On your journey to becoming a fiction writer, you’re going to learn a lot — everything from how to structure a story to little tips and tricks in Microsoft Word. One of the things you’ll learn about telling stories is that they frequently involve archetypes, or recurring symbols and themes, usually brought to life by characters. Let’s review everything you need to know about archetypes.
What are the different types of archetypes?
Archetypes exist in the fields of literature, psychology, and behavioral theory. In fact, Carl Jung, a founder of modern psychology, first came up with the theory.
So what are archetypes in literature? In stories, archetypes can be recurring themes, symbols, or settings. But here we’ll focus on archetype characters, which are character types with similar traits and roles that occur in all stories. Literary archetypes come from the belief that throughout time, humans have told stories that contain similar characters and themes.
How many archetypes are there?
Carl Jung believed there were 12 main universal characteristics, each containing their own motifs, that existed in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. Since Jung’s writings, archetypes have been adapted for literature and screenwriting by several authors.
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces reviews archetypes within the “hero’s journey” character arc in mythology and literature. In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler offers eight archetypes based on the common hero’s journey.
However, there can really be as many archetypes as you can think of. Author and spiritualist Caroline Myss developed 80, while the popular personality theory Enneagram has nine. Even the 12 Olympian Greek gods are considered archetypes. As a writer, you can embrace as many of these characters as you want!
What are the most common archetypes?
- The Hero is the story’s main character, and is courageous, confident, and strong. They must overcome a challenge in the story. The best heroes are relatable, but also admirable.
- The Ally is the Hero’s right-hand man (or woman), but they don’t have to be best friends. Allies can start out unsure of the Hero, who will have to earn their respect.
- The Mentor prepares the Hero for the challenge ahead, either through training, advice, and knowledge or by giving the Hero supernatural powers.
- The Guardian provides the Hero’s first challenge, putting them in a position where they have to make a moral decision.
- The Herald delivers a message or announcement that motivates the Hero — and doesn’t have to be a person. The Herald can be a natural event or even a note.
- The Shapeshifter misleads the Hero and introduces suspense into the story. They may start out as an ally or a romantic interest, but their loyalty doesn’t last.
- The Seductress is similar to the Shapeshifter, except they offer something: money, sex, power, or love. Their objective is control, and they’re very charismatic. Note: They can be any gender.
- The Lover is the driver of any romantic story. They may offer love, but unlike the Seductress, they are not out to trick the Hero. They will sacrifice everything for the object of their affection. (The Hero and the Lover can be the same!)
- The Shadow creates conflict in the story, and can be a person or a more abstract theme. In addition, as a person, the Shadow doesn’t have to be an enemy of the Hero — they can be an ally competing for the same thing.
- The Villain is like the Shadow, but is more specific. The Villain is always an evil force who wants to harm the Hero, and is usually beyond redemption.
- The Nemesis is another antagonist character that is slightly different from the Shadow and the Villain. The Nemesis has a long-standing rivalry with the Hero, but doesn’t have to be evil.
- The Trickster is also known as the Jester and is the story’s comic relief. Trickster archetypes relieve tension with comedy.
Do you have ideas for your own writing, but aren’t sure how to get started? Consider basing some stories on these common archetypes to get the ideas flowing, and take creative writing courses to gain practical storytelling tools.
Some of them include Beginner’s Guide to Getting Published, Advanced Fiction Writing, and Write Fiction Like a Pro. If you’re more into screenwriting, check out our Introduction to Screenwriting course — these archetypes apply to movies, too!