Literature is filled with recurring archetypal characters, which we absorb and revisit in our own creative work. One that comes up again and again in character-driven stories is the “threshold guardian archetype”—a literal or figurative gatekeeper to the next stage of a story.
So how do you go about writing this basic character archetype? Keep reading for a few tips, plus examples of guardian characters found throughout popular books and other media.
What is the threshold guardian archetype?
A threshold guardian is an archetypal character who stands between the hero and their goal. The guardian might be another person, or it might be an object, animal, or event. To pass the guardian and progress the narrative, the hero must typically change in some way, try something new, or overcome challenges.
Developing your threshold guardian archetype
The threshold guardian is usually a secondary or tertiary character whose entire purpose within your story is to be an obstacle for the hero. For that reason, in order to understand and create an effective threshold guardian, we have to understand a few things about this person:
What is their threshold?
Why is their threshold being protected?
How can the threshold guardian be overcome?
What is your guardian’s threshold?
A border between one space and the next, between one state of being and another, the threshold in your story represents a moment in time that changes everything for your protagonist and their fate. They’re crossing over from one form to another, one place to another, one mindset to another.
Sometimes this crossing of the first threshold is very literal, in that a character is making a geographical change. Maybe they’re leaving their prior existence in a poor village on the outskirts of the kingdom and now they’re crossing into their new life working as a spy in the royal court. In order to do so, they have to cross the threshold, going from their rural existence to their life in the lush and extravagant castle.
In this case, the threshold might be their own garden gate, or it might be the protective walls around the castle meant to keep out unscrupulous ruffians.
Maybe your hero is crossing into a secret society or a clique that they’ve always wanted to be a part of. They’re moving from one lunch table in the cafeteria to another. They’re moving from their dorm to the secretive sorority house. In these cases, the threshold would be the thing that stands in their way.
Sometimes, this crossing isn’t physical and there’s no geographic change at any point, at all. Maybe your hero is merely crossing the threshold from childhood and into adulthood, as is the case in many coming-of-age stories.
Whatever the threshold in your story actually is, though, it represents a new state of being for your main character. They’re entire world is going to change.
However, such a level of dramatic change doesn’t come without its challenges—and that’s where the obstacle of the threshold guardian comes in.
Why does your guardian protect their threshold?
This important archetype character’s entire existence is wrapped up in guarding the threshold. For this to make sense as you create your story, there has to be a really good reason why. Finding out this reason why will help you build out your threshold guardian character’s backstory and motives (because, remember—every character, even the secondary ones, need motives).
In many instances, threshold guardians are willing to make dramatic sacrifices to protect their threshold. They want to keep their special world separate from your hero’s world. They don’t like the fact that your hero is trying to shake things up by crossing between the two. It’s messing with the status quo.
Maybe the guardian realizes that the hero’s willingness to cross boundaries is a threat to the way things have always been. Maybe the guardian believes that the hero can’t cut it in this special world they’re trying to cross into. Maybe the guardian is trying to keep the hero in place for their own good.
Ask yourself why the guardian is intentionally barring the way. There is always a reason. Your threshold guardian isn’t going to put all their effort into protecting the threshold without one.
How can the guardian be overcome?
Despite the guardian’s best efforts, for your story to move along, they do need to be overcome. They have to fail in their guarding, or make a choice to clear the way.
This is an important part of your hero’s journey, because often the threshold guardian can only be overcome when your protagonist tries something new or changes something about themselves. Through their growth and broadened understanding of the world, they’ll be able to cross this threshold for the very first time.
While it’s easy to think of this overcoming of the threshold guardian as a big, dramatic moment within your hero’s journey, it doesn’t need to be that literal. There’s not always a dragon that needs to be slayed. Instead, the important thing is that your hero or heroes face challenges or an obstacle that could very well end in defeat, but that they instead overcome in a teaching moment.
What makes a good threshold guardian?
To write a good threshold guardian, you’ll want to make sure your it has a few essential elements.
Make sure the guardian adds tension
The guardian archetype can’t give your protagonist an easy win. This battle will be the greatest one the hero has ever faced—so far. At the point in your hero’s development wherein they meet the threshold guardian, that guardian should be an equal and opposite force that will require the hero to go above and beyond in order to save the day and defeat their enemy.
The guardian should represent something greater
To increase tension and add to your hero’s internal development, this archetype should represent something greater to your hero than just a simple test of their ability.
Maybe your guardians represent the bigger, worse villain that your hero will need to go up against in the future. Maybe they represent your hero’s internal conflicts and faults that they’ll need to overcome at some point. Maybe they represent a weakness that your hero has been trying to hide.
Up the stakes with a powerful guardian
Stakes are what create engagement in any story. Stakes refer to what your main character has to lose if they fail miserably at their plot-given tasks or mission. Going up against the guardian archetype should remind your hero of this in some way. If they lose this preliminary battle, they lose everything they’ve worked for up to this point.
A well-written guardian archetype teaches your hero something useful
Whatever challenge your threshold guardian poses to your hero, that challenge (and overcoming it) should teach the hero some sort of knowledge that becomes useful later on in the story.
For example, maybe, through an altercation with the guardian, the hero learns the power of their own resolve, or that they shouldn’t doubt themselves, or that they can stand up to their inner darkness—and when they come up against the big bad guy at the end of your story, they can tap into that lesson.
