Character archetypes are the lifeblood of classic literature. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung theorized that a finite series of universal patterns—what we call “archetypes”—encompass the scope of human behaviour. Since human behaviour is the basis of all good storytelling, authors, screenwriters, and playwrights became pretty interested in Jung’s theory.
These Jungian archetypes are still being used in literature today. Once you learn what Jungian archetypes are, you’ll start to recognize them in all your favourite stories. Let’s look at what these archetypes are, some examples from literature, and how to use them in your own storytelling to create vivid characters.
What are Jungian archetypes?
Jungian archetypes are a system of twelve character archetypes developed by Carl Jung in the early 20th century. He didn’t, of course, invent character archetypes—character archetypes reflect a basic understanding of what it is to be human, and have been present in stories for as long as there have been storytellers. But he did come up with his list of twelve unique character types that many writers and psychologists still refer to today.
Jung theorized that these basic human archetypes form a “collective unconsciousness” across cultures and generations, which is why we see them recurring over and over in literature across cultures and eras. When we read about these archetypal characters in our stories, we recognize them as something true—something that exists in us and in the people we know and love.
Why are Jungian archetypes important for writers?
Jungian archetypes are a great tool for both new and seasoned writers because they give us an easy way to connect with our readers.
One of the biggest challenges writers face is creating original, entirely made-up fictional characters that are as believable and authentic as if they were real people. This is no easy task! But with an understanding of these universal Jungian character archetypes and how they behave, you have a blueprint from which to write characters who fit an established psychological profile. Because we collectively understand these blueprints to be a truthful undercurrent of the human condition, your readers will recognise your fictional characters as something real.
The 12 Jungian archetypes
Now that we know a little bit more about why Jungian archetypes matter in storytelling, let’s look at the specific archetypes you’ll see throughout literature.
1. The Rebel
Sometimes called the Revolutionary or the Outlaw, this character archetype doesn’t like the way the world is, and sets out to do something about it. They walk a very fine line between doing the wrong things for the right reasons and losing themselves in the fight for their cause. Their strength lies in their courage and willingness to fight against injustice, but they can easily be devoured by anger and short-sighted solutions. Robin Hood is a classic example of this Jungian archetype.
2. The Magician
Also known as the Wizard archetype, this character has great power, knowledge, or skill. Their power may be supernatural, intellectual, or even practical, such as the ability to design complex computer systems. Their skills and knowledge often play a pivotal role in achieving the goals of a story. The Magician is usually very charismatic and well-loved for their abilities, but their weakness lies in their arrogance and their occasional tendency to overestimate themselves. Sherlock Holmes is a classic example of this archetype.
3. The Hero
The hero is out to change the world—but unlike the Rebel archetype, they often stumble onto their hero’s journey by accident. This character is brave (even if they don’t realise it at first), strong-spirited, and feels an instinctive need to protect those who are weaker than them. They’re natural leaders and inspire people to do better. However, they often demand too much of themselves, taking on too much responsibility and isolating themselves from others, which can lead to arrogance. Harry Potter is an example of a hero archetype.
4. The Lover
The Lover archetype craves connection to others above all else, whether that’s with a partner, a dear friend, or a tight-knit family. Their strength lies in their inspiring hedonism—they use all of their senses to make the most out of every moment and believe in living life to the fullest. They’re passionate, sensual, and loyal, but they often have a deep fear of being left alone. This can cause them to overstretch themselves and sacrifice too much in pursuit of love. Romeo is a perfect example of this Jungian archetype.
5. The Jester
The Jester’s goal in life is to spread joy wherever they go, and often the easiest way to do this is through laughter. This character is the life of every party and always wants to make sure everyone’s having a good time, even to jester’s own detriment. They’re outspoken and often hit upon unexpected truths, but they can sometimes be superficial. Although the Jester knows everyone, they rarely open up to reveal their true selves because they’ve cultivated such a distinctive, satisfying persona. The Fool in King Lear is an example of this archetype.
6. The Everyman
The Everyman archetype is utterly normal in every way, while showing the best of what normal can be. They’re honest, authentic, non-confrontational, and believe that everyone deserves a fair shot. They’re down-to-earth and liked by just about everybody, but can easily be overlooked because they blend in so well. Their strength comes from their ability to be diplomatic and empathetic, but they often have trouble seeing the world beyond their immediate community. Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a classic example of this Jungian archetype.
