Have you ever stopped to wonder why classic stories seem to have so many elements in common? We see the same types of characters in everything from 18th-century literature, to contemporary novels, to modern film and TV. And yet, each story feels as fresh and engaging as if we were seeing it for the first time.
This is because of archetypes: the timeless lineup of players that has stayed with us for generations because they’ve been proven to make effective stories.
Archetypal characters are successful in literature because they reflect real human truths that exist in every one of us. Let’s look at what archetypes are, some of the common archetypes that will populate your work, and how to subvert archetypes in bold new ways.
What are character archetypes?
A character archetype is a recurring literary figure that represents something universal in our human experience. Archetypes create an immediate sense of familiarity, even in an unfamiliar story, because they’re people that we’ve met time and time again. Even though we’ve seen them and their stories a hundred times, they still have the power to surprise us.
This isn’t quite the same as a stock character. Stock characters and archetypes are sometimes used interchangeably, but while an archetypal character represents a universal truth, a stock character is a more narrow character type with particular personality traits. Some examples might be things like “the bad boy,” “the mad scientist,” “the benevolent ruler.” They don’t necessarily have the same negative connotations as a stereotype (we’ll look more at stereotypes below), but they do represent a popular cliché.
By understanding character archetypes and applying them to our writing, we can connect with the stories our readers have grown up with and immerse them in the world of our own story from the very beginning. Then our readers get to see how we’ve taken these common character archetypes and used them in surprising new ways to create dynamic, multilayered characters that propel our story forward.
Character archetypes vs. story archetypes
In literature you’ll hear about two different kinds of archetypes: character archetypes and story archetypes. Both of these literary devices represent universal patterns that we can recognize in almost all stories across cultures throughout history.
The difference is that while character archetypes refer to the individual people that populate the world of your story—such as heroes, villains, mentors, and others that we’ll look at further below—story archetypes refer to the patterns of events and themes that drive the story towards its conclusion.
What’s the difference between archetypes and stereotypes?
Character archetypes and stereotypes share a lot of similarities, but the main difference is that character archetypes represent inherent truths in human nature, while stereotypes represent a pattern of (usually negative) traits that have become attributed to a particular gender, culture, or type of person.
Stereotypes are often born from one small true thing—that may only have been true for one person or one small group of people—which then grows into a vast generalization. These generalizations are flat, uninteresting, and contain nothing of the beautiful complexity that human beings have as individuals.
Examples of stereotypes are things like a ditzy prom queen, a shy nerd, a dumb sports athlete, the girl-next-door, an absent-minded professor, an idealistic starving artist, or a schoolyard bully.
Stereotypes rarely accomplish anything other than making your story flat, uninteresting, and cliché. Stories stuffed full of stereotypical characters are usually forgotten as soon as the book is closed, instead of becoming a story that will stay with its readers for generations.
As a writer, you have the entire landscape of the human condition from which to fashion your characters. That’s exciting and inspiring, and a stereotype that makes its way into your story is nothing more than a missed opportunity to create memorable characters that are dynamic and real.
Why use character archetypes in writing?
Even though the common character archetypes we’re going to show you are all very different, they share one important element: each of them represents a small piece of ourselves—of what it is to be human. Everyone has the capacity to be a reluctant hero, a mentor, a lover, even a villain. By creating stories built out of these universal ideas, we’re speaking to a very real truth that our readers will recognize, because these truths also exist in them.
By using these truths of our collective unconscious, you’re starting out with a structural framework that reflects the entire spectrum of the human condition. Then you can enhance that framework with context, themes, and other literary devices to create a story that will resonate with every reader.
The 16 classic character archetypes
Unlike stereotypes, which are extremely limited in their scope, character archetypes offer you a base structure from which you can begin building the people of your story world. Here are the 16 classic archetypes that you can use in your writing.
1. The Hero
The Hero is the axis on which a story revolves. They’re usually thrown into extraordinary circumstances beyond their control through which they need to fight for a singular objective. Along the way the hero’s strength will be tested in a number of ways—maybe physically, mentally, spiritually, and/or morally.
These trials will reveal exceptional strengths that set them apart from other characters in the story. These might be things like supernatural powers or a momentous birthright, or it might be something simple that comes from their humanity—a remarkable sense of compassion, an iron determination and sense of self, great courage in the face of terrifying acts. They might be natural leaders, or have a heightened survival instinct. Heroes are not flawless (pro tip: they’d be quite boring if they were), but the strength they exhibit in times of hardship is what will make your reader believe in them and follow them right up until the end.
