Archetypal Characters: Your Literary Guide

archetypal charactersArchetypal characters are a major component of all genres of literature, and can also be studied in terms of film, television, and theatre. Archetypes are present in all forms of media and artistic expression, and understanding them will lead to a more developed understanding of everything you watch and read.

What is an Archetype?

An archetype is defined as “an original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied, or on which they are based.” An archetype, in other words, is a prototype. The word is derived from the Greek word archétypon, which translates to English as model or pattern. An archetype can also refer to a recurring symbol, particularly in the realms of art and literature.

In literature, archetypes can exist in the form of a typical kind of character, a particular setting, a specific plot situation, or an overarching theme of the writing. These literary components act as prototypes, and they usually signify or represent a pattern. Character archetypes in particular are meant to represent patterns in human nature. Archetypal characters are usually very relatable to readers, due to the universality of their characteristics and behaviors. The presence of archetypal characters in literature helps to get the message of a work across to the reader, by appealing to specific universal components of human nature. You’ll be familiar with archetypal characters if you’ve ever noticed similar behaviors that a literary character shares with you, someone you know, or another character from literature. The examples of archetypal characters throughout popular and classic literature are almost unlimited.

Literary Archetypal Characters

One of the first people to examine the concept of archetypal characters was the philosopher Aristotle, in the time of ancient Greece. Aristotle studied the play Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) and decided that the title character perfectly embodied the components of what he deemed the tragic hero. A majority of Greek tragedy plays include the archetype of the tragic hero, and this archetype has impacted dramatic literature every since. The tragic hero evokes pity from the audience as her undergoes a change in fortune, from a positive situation in the beginning of the story, to a negative situation at its conclusion. The story will conclude with the downfall, and sometimes the death, of the tragic hero. The cause of the downfall is the result of a tragic flaw on the part of the hero, referred to by Aristotle as the harmatia. Examples of the tragic hero include Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Shakespeare’s tragedy plays often feature a tragic hero as a protagonist. A few examples are King Lear, Macbeth, and Romeo Montague.

However, all heroes are not tragic, and all heroic tales do not end with the downfall or death of the protagonist. Another archetypal character, therefore, is known simply as the hero, rather than the tragic hero. The archetypal hero exhibits goodness, a kind heart, and inherent virtue. The hero is often alone in the world in one way or another; many archetypal heroes are orphans, and therefore have experienced significant loss before their story begins. He or she struggles against negative or malevolent forces, such as inherent evil or injustice, in an effort to restore balance and fairness to the world. Examples of the classic hero include Beowulf (most likely the original example of the classic hero), Frodo from Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” series, and Harry Potter from J.K. Rowling’s series of the same name. Each of these characters embodies goodness and justice, and they must face a series of challenges and hardships in order for goodness and justice to prevail in the world. The reader is usually made to identify with the hero more than with any other character in the story, and is therefore cheering them on in their efforts to overcome their challenges.

Another familiar archetypal character is often referred to as the mother. The mother character’s main function is to provide comfort, guidance, advice, and direction to the protagonist or hero of the story. The mother is female, of a matronly appearance, and does not often have a developed backstory of her own; she acts as a source of comfort and help for the hero, but not as much else. The mother figure is particularly prominent in fairy tales and children’s stories. The fairy godmother from Cinderella is one of the most well known examples of the mother archetype. Other examples include Glinda, the good witch from L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” the biblical figure of Mary, mother of Jesus, and the classic figures of Mother Nature and Mother Goose.

The mentor character is similar to the mother archetype, in that his or her function is to act as an advisor to the protagonist. The mentor differs from the mother because the mother’s advice and guidance is coming from a place of maternal love and affection, whereas the mentor is training and teaching the hero valuable lessons based on his or her own knowledge and wisdom. Wizards, such as Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings,” Merlin of Arthurian legends, and Professor Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series, often serve as examples of the mentor archetype. Each of these characters provides guidance and knowledge to the protagonist, and their wisdom far surpasses the wisdom of those they are mentoring. In a similar sense, Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi act as mentors in the Star Wars books and films.

Apart from the hero, the best known archetypal character is the villain. The villain embodies everything that hero opposes, making him or her the opposite of the hero. For this reason, the villain is often referred to as the antagonist, in contrast to the protagonist. The villain’s values and characteristics include selfishness, greed, and ambition. The villain is often working directly against the hero’s cause, hoping that the hero will fail in his or her quest. Examples of the villain archetype include Darth Vader from “Star Wars,” the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz,” Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series, Cinderella’s stepsisters and stepmother, Snidely Whiplash from the Dudley Do Right stories, and Sauron from “The Lord of the Rings.” Sauron is an interesting example because he embodies the concept of faceless evil, not behaving as a typical character as a villain usually does. Shakespearean drama often features a villain acting to oppose the hero’s desires, such as Iago in “Othello” and Edmund in “King Lear.”

The fool is an archetypal character known for ignorance and stupidity, often present in the story to provide comic relief. The fool is sometimes also known as the village idiot. The fool is a source of laughter for the other characters and for the audience or reader, but can also elicit pity when the plot of the story calls for it. In Shakespearean drama, the fool often functions as method by which the author can cut through the pretensions of the other characters and get down to the truth of the matter. This is particularly true of the fool character in “King Lear.” Most of the time, however, the fool or idiot is there to represent naivety, ignorance, and a lack of particular skill. In George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, both Hodor and Samwell Tarly occasionally fill this role. In the Harry Potter series, Neville Longbottom begins as this archetypal character, though he grows to embody more heroic characteristics as the novels progress.

The damsel in distress is another popular archetypal character. In fact, literary analysis and discussion has often examined the lack of strong female characters in classic and historical literature, because a majority of female characters often embody the damsel in distress archetype. In the modern era, there is a larger body of literature that includes strong female protagonists. A recent example of such literature would be Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” as well as its sequels, which are centered around a female, Katniss Everdeen, who embodies many of the traits of the traditional female architect. The damsel in distress, by contrast, depends on the story’s hero to be saved or rescued. She is delicate, womanly, and usually meek and demure in manner. Examples of the damsel in distress span all the way from the literature of antiquity, with Helen of Troy, through medieval writing, with Sleeping Beauty, up to the modern era, with Princess Peach of Nintendo’s Mario Kart video games.

The Value of Archetypes

As you can see, archetypal characters span all genres of literature, from varied time periods and a multitude of authors. Archetypes like these examples are also prominent throughout the world of film, television, and dramatic and theatrical literature. The presence of any of these character types contributes to the universality of the story being told, appealing to the aspects of human nature that most readers and audiences can identify with. Familiarity with archetypal characters will improve your understanding of, and your ability to analyze, literature, film, theatre, and any other storytelling mediums.