7. The Caregiver
This character is sometimes known as the Mother archetype, although they can be any gender or age. The Caregiver loves to look after people and to feel needed, and they’ll always lend an empathetic hand or ear to someone in trouble. They’re selfless, and put others’ needs before their own. Though they’re well-loved for their compassion and generosity, the Caregiver often lacks ambition and is easy to take advantage of. Miss Honey from Matilda is an example of a Caregiver archetype.
8. The Ruler
The Ruler is a natural born leader with big ambitions. They’re naturally charismatic and have a knack for understanding interpersonal politics, which allows them to easily exert their influence. They use their skills to ensure prosperity in their own lives and for those they care about, but they understand that power is by nature precarious, and so the Ruler is particularly prone to suspicion and paranoia. It’s easy to use this weakness against them since this character usually has a lot to lose. Uther Pendragon from the tales of King Arthur is an example of this Jungian archetype.
9. The Creator
Sometimes called the Artist, this character archetype delights in bringing order to chaos—whether that’s chaos out in the world or chaos within themselves—through creative endeavours like drawing, writing, music, architecture, or inventing new ways of doing things. They have a way of seeing things that others can’t, but have a tendency towards perfectionism and self-degradation. While they have the potential to effect enormous change in the world, they also run the risk of losing themselves in it. Jo from Little Women is an example of this archetype.
10. The Innocent
The Innocent is the personification of positivity, sincerity, and purity. They embody the goodness of the world that other characters may have had to leave behind. They always see the best in others and believe in the possibility of a happy ending; due to either their youth or to a sheltered life, they’ve been untouched by the tragedies and hardships of the world. Their strength is their compassion and their ability to make the world a little brighter, but they’re usually not very knowledgeable about the world and can be very naive. Lyra from The Golden Compass is an example of this archetype.
11. The Sage
The Sage is passionate about learning and is constantly working to improve their mind and spirit. They want to continually grow and understand the truth of everything, and they’re often a great person to come to for answers. However, they can too easily lose themselves in studying minute details, and may be unwilling to trust themselves to take any real action, encouraging others to take action in their place. While they’re very wise, they may have a tendency to overthink things. Magwitch in Great Expectations is an example of this archetype.
12. The Explorer
The Explorer suffers from a constant case of wanderlust. They’re dissatisfied with their tiny little world and long to see more of the world beyond. These characters are independent, self-motivated, and non-traditional, often straining against the cultural boundaries and stigmas of their society. Their strength is their courage and curiosity, but this curiosity can lead them to being rootless and untrusted by those around them, and they may find it hard to fit in with others. They may also have an irrational fear of being caged into one place for too long. Dustfinger from Inkheart is an example of this Jungian archetype.
The 5 aspects of Jungian archetypes
Jungian aspects are the strengths, weaknesses, and psychological structures that make up a person’s mind. You’ll sometimes see Jungian aspects being called Jungian archetypes as well, which can get confusing; the difference is that while archetypes are a type of person, aspects are the contrasting pieces that make up that person. While your characters will fall under one of the Jungian archetypes above, every character will have within them all of the five Jungian aspects. The way your character interacts with and is influenced by all of these different parts of themselves is what gives them complexity and depth.
Here are the five aspects that, according to Jung, all of your characters will have.
1. The Persona
In Jungian philosophy, the Persona is the face we show to the world. Every single one of us has been guilty of displaying the side of ourselves that we think the world most wants to see—whether this is to feel accepted, to feel safe, or to manufacture some feeling of competency or courage within ourselves. The way your characters portray themselves to the people around them will likely be quite different than the way they perceive themselves.
Although everyone has this Persona aspect, it’s used effectively and dramatically in superhero stories. Classic superheroes have one very distinctive face that they show the world and another “true” self that they may keep hidden, or may only show those closest to them. Conversely, it may be the masked persona that is the most true, and the unmasked face that portrays a manufactured personality (such as Clark Kent pretending to be mild-mannered and near-sighted so as not arouse suspicions about his true self). When creating your own characters, think about how they show themselves to other people and how this contrasts their innermost self.
2. The Anima
The Anima and the Animus are aspects of personality which were traditionally associate with gender. In Jung’s theory, the Anima is the “feminine” energy, and it refers to the unconscious feminine aspects of a man’s personality—the more emotional parts of a man’s mind that Jung thought were often repressed or hidden. Today, of course, we know that people of all genders cover a whole range of personalities and values.
3. The Animus
In Jung’s theory, the Animus is the opposite of the Anima—in other words, the “masculine” side of a woman’s consciousness, or its active, authoritative, expansive qualities. Just as with the Anima, Jung believed that these aspects were repressed in a woman’s mind, but that Animus gives them have an instinctive understanding of them regardless.