One of the oldest universal story patterns in literature is called “The Hero’s Journey.” Also called the “Monomyth,” the hero’s journey follows the protagonist through an adventurous cycle of navigating an irrevocably changed world, passing through an initiation or coming-of-age, achieving a goal, and returning home to rebuild from a new beginning. Although your hero is the central axis of your story, they don’t carry it alone (even if sometimes they think they do). Along the way the hero will meet many of the character archetypes listed below—some as obstacles, and some as friends.
Examples of heroes in literature are Wonder Woman, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Sir Gawain from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
2. The Shadow
The Shadow is a dark reflection of the hero. They might show us weaknesses in the hero that they fight to keep hidden, or what the hero could become if they allowed those weaknesses to consume them. In many ways, we all have this “shadow personality” (psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed it was an integral part of the human psyche) but in literature the shadow will either be a person mirroring the hero’s darkest traits and their darkest potential, or a very distinctive facet of the hero—for example, if they change their personality completely while under the influence of drugs, manipulation, or some external force. Very often you’ll see these characters take on two separate names for their opposing polarities, such as Angel and Angelus on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Other examples of shadow archetypes are Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Mr. Hyde in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
3. The Sidekick
Sidekicks have been popularized by the comic book medium, but the idea has existed for much longer. The sidekick’s main role is to offer the hero a way to stay grounded despite all the obstacles they’re facing. This might be through comic relief or through cautionary advice (or both). The sidekick lacks whatever fundamental value has put the hero on their path—perhaps they’re not as brave, or not as strong, or not the “chosen one”—and they don’t carry the weight of the world in the same way. What they can do is offer a light in the darkness when your hero begins to lose some integral piece of themselves. Your sidekick keeps the hero from getting too close to the edge.
Very often sidekicks in literature serve as a foil character to the protagonist. This means that they work in juxtaposition to the hero to draw attention to certain aspects of their personality. A great example of this is Batman and Robin, where everything about Robin’s brightly colored costume, his chattiness, and his positive energy contrast the darkness of Batman’s character.
Other examples of sidekicks include Friday from Robinson Crusoe and Ron Weasley from Harry Potter.
4. The Villain
The villain archetype is the big baddie of your story—the challenge to which all roads lead. This character has an objective that is in direct conflict with the hero’s, and in order for them to reach their goal, they need to make sure that the main character is unable to reach theirs. This might be through killing them, humiliating them, discrediting them, or otherwise forcing them into submission.
The villain always has a reason for doing the terrible things that they do, even if that reason is twisted beyond what we might understand in our own perceptions and values. The best villains in literature are ones who truly believe that they’re doing the right thing, but have allowed their vision of the “right thing” to become clouded with ambition, fear, or pain.
Some iconic villains in literature are Valentine from The Mortal Instruments, Professor Moriarty from the “Sherlock Holmes” stories, and Shere Khan from The Jungle Book.
5. The Lover
In a story, the lover archetype really just wants everyone to get along. They’re usually a “good” character, in the sense of having a functioning moral compass, but they lack the courage, sense of injustice, and capacity for self-sacrifice that the hero has. Though guided by the needs of their heart, lovers tend to take the path of least resistance that brings the least amount of harm to themselves and those they care for. Many traditionally artistic characters will fall into this category.
In some ways, the lover is a reflection of the trickster archetype, which we’ll look at further below. Both try to stay out of trouble and have a limited scope of what’s worth fighting for.
Examples of great lover archetypes in stories are Dustfinger in Inkheart and Pippin from The Lord of the Rings.
6. The Mentor
One of the most essential figures in the hero’s journey, the mentor is older (sometimes), wiser (always), and has knowledge and experiences beyond that of the hero’s. They may also have supernatural powers or a particularly specialized skill set. The mentor serves to give the protagonist a little nudge (or a violent shove) forward onto their path, bringing out the potential of what that hero will become.
The mentor is also a great tool for exposition and immersing your reader into your story. As the mentor teaches the hero about their world, the threats they’ll be facing, the steps they can take to overcome those threats, and how to develop the skills necessary to do so, your readers will learn everything they need to know about your story world right alongside them.
The most recognizable mentor figure in modern literature is the wizard Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. Other examples include Haymitch Abernath from The Hunger Games and Merlin from the tales of King Arthur.
7. The Mother
Made famous by the godmothers of classic fairy tales, the mother archetype represents a supportive, nurturing presence in the hero’s life. They won’t always be a literal mother (although they can be); they don’t even necessarily need to be female. The mother character is strong and wise, but they differ from the mentor figure in that they don’t give the hero the tools they need to move forward on their journey; rather, they give the hero a safe place to come home to, a place to heal.
Depending on where the hero is on their journey, there may be more than one character filling this role. Aunt May from “Spider-man” and Nokomis from The Song of Hiawatha are examples of mother archetypes.
