When you think of an outlaw archetype, what comes to mind? Dusty dirt roads and cowboy hats? Or maybe a gang of bandits living under the green canopy of Sherwood Forest? Or is your outlaw archetype a maverick hitman skimming both sides of the law?
Outlaw archetypes are some of our most memorable and seductive characters in literature, film, and TV. Their lives are some of the most removed from our everyday experiences, yet they hold a pervasive sway over our innermost desires.
Let’s dive into this beloved literary archetype. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is an outlaw archetype?
The outlaw archetype is a character who exists on the fringes of society. This might be by choice after they reject the status quo, or they might be forced out because of something that makes them different from others. Sometimes, the outlaw archetype can overlap with the rebel archetype if they rise to stand against a social injustice.
Outlaw archetypes can be positive or negative characters. Many heroes begin as outlaw archetypes, but so do many villains. For instance, the classic fairy tale witch in a secluded cottage in the woods is an outlaw archetype—they’re free spirits who live on the fringes of society, eschewing social convention.
Some outlaw characters seek to change their circumstances (usually becoming a different character archetype in the process, like a rebel or hero archetype), but some simply want to exist in peace in the inner world they’ve created.
A good example of a classic outlaw is the original Robin Hood stories. These were more lighthearted and episodic than the Robin Hood character we’ve come to recognise in popular media today; they featured a central character who lived in the woods with his bros, drinking and tricking the wealthy out of their riches (the “gives to the poor” thing was a later amendment). Later portrayals of Robin Hood gave him a more dynamic character arc as a rebel archetype fighting against an oppressive regime.
Characteristics of the outlaw character archetype
Although the outlaw archetype can look very different in different contexts, there are a few key character traits and attributes that each outlaw persona will have in common.
Outlaws don’t need a lot of TLC from their loved ones; they take care of themselves and can hold their own in even the most challenging situations. Sometimes, this independence makes them hesitant to put their trust in others, even family and friends.
These bold characters aren’t afraid to break rules, and refuse to live their lives in fear or doubt.
They’re usually a minority
Very often, outlaw characters come from a minority or underrepresented identity—whether this is social class, religious background, ethnicity, sexuality, or simply a personal perspective on life.
This identity might have led to them being pushed away from the rest of society, or it might have motivated them to remove themselves from a potentially toxic social order.
They disregard societal norms
Outlaws tend to push boundaries in a variety of ways, whether that’s out of pure contrarianism or base survival. Many of the things that other archetypes take for granted—like shelter, companionship, financial stability, or ambition—become either luxuries or superfluous.
An outlaw archetype isn’t afraid to embrace their own personality and their own ideas about what happiness can be.
Their presence is controversial
A big indication of the outlaw archetype is that their very existence, or existence in a certain place at a certain time, creates tension. This might be because they introduce some radical ideas about the way things are done, or because they highlight something wrong with the status quo, or because their presence indicates some sort of impending change.
In the examples we’ll look at below, you’ll see that each character is a polarising one with both friends and enemies in their story’s world.
They live precariously
The life of an outlaw archetype is rarely one of comfort. They may live in questionable accommodations, or on the wrong side of the law, or in a volatile society that doesn’t accept them.
This precariousness is often what pushes an outlaw archetype into another character archetype as they react to their changing circumstances.
Examples of outlaw characters from literature
With all of that in mind, let’s look at a few of popular media’s most beloved outlaw archetypal characters.
The Dark Knight is one of literature and film’s most enduring outlaw characters. In this instance, his outlaw nature is self-imposed; nobody forces him into the shadows except for his own grief, anger, and desire for justice.
Like all outlaws, his actions in Gotham City are contentious and polarising among law abiding citizens, and although he is a force for good, he’s never quite accepted into a comfortable view of what the world should be.
Roux from Chocolat, by Joanne Harris
The romantic lead in Joanne Harris’ novel is a great example of an outlaw without a cause. He lives in an ostracized community of river gypsies whose arrival in the story’s small town creates tension among the residents.
This character isn’t out for justice, social change, or personal gain; he simply wants to be left alone to live his life in the way that’s best for him. This type of outlaw shows how fresh perspectives are sometimes necessary to break free from outdated habits and beliefs.
One of the most lovable rapscallions in cinematic history, this outlaw archetype is caught between his need for freedom and his need for validation. Some of the town’s residents have a soft spot for him, while others want to chop him into little pieces with nasty-looking swords. He also has an unfortunate tendency to shake things up wherever he goes.
Although he ultimately marries a princess and ascends to a position of power, he makes the outlaw life look pretty appealing to viewers.
Incorporating the outlaw archetype into your story
Readers love outlaw characters; you could say they’re the “secret sauce” of a fun, character-driven story. From the bubbly personality of determined outlaw Elle Woods in Legally Blonde to the revolutionary activist outlaws in The Hunger Games, these characters have a way of making readers examine their own world in a new way.
To incorporate these archetypes into your story, think about the message or theme you’re trying to convey.
Why has this person been pushed to the fringe in the first place? Is it because the world doesn’t accept them for who they are? Or because your outlaw has found something fundamentally wrong in the world and is pushing back against it? Or maybe they just value their own agency and sense of self too much to live their lives by the rules of others.
Remember that these characters can look very different depending on what instigated their removal from the community. To avoid creating a stereotype, consider what this driving force means for the character, and for the other people surrounding them in your story.
Outlaws are risk takers who inspire new outlooks
Along with other archetypes like rebels and tricksters, the outlaw has the power to affect change, challenge perceptions, and introduce your readers to revolutionary new ways of thinking. No matter your target audience, this archetype will help you create a character that readers and viewers will fall in love with.