Exploring how both the Anima and the Animus are present in your character, regardless of gender, is an effective way to create distinction between different characters of the same gender; some might be more comfortable with one aspect than another, or some might embrace both in harmony. We all have both of these aspects within us, just in different ways.
4. The Shadow
This aspect is the opposite of the Persona; the Shadow is the very real part of a character that they keep hidden from everyone else—sometimes even from themselves. The Shadow aspect represents everything that a person is afraid to look at directly, the things that are most ashamed of or afraid of.
In literature this is seen most dramatically in stories of “alter egos” characters with two distinctive personalities such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this instance, Mr. Hyde would be the Shadow and Dr. Jekyll is the Persona. Who, then, is the real one? Probably something in between the two.
You can also use the Shadow aspect in subtler ways to explore more complex layers of character; for instance, a mother who’s terrified of admitting she no longer loves her child, or a businessman who constantly finds ways to justify his own cruelty so he doesn’t have to admit how satisfying it is. While these can be difficult and uncomfortable areas to explore, they are an integral part of what makes us human.
5. The Self
And here we come to the heart of your character: the Self. This is the part of them that feels most honest and authentic. For many of us, this is the piece of ourselves we spend our entire lives searching for, and it can take decades to understand that it had been within reach the whole time. If your character has gone on an emotional journey and affected a positive change, they will likely have arrived at this stage—or something much closer to it—by the end of your story.
When you’re getting to know a character that you’re building a story around, try writing down some impressions about all of these aspects. You can make lists, or use keywords, or freewrite ideas—whatever gets you into the mind of your character. You’ll find that they start to feel much more real and dynamic, which means they’ll feel more real and dynamic to the reader too.
3 ways to use Jungian archetypes in your writing
You’ll see these Jungian archetypes coming up in your favourite stories again and again. You’ve probably used them in your own stories without realising it because they represent such an integral, universal place in our human consciousness. Here are a few ideas on how to use Jungian archetypes to inspire and enhance your writing.
1. Choose one Jungian archetype and tell their story
This is a little bit like writing your own personal fanfic. Choose one of the Jungian archetypes from this list and tell a story from their perspective. Ask yourself how they became who they are, and why.
Is your character a Caretaker archetype? Who are they taking care of, and why is it so important to them? If your character is a Magician archetype, write a story about how they got their skills or wisdom in the first place. Have they always sought this knowledge, or did they have it pushed onto them because it was needed? Many of these Jungian archetypes will become secondary characters in a story, supporting the hero as they go on their journey; however, exploring your story from their perspective can reveal some surprising truths and a deeper understanding of your story’s world.
2. Choose two Jungian archetypes to build a character arc
Good characters in literature—and by this I mean characters that are interesting and that hold the reader’s attention, not necessarily ethical characters—rarely stay the same throughout the entire story. People change, and the way they change informs both the story and the message that your readers will take away from it. To give your story an interesting dynamic, try choosing two Jungian archetypes from the list above and transitioning your character from one to the other.
For example, what happens if your character begins as an Innocent archetype and ends up becoming a Ruler archetype? I’ll give you this one—King Arthur of the Round Table is what happens. But what happens if, instead, your character starts out as a Ruler and later becomes an Innocent? What would that journey look like? Or maybe your character begins as a Lover archetype and grows into a Rebel archetype. Ask yourself what would initiate this change in your character and how it would affect their goals, values, and relationships. This journey becomes the basis of your story.
3. Choose three Jungian archetypes and give them a common goal
Literature loves unlikely team-ups. From the fellowship in The Lord of the Rings to the unwilling band of friends in The Breakfast Club, it’s always interesting to see how contrasting people act and react when faced with a common objective. Try picking three contradictory Jungian archetypes from this list and giving them a quest, a journey— something to fight for.
For example, maybe your ragtag team consists of an Explorer, a Jester, and an Everyman. How do their unique strengths complement each other’s? How does each character approach their goal? What are their motivations for reaching it? What will they do with it when they get there? They may be working towards their goal for different reasons, and they may have different ideas of what that goal means to them, and they’ll probably all want to go about getting it in a different way. Put these people in a room together and see what happens.
Jungian archetypes give depth to your characters
Jung was on to something when he developed these systems for archetypes of human consciousness. Through it we can see the full range of characters throughout history, literature, and film. By creating your characters from the templates of Jungian archetypes and aspects, you’ll know that you’re building on a universal truth that becomes a real, complex, dynamic person on the page.