimes leads them to controlling or overly ambitious behaviors.
- The Rebel: Rebels like to go against the grain; they don’t care what others think. They think for themselves and don’t like to be pressured, but they can sometimes exhibit self-destructive behaviors.
- The Lover: Lovers value beauty and love to love others. Their greatest source of happiness is feeling loved.
- The Jester: Jesters don’t wear masks; in fact, they like to use their humor to break down the walls of others. They love to laugh (even at themselves) and simply want to enjoy life.
- The Orphan: Orphans have open wounds; they wish others would take control of their lives for them, and when no one does, they feel sad and disappointed. They often have a cynical and manipulative side.
As you’ll see below, some of the Jungian archetypes overlap with common archetypes that can be found in literature.
Archetypes in Literature
In literature, there are 2 categories of archetypes: character and situation. Character archetypes are placed within situation archetypes (which describe how certain situations unfold in the story).
Below are archetypes that frequently appear throughout literature, along with some famous examples.
The hero seeks to bring justice and harmony to the situation.
- Beowulf, from the book Beowulf
- Harry Potter, from the Harry Potter series
- Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games
The Mother Figure
The Mother Figure provides protection or nurturing for other characters. (Note that she doesn’t have to be the actual mother of any of the characters).
Though she is usually selfless, nurturing, and a teacher in some way, she might not be perfect all of the time, and she may struggle with decisions or doing what’s right.
Also referred to as The Youth or The Naïve, this archetype character is usually inexperienced. Their life has not been touched by danger, depravation, or sad experiences.
Instead, their main goal is happiness, and they want the same for others. They are usually very trusting (though that trust is sometimes misplaced). Usually, The Innocent’s coming of age transformation is part of the bigger story’s plot.
- Snow White in Snow White
- Pip in Great Expectations
- Nicholas in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
The Mentor protects and guides the main character. With the training and advice of the Mentor, the protagonist is able to succeed in his or her quest.
This character is often presented as an older man or woman, but that’s not always the case. For example, Yoda from the Star Wars franchise can be considered a Mentor.
The Scapegoat takes or is given the blame for just about everything that goes wrong in the story.
They can be represented by a single character, or a collective group that is blamed for the actions of others. They often pay undue consequences, sometimes even paying with their lives.
The Sidekick is the loyal friend or assistant to one of the main characters. They can be on the side of either the protagonist or antagonist.
Sometimes, the Sidekick is used as an outlet for the author to express their thoughts and feelings toward other characters.
Often, the Sidekick will make a grand gesture, perhaps even throwing themselves in harm’s way to protect their hero.
The Villain’s purpose is to bring down the hero, or to inspire a reason for the hero’s quest. The villain is the antagonist to the hero’s protagonist.
- Dmitri and Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov
- Long John Silver in Treasure Island
- Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
In this situational archetype, also sometimes called the hero’s journey, the main character takes a journey, which might be emotional mental, or physical.
As a result of this journey, the protagonist discovers their true nature, likely after battling it out with the villain or antagonistic force several times.
In these situations, the protagonist’s journey leads them toward growth and maturity, which can be the result of either good or bad experiences.
This is often the situational archetype found in “loss of innocence” or “coming of age” stories.
Good vs. Evil
In this classic archetype of good vs. evil, two forces clash, one representing goodness, and the other evil. Good almost always wins, though there are exceptions.
In The Fall, main character experiences a fall from grace as a result of his or her own actions. They might recover, or this might simply be how the story concludes.
Why Do Archetypes Exist?
By using archetypes in their works, writers can add realism to their stories, since archetypes are representative of real types of people and situations that are known and experienced universally.
While characters and plots can be based on archetypes, they should still be individual and original enough to avoid becoming clichés.
Which is your favorite archetype? Share your thoughts in the comments below!