Types of threshold guardians
While the guardian archetype may seem relatively straightforward, they do come in several different flavors beyond just the typical castle guard.
1. The moral threshold guardian
Not all threshold guardians are evil or villainous, even if they pose a challenge to your protagonist. They might be standing in your protagonist’s way in a good-natured sort of manner, trying to keep them from crossing over the threshold for their own good. Or, they might just be adamant about guarding the threshold because that’s their job, and they don’t really have anything against your hero. Don’t make the mistake of making this character a villain if there’s no reason to.
2. The guardian archetype-turned-ally
Some threshold guardians may serve a broader purpose in the story if they’re converted into an ally. This typically only happens if the hero overcomes the threshold guardian and, in the process, proves to the guardian that they should have the right of crossing the threshold. They might show the guardian a new perspective or encourage them to think about their own mission in a different way.
3. The mentor-turned-threshold-guardian
In another example of how the threshold guardians can still be a good guy, sometimes your character’s mentor, or someone similar from their support system, will turn into the threshold guardian if they’re trying to “test” the hero. They may want to see if they’re really ready to move on into the next stage of their adventure. This can add tension and suspense to an otherwise benign relationship.
4. Metaphorical threshold guardians
As mentioned at the start of our article, threshold guardians don’t always have to be human or even living characters. You can have threshold guardians that are animals or inanimate objects as well.
For example, let’s revisit our hero traveling from the rural village to the magical, bright, shiny world of the court.
Maybe the threshold guardian they come across isn’t a wall guard, but a pack of wild dogs on the outskirts of the royal city. The wild dogs prowl the surroundings every day, looking for prey. Your character must overcome them by using their wits, lies, and trickery, even though they’re typically averse to this kind of behavior. This might foreshadow how they’ll need to use their wits to overcome the metaphorical wild dogs that will be set upon them when they enter the dog-eat-dog world of court life. If they don’t learn to be conniving just like those around them, they’ll die.
5. The internal threshold guardian
Lastly, while not as common and not as easily recognizable, sometimes stories that include internal demons as threshold guardians—something within your main character that’s preventing them from moving forward and that they must learn to overcome. It might be a past trauma, addiction, fear, etc.
When to add the threshold guardian to your story
As you may have guessed by the details above, your threshold guardian archetype likely isn’t going to come into your story right at the very end, but they’re also not going to come in right at the very beginning.
Typically, the threshold guardian comes into play at about the 30% mark of your book, after your character’s inciting incident pushes them to make a decision that takes them on some sort of adventure or life change. It’s right when they’re entering this new world (ahem… or crossing the new world’s threshold) that they encounter our friend the threshold guardian.
Examples of threshold guardian archetypes
Have a good idea of how, when, and where to add the threshold guardian archetype to your story? Let’s look at a few recognizable examples.
The Dursleys in the Harry Potter universe
Throughout both the Harry Potter books and movies, the Dursleys—Harry’s horrible relatives—act as threshold guardians time and time again. From the very first book, they want to keep Harry Potter from crossing into his destiny as a young wizard, preventing him from going to Hogwarts. Over and over, Harry overcomes the obstacles the Dursleys throw in his way. Learning to overcome their relatively mild oppression readies him to face the even more horrible characters that await later on in his story.
Cerberus from Greek mythology
Cerberus, found in multiple Greek narratives, is a popular threshold guardian example. This three-headed dog stands at the gates of Hades, making him a very literal threshold guardian. In the tale of Orpheus, the hero puts Cerberus to sleep by playing the lyre so he can sneak past him and continue his quest into Hell in search of his lost love.
The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
This overzealous knight is another literal guard. In his story, he tries to prevent King Arthur from crossing his path and fails to do so. (Even if you’re not familiar with this comedic film, you still may be familiar with the Black Night’s most famous line—“’Tis but a scratch!”—uttered as he bleeds out while in combat with King Arthur.)
Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride
Unlike the threshold guardians above that perform a pretty singular role throughout the entirety of their stories, always acting in conflict with the hero, Inigo Montoya is an example of a more non-traditional threshold guardian who performs multiple roles. After being defeated by Westley at the threshold, Inigo transforms into an alley, giving him broader purpose later on in the plot.
The Dagobah Cave in The Empire Strikes Back
The Dagobah Cave in The Empire Strikes Back could represent both an inanimate threshold guardian, as well as an internal threshold guardian. In this Star Wars film, our hero Luke Skywalker is preparing for an upcoming battle with the dark forces at large. When he enters the cave, he hallucinates and sees a vision of Darth Vader, as the cave shows its visitors what they fear most. As part of Luke’s hallucination, he overcomes Vader, symbolically overcoming his internal fear (the threshold keeping him from proceeding with his training and development as a Jedi).
Whether you want to consider Luke’s internal struggles as the threshold guardian, or the literal cave itself, is up to personal interpretation.
The threshold guardian complicates things for your protagonist
Authors joke about it all the time, but it’s true: One of our jobs as writers is to make our characters’ lives as difficult as possible. After all, no one wants to read a book or story about a character whose life is all peachy all the time. They want to watch as the hero faces challenges and danger. There has to be conflict to make a good story—and that’s where the threshold guardian comes in.
The threshold guardian can act as one of your main character’s very first sources of conflict, heightening the stakes early on in your story and propelling your hero on through their plot—and your readers on through the pages.