There are numerous character archetypes that you could potentially include in your story. Some character archetypes are great for building main characters or protagonists, while different character types—like that of the herald—are often best suited to a secondary or side character.
Here’s everything every writer needs to know about adding the herald character archetype to a story, and crafting well-written heralds for any fiction genre—plus a few familiar examples.
What is a herald archetype?
A herald archetype is a character who brings important new information to your protagonist. Their role in a story is to usher in a message that the hero can’t ignore, and which kicks off the next stage of their hero’s journey. The herald may appear as a person, or they be something inanimate like a newspaper article or lost object.
The word “Herald” traditionally means a messenger figure, usually to an important person like a king or a god. This archetypal character typically makes their appearance toward the beginning of your story, in the first act. The news they bring changes the protagonist’s life forever, and may even act as your story’s inciting incident.
Sometimes, the herald’s role in your story is so minimal that they don’t really play any other function throughout the rest of the story. However, occasionally, a herald will stick around and serve a greater purpose at different points of the plot, such as that of mentor.
Things all well-written heralds need
To fit this distinctive character archetype, the herald in your story must fulfill a few key functions. It’s not enough for them to just deliver any ol’ message. This message is an event. Who cares if the herald just shows up at the beginning of your hero’s journey to tell them that they’re out of milk? Unless that milk sets them off on a high-stakes adventure, the herald wouldn’t be doing their job in this situation.
So how do you ensure your herald archetypes are pulling their weight? Give them…
1. A promise
The archetypes’ message should promise your main character that something will happen. Someone or something BIG is arriving. Consequences are on the horizon. There’s shocking news and that news, whatever it may be, is inevitable. Try as they might, refuse as much as they want, stick their heads in the sand for however long—they can’t get around this promise and its challenges to come.
2. A demand
The archetype message should function in such a way that it demands something of your character in that moment. They can’t just ignore the news. They have to respond. This is their call to adventure.
Now, that’s not to say that your main protagonist necessarily must strap on their sword and go out to war. The decision doesn’t need to be monumental or huge, or create significant change right away. Instead, they might just decide to clean their house, or go out for a drink, or call their friend back. Maybe they react negatively because their hope is lost, for the time being. Whatever the case might be, though, they’re doing something specifically because of the herald’s message.
And then, lastly, the herald themself should provide a bit of intrigue. They’re not the usual person or thing that your main character might encounter in their daily life. The herald sparks interest.
Maybe they come from a far-off kingdom and their entire being represents this bright and shiny new place that the main character has never been to, but which they’re certainly interested in now. Maybe the herald is just wildly unusual or terribly frightening. They represent the world beyond your characters’ comfort zone.
Whatever it is, they’re not the same thing that your hero is accustomed to encountering—and that’s what makes the herald and their message so enticing.
By now, you probably have a general idea in mind as to what or who a herald is and how they act, but, sometimes, heralds deviate away from our expectations. For example…
Some heralds are inanimate objects
It’s important to note that heralds aren’t always people. Sometimes, the herald is an inanimate object. It’s a letter or a phone call. It’s a newspaper or a billboard. It could just be something as simple as a lost item that your main character finds in the street, or a weather system moving in and disrupting your characters’ lives. It could be an animal, too (like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland).
As long as the object or person fulfills their purpose of providing a promise, a demand, and intrigue toward the start of the story, they can act as your herald archetype. Heralds are will often be more literal in fantasy or magic-adjacent stories, and more intangible in more literary genres like detective fiction or domestic fiction.
Some heralds are untrustworthy
Sometimes, your herald can bring a message to your character that’s just a bald-faced lie. However, that bald-faced lie still was a promise, still was intriguing, and still moved your hero to action.
Why would a herald lie? Well, all of your characters have motives, even the most tertiary ones, so maybe it’s that your herald archetype character is in league with your story’s villain. Maybe they are the villain. Maybe they just hate your main character due to some long-ago feud, or they’re just a pathological liar. If your herald is both an inanimate object and untrustworthy, maybe they’re a misprint in a newspaper, or an accidental voicemail meant for someone else.
Whatever the case may be, just remember that your herald doesn’t always need to be honorable. Sometimes it’s even more interesting when they’re not.
Examples of heralds in literature
Ready to take a look at some examples of the herald archetype in literature?
Hermes from Greek mythology
Let’s go back to what may be the OG herald in literature: Hermes, a character found throughout Greek mythology. Hermes is considered the herald of the gods and would ferry messages to and fro on their behalf, often going to the main character to warn them of, or invite them to, an upcoming adventure.
In Norse mythology, a similar figure is Ratatoskr, the squirrel who delivers messages up and down the world tree.
Pick up any piece of world mythology and you’ll have classic examples of the textbook herald archetype, as basic and traditional as it gets.
The golden ticket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
The golden ticket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a great example of an inanimate object acting as a herald. The ticket provides the main character with the promise of winning his visit to the chocolate factory, a demand that he arrive for the factory tour, and the intrigue of coming from a super-secretive factory and a super-secretive man who no one’s seen in years.
Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games
Another very recognizable and famous herald is Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games. She arrives in Katniss’s town with the promise that someone will be taken for the Hunger Games event, which demands that Katniss take her sister’s place in the games. Meanwhile, Effie’s attire and manner as a Capitol resident lend her intrigue, as she contrasts so greatly with Katniss’s everyday world.
Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings
Gandalf is an example of one character that fulfills their purpose as the herald, but then sticks around for more of the story. He appears to bring our hero Frodo a message and Frodo responds to that call to adventure, while Gandalf represents a new and exciting world beyond The Shire. Then, he stays as a magic mentor, helping to save the day through both the book and movie.
Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol
Another of the very classic herald archetypes is Jacob Marley in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Marley appears at the start of the story to promise Scrooge that he’ll be visited by three ghosts. By the fact that Marley is, himself, a ghost, he provides a little intrigue to the story.
However, this is also an instance where we see the protagonist not really going on a big adventure based on the herald’s message. Scrooge doesn’t need to do anything to respond to the call to adventure; the conflict is coming to him and he’s going along a path of self discovery, whether he likes it or not.
The herald: Calling your hero to adventure
If you’re having a tough time trying to puzzle out how you’re going to push your protagonist from their everyday life and into the conflict that awaits later in your story, a herald character can be exactly what you need to nudge a protagonist in the right direction.
Just remember to make your herald archetype character properly effective by giving their message a promise, demand, and intrigue, and you’ll be on your way to writing a memorable secondary character that your reader will love and that’s just as purposeful and well-written as your hero.