8. The Everyman
The everyman character is a projection of the reader. They’re an utterly normal person thrown into remarkable circumstances, and they adapt to the situation in much the same way that any one of us would. They usually say what they’re thinking and call things out that don’t make sense, and their normality might make them an outsider in a world where very un-normal things are happening. This archetype functions to bring some perspective to the story and make the plot more relatable to us as readers.
The everyman might be an unwilling hero, or they might be a sidekick or other supporting character that acts as a link between the main character and the reader.
Dr. John Watson from the “Sherlock Holmes” stories is an everyman—faced with a genius best friend and some equally genius villains, he brings a comforting averageness to their world. Other examples of the everyman archetype are Arthur Dent from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Simon Lewis from The Mortal Instruments.
9. The Damsel
The iconic damsel-in-distress is one of the most recognizable literary tropes, but this character can take many forms of any age and any gender. Sometimes called the “innocent,” they represent naivety, inexperience, and trust. The damsel is similar to the everyman in that they see everything with new eyes; but unlike the everyman, the damsel never gives up the idea that there’s good in the world. They cling to their innocence even when the events around them threaten to strip it away. Unfortunately, this determined positivity can lead them into some difficult situations, often requiring the services of a hero to rescue them.
In a story, this archetype reminds us that there is always hope and wonder to be found in the world. Examples of classic damsels in literature are Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Tiny Tim from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
10. The Trickster
Tricksters are perhaps our most enduring character archetype, even more so than heroes. Before storytellers were repeating tales of Beowulf and King Arthur, they were gathering around the fire listening to stories about Coyote, Raven, and the spider god Anansi. Tricksters are neither good nor evil, but use cunning and cleverness to further their own ends. They might help the hero or they might hinder them, depending on which best suits their own agenda at the time.
The trickster has given rise to one of our most popular modern archetypes, the antihero. Antiheroes are usually tricksters who, rather begrudgingly, have become invested in something more than just their own survival. They then need to reassess their goals which launch them onto a new path to becoming a hero in their own right.
Examples of famous tricksters in literature include Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Weasley twins from the Harry Potter series, and Loki from Norse mythology.
11. The Guardian
The guardian archetype is someone who stands at a threshold, holding the hero back from continuing on their journey. Guardians are usually quite single-minded and fixated on their goal of keeping two worlds, people, or experiences separated. Sometimes this might be someone guarding a literal doorway, such as the Sphinx of Egyptian mythology; other times it might be a new stage of life, such as an admissions officer who stands between a student and their dream school.
Guardians challenge the hero to reassess their situation and look at things in a new way. If the hero continues using the same strengths, tools, or techniques as they always have, they won’t make it past the threshold. They’ll need to try something different, probably something less comfortable, and exercise a new skill in order to continue towards their goal. By the time they make their way across the obstacle, they will have grown as a result of stretching the limits of who they can be.
Examples of guardians in literature are the Wall guards from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, the gatekeeper to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, and the three-headed dog Fluffy from the Harry Potter series.
12. The Herald
The herald is a character that foretells a great change, usually near the beginning of the story. After they’ve made their appearance, nothing will be the same for the hero again. An example of a herald can be found in the classic fairy tale Cinderella, where a messenger shows up to announce that the king is seeking a match for his son, launching the plot into action.
Although the herald’s job is to set the events of the plot in motion, they may also hang around to fill another role in the story later on. In The Hobbit, for instance, Gandalf begins as the herald by marking Bilbo’s door, and then shifts into a mentor figure once the story is on its feet. Other examples of heralds in literature are Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games and the three witches in Macbeth.
13. The Scapegoat
In literature, the scapegoat archetype is someone who takes the blame for another’s misdeeds. This often works a bit like a reverse guardian—their defeat clears the way for the villain to move forward towards their goal. Using a scapegoat allows your characters to unite against a common perceived enemy, thereby (temporarily) dispersing whatever tensions had been brewing. This is a useful literary device for turning the plot in a new direction.
Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat explores this idea in depth, looking at how someone might handle being burdened with another’s malefactions. Scapegoats in literature include Snowball from Animal Farm and Wilmer from The Maltese Falcon.
14. The Outlaw
The outlaw’s key strengths are their independence and the sense of self that keeps them from bending to societal constraints. This doesn’t always make them a lot of friends, but the ones they have are loyal and share the same ideas about what matters in life. The outlaw is often romanticized and well-liked, but other characters may grow to resent them through their envy of the outlaw’s lifestyle and freedom from expectations.
The outlaw is a major archetype in both The Adventures of Robin Hood and the original Spiderman comics, where the outlaw’s antagonists—the Sheriff of Nottingham and the newspaper man J. Jonah Jameson—express their hidden envy of a life that they could never have. Sometimes this animosity will put the outlaw onto a new path, turning them into a hero as their self-contained existence begins crumbling down.
