Unlike many fictional character archetypes that are defined by the role they play in a story, the rebel archetype is defined more by their personality. A rebel character can be your protagonist, antagonist, love interest, side character, you name it—so long as they fit certain rebellious criteria, they’re a rebel archetype.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know on how to write compelling, convincing, and classic rebels, and why you might want to include the rebel archetype in your next story.
What is the rebel archetype?
The rebel archetype is a character who stands in stark opposition to a collective, person, convention, or social ideal. Very often they’re an underdog, and their rebellion is personal or motivated by their own experiences. The rebel may adhere to their own code that conforms to the way they believe the world should ideally work.
Characteristics of a rebel archetype
There are a few characteristics that make the rebel archetype who they are. As mentioned, while many character archetypes are defined by the role the play within a plot (for example, the threshold guardian’s entire purpose is to keep your hero from passing over into the next phase of their journey), the rebel’s whole identity is wrapped up in their personality. No matter what role they play in the story or no matter how they push the plot along, it’s these character traits that make them a true rebel archetype.
1. The rebel is a creative underdog with big potential
Rebel archetypes are underdogs in some way. Maybe they’re from a disadvantaged population—a minority or poor. Maybe they’re simply the weakest link in their family or friend group. Whatever it might be, there are some sort of external disadvantages working against them.
Despite this, though, they have potential.
They’re not just sitting back and feeling sorry for themselves because they’re an underdog. They have a desire to stand up to a broken system, fight for justice, and challenge ideas that don’t make sense. They’re often confident, independent, headstrong, and passionate.
2. The rebel has a cause
That passion leads us into the rebel’s cause (because, no matter what the classic movie may imply, yes, a rebel does need a cause).
This cause is often admirable and one that the reader or audience can root for.
Maybe the rebel wants to bring justice to the world and overthrow an oppressive regime. Maybe the rebel sees that society is headed down a dark path and they want to do something about it. Maybe they simply hate what the world demands of them and so they’re on a stubborn path to do anything other than meet the unfair standards.
Whatever the case may be, the rebel archetypes have a cause that they’re passionate about, and a code that goes with it.
3. The rebel cares
Even if a rebel sports a hardened, rough-and-tumble exterior, rebels usually care about someone or something that the reader can identify. This may or may not tie into their cause. However, they have a soft spot and are not as independent as they may always seem. This may end up being a weakness that another character manipulates as needed.
4. The rebel shocks
If you’re writing a rebel character, remember that, ideally, they should shock the other characters within your story with how they challenge convention and stand up to authority.
The rebel’s choices and, in some cases, their way of life, must be so far outside the norm, so unconventional, that they can only be considered a rebel.
Sub-archetypes of the rebel archetype
Beyond just the general rebel archetype, this type of character can be further narrowed down and defined so that they fit into one of the many rebel archetype sub-archetypes.
These sub-archetypes might be helpful for you if you’re finding that the above descriptions of what a rebel character is and does too broad for your character-planning and plotting purposes.
The anarchist rebel
This type of rebel doesn’t mind a little anarchy if it means they achieve their goal and further their cause. Violence and disruption are the name of their game. They might destroy people’s lives to get what they want, but they’ll prove their point and break free from the rules at all costs.
The civil rebel
In contrast, this is a rebel who abides by the rules. They’re hardly an outlaw or revolutionary. They’re trying to go against the grain in a law-abiding way, which may or may not make following their cause more difficult for them.
The noble rebel
The noble rebel’s cause is always one that encompasses some sort of social injustice. Their cause is tied to the well-being of others and the people that they care about. This rebel challenges injustice in society, a flawed system, and its authority figures, fighting for positive change and human rights on the front lines. Hint: many superheroes fall into this category.
The misfit rebel
The misfit rebel’s backstory is incredibly important to their identity. In fact, their past experiences as a misfit and outsider was likely what pushed them into their role as a rebel in the first place.
The shadow rebel
The shadow rebel is a rebel that exists on the fringe. This rebel is pretending to play along with the status quo, but, in reality, the rebel’s shadow is working under the cover of darkness to further their cause.
The maverick rebel
The maverick rebel is a visionary with an innovative idea of how they can change the world. They think big, outside the box, and want to push the limits in every way possible. They’re creative, unconventional, and independent. They’re not afraid to speak their minds and they might just start a revolution.
Examples of the rebel archetype in literature
So what are some excellent examples of the rebel archetype? Here are a few familiar individuals who exhibit the above rebel archetype characteristics—and a few who might just surprise you. Not every rebel archetype is a motorcycle-riding, leather-wearing free spirit.
If you’ve seen one of the many movies to feature the folk hero Robin Hood, then you can likely agree that this main character is one that fits the rebel archetype well.
A skilled archer and dashing hero, Robin Hood stands against the injustices of the crown, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, rebelling against “the system,” living by his own code, and providing for those that he cares about.
Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter
In this classic piece of literature by Nathaniel Hawthorne, main character Hester Prynne is a civil rebel archetype who doesn’t necessarily break any laws or do anything violent, but she shocks her community with her adultery and then her consistent refusal to obey their demands that she name her adultery partner.
She flaunts their accusations while also proving that, despite society’s expectations, her adultery would not define her or make her a lesser person.
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is a very blatant rebel archetype, as she fights against the Capitol and President Snow in a literal political rebellion.
Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
Atticus Finch is a great example of the noble rebel archetype. He sees the social injustice playing out in the racist South and goes against his community’s expectations in order to defend a Black man unjustly charged with rape.
Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
A nice example of the misfit rebel archetype, Lisbeth’s actions and rebellious character are, in many ways, driven by her past trauma. Because of that trauma, she’s become a withdrawn, introverted character, but her personality is part of what makes audiences love her and what makes her a compelling heroine.
Does your story need some rebellion?
Not every story will have a rebel. However, some stories benefit from having a rebel among the cast of characters, no matter how great or small a role they play. A rebel can provide shock value, drive a plot, provide intrigue, or act as a foil character—plus, they’re just plain fun.