A literary archetype refers to a type of character that we see again and again in stories throughout history. Archetypes are a foundation on which you can easily build your stories’ characters. And when it comes to the ruler archetype, you might already have one in your story and just not know it!
Here’s everything you need to know about how to write ruler archetypes effectively, what a ruler archetype is and is not, and examples of well-written ruler archetypes throughout pop culture and literature.
Ruler archetype definition
The ruler archetype is a type of character who embodies a place of power or high status. This might be a political structure, clique, or other social group. Rulers are defined by their need to maintain order, and they measure themselves by the power they have over others.
As one of the core character archetypes, ruler archetypes can be combined with other archetypes and can be either a major or minor character. Likewise, the ruler can be good, bad, or somewhere in-between. However, they’re always defining, enforcing, and maintaining those rules over others.
Ruler archetype traits
Rulers can come in may forms, from a good king or queen, to an inspiring (or terrifying) boss, to a dark wizard bent on genocidal destruction. But, rules all embody some common characteristics.
These are the traits and characteristics that a good ruler archetype nearly always displays.
The ruler brings order
Whether an evil villain or benevolent ruler, the ruler represents order for the rest of your characters.
When their laws are followed, then the system and world just works. The kingdom sees success under the sovereign hand. That said, this system may work poorly for some, and the kingdom may not be to everyone’s benefits—but it still technically works the way it’s intended to.
Without the ruler, instability and anarchy reign. If your hero’s goal is to overthrow a ruler character, the hero will also have to face an upheaval of the status quo. For some heroes, giving up their stability is just not worth it.
The ruler faces unique challenges
As someone in your story who holds all the power, the ruler will face very unique challenges that other characters don’t have to deal with.
Nearly always, the external conflict will be a challenge of their power from an outside source. The leader’s internal conflict will always be, likewise, related to their power. Maybe they’re worried they’re not deserving of their rank. Maybe power is corrupting them.
When it comes to determining this character’s internal and external conflict, most of their problems are rooted in their position of authority.
The ruler displays leadership traits
Keep in mind that just because a character is in a position of authority, that doesn’t mean they’ll always fit the ruler archetype.
If you have a sniveling, weak, non-authoritative character who just so happens to be a king or patriarch, that doesn’t make them a ruler archetype. Instead, when you look at a ruler archetype and their personality traits, you should be able to say, “Huh, yeah, I can see how they got to where they are.”
A ruler is charismatic. They’re a natural born leader. They command a room when they walk in and know about taking control. They’re intelligent and confident (at least externally). Their leadership qualities influence others to follow them, whether that’s through inspiration, fear, acting as a role model, etc. Their personality is fine-tuned for leading and they know how to use it well.
That said, these characteristics may not always include wisdom and these leaders may not always be skilled at taking responsibility. Instead, the leader and their talents are all geared to command and control those around them. When your ruler displays a dark side, these talents can become seductive and cause them to value control over true leadership.
Consider the Sultan from the Disney movie Aladdin. He’s in charge of everything, but because he doesn’t hold those traditional leadership qualities, he becomes an easy target for the movie’s villain and quickly loses the power he had.
The ruler fears loss of power
The ruler fears one very specific thing: losing their high status.
Because of this, when you put pressure on the ruler by threatening their dominion, you’ll often see that’s when their true colors show. Maybe a benevolent ruler suddenly becomes violent or corrupted under the threat of losing their power. Or, maybe a cruel ruler becomes weak or erratic when they suddenly realize that they could very well lose the thing that allows their cruel behavior in the first place.
The ruler has a creed
The ruler enforces their laws, but even though they’re the one with all the power and the one actively making the laws, they don’t feel as if they’re above these standards. They stick to their own creed and have an internal moral compass that they abide by.
The ruler’s motto is, “Lead by example.”
Ruler archetype examples
You likely can think of a few examples of the ruler archetype off the top of your head. From a good king lion to a queen bee, these examples will give you a sense of how the ruler archetype is defined.
Here are a few familiar ones and how they function within the confines of their story, movie, or other form of media.
Mufasa in The Lion King
Mufasa is a secondary character in the Disney movie The Lion King, but he’s nonetheless an important example. His guidance and influence drive the choices of the central characters throughout the story.
Near the beginning of the story, Mufasa defines the “laws” by which the story’s world operates, both for the viewer and main character Simba. Throughout the rest of the story, Simba, our hero, adheres to these laws and, in contrast, the villains do not. Only when the laws are obeyed can the story’s world come to order, eliminate chaos, and the plot be concluded.
Regina George in Mean Girls
In this movie about high school cliques, Regina George is an example of a villain that’s also a ruler. She lords over her high school’s social hierarchy and decides the unspoken laws that everyone else abides by. While she’s not in a formalized position of authority, she holds all the power nonetheless.
However, since she’s the villain, it’s only when her rule is overthrown that our story’s hero can win. Despite this, remember—the ruler brings order. So, when Regina is overthrown, chaos ensues. Order is only resumed when a new ruler takes her place.
The Godfather in The Godfather
In both the novel and the movies, the Godfather is an example of someone who definitely fits the ruler archetype, but does so in a way that you can’t exactly say they’re either a good or a bad guy.
In some instances, the Godfather does what’s right for those he protects and shows love for his family and friends. In others, the Godfather is unspeakably cruel to those who go against his law and order.
Joffrey in The Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin
In The Game of Thrones, the much-hated character of Joffrey is an example of how a ruler archetype will do anything at all to hold onto their power. When they feel threatened, they’ll go against moral standards, loved ones… absolutely anything that stands in their way.
Big Brother in 1984 by George Orwell
In 1984 by George Orwell, Big Brother is an example of a ruler that is not necessarily an individual, but more of an overarching social idea that’s grown to the point that it takes on a life of its own.
For example, Big Brother is always watching and always enforcing its rules. While Big Brother’s rules are detrimental to those living beneath their shadow, those rules do bring order to what is believed to be an otherwise chaotic world—and that’s something that many characters in this classic book will accept rather than risk the chaos.
Do your characters need a ruler?
While rulers can make interesting main characters, often they really shine when they show what they can do to move other main characters’ stories along. Sometimes, they define the boundaries that the hero will need to follow in order to succeed (as is the case in The Lion King). Sometimes, they prove a villain for your hero to fight against, even if it means risking chaos (as is the case in Mean Girls).
Add a ruler to your story and see how it can impact your characters’ lives—for better or worse.