Other outlaws in literature are Roux from Chocolat by Joanne Harris, and Maurice Leblanc’s character Arsène Lupin from the series of the same name.
15. The Rebel
Also called the revolutionary, this archetype epitomizes “chaotic good”; they have a cause and they’re not afraid to burn a few bridges, or cities, in its name. The rebel sees something deeply wrong in their society and takes it upon themselves to change it, because nobody else is going to. The rebel archetype is deeply protective of the ones they love but tend to alienate all but the most devoted due to their inflammatory ideas.
The rebel is a natural leader, and their passion for their cause makes people want to follow them. This passion is boundless and transcends minor annoyances like common sense, which means that this archetype can be a hero, a villain, or an antihero that falls somewhere in the middle. Examples of rebels in literature include Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials.
16. The Ruler
The ruler is a natural leader in a position of power, such as a monarchy, a government office, or the head of a powerful company. Unlike the leadership skills displayed by the rebel, the ruler archetype thrives on order, stability, and tradition. They thrive in the status quo. They can be a force for good or for ill, but they will usually be put at odds with the hero for one simple reason: the ruler likes the way things are and doesn’t want them to change.
While every one of us has the capacity to lead in times of conflict, not everyone handles being in a position of authority very well. Power corrupts, and even good people can find their values tested if they’re given too much power too quickly. This is why many ruler archetypes find themselves embroiled in conflict with those around them.
Some ruler archetypes in literature are King Uther from the Arthurian legends and Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
How to use character archetypes in your story
As you can see, character archetypes represent a range of people from all across literature. Don’t feel like you need to limit the cast of your story to just one of these archetypes—sometimes characters will fill more than one role in a story, or their role will change. Let’s look at a few things to keep in mind as you use archetypes to build characters.
1. Give your characters room to grow
Although character archetypes are useful building blocks, they essentially represent a static blueprint. In a good story, your characters will change over time as they learn, make mistakes, go through difficult experiences and come out stronger on the other side. If you begin with a character archetype, don’t feel that you need to stay within its boundaries for the entire story. Give your character permission to surprise you, break their molds, enter into a different archetype along the way, or become something new entirely.
For example, you may have crafted a perfect sidekick for your hero. But what happens if the hero is killed in battle? How will the sidekick deal with an irrevocably altered reality where their role is no longer what they thought it was? Or maybe your character is a lover, staying out of harm’s way until they see or hear something that they can no longer turn away from. Let the story take your characters in unexpected directions.
2. Subvert expectations
Many of these character archetypes come with classic preconceptions that have become ingrained in our minds over time. These are things like the hero as a burly, club-wielding man; the damsel as a slender, doe-eyed blonde; or the mentor as a white-haired sage in the twilight of his life. These clichéd, overused ideas have fallen out of favor in contemporary literature, and writers are constantly coming up with new and fresh ways to look at these classic archetypes. See how you can take the figures you know from literature and turn them just a little bit off-center.
Instead of writing a mentor that’s a hundred and eighty and looks like your typical wizard cosplay, why not try something new? Maybe your mentor is a fourteen-year-old girl whose experiences as a computer hacker have made her wise beyond her years. Or maybe your mentor is an award-winning ballet dancer who’s training her understudy in secret. If you want a damsel archetype in your story, perhaps instead of being a dizzy love of interest for your hero, your damsel is the hero’s eternally optimistic, chronically ill younger brother. See how far you can push these character traits to bring a fresh look to your story.
3. Combine archetypes to create something new
Sometimes a character might fit into more than one archetype. As we saw above, the antihero is a perfect example of this composite character archetype, fulfilling the role of hero and trickster at the same time. See what else you can splice together to create exciting new people for your story. What happens when your hero’s mentor turns out to also be the villain? If the villain was the one giving the hero the tools and drive to complete their journey, what was the real goal in the end? Suddenly your antagonist and their relationship with the hero is brimming with complexity.
What happens if your damsel finds themselves becoming the hero? How will someone used to being taken care of handle needing to suddenly take care of others? How will their determination to see the best in the world affect their need to make difficult choices? By combining different archetypes you can raise new questions and new ideas about your characters that give a deeper dimension to your story.
Character archetypes are an easy way to structure your story
Generations of writers and storytellers have perfected these character structures in literature because they’ve recognized that they’re facets of each and every one of us. While you don’t need to limit your characters to just one archetype, they give you a reliable place to begin building from the ground up—a place that your readers will recognize as an old friend, because they’ve met them in another incarnation before. Your characters will all be as unique as you are, but they’ll also be born out of a rich heritage of storytelling.