The 12 Character Archetypes: A Guide for Writers
Are you looking for readers to connect to your story on a more primal level? Do you want them to feel close to your characters and to root for them? Well, this article explores how you can use character archetypes to do just that!
You may have heard people talk about ‘archetypes and their importance to Jungian theory’ and wondered just what they were talking about. But an understanding of the key character archetypes may be just the thing to help elevate your stories and keep your readers turning the page.
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, believed that storytelling and myth making were an integral part of humanity’s development. At the centre of our stories are characters who appear repeatedly, irrespective of culture, custom, or language. They are part of our instinctive understanding as humans, resonating on a fundamental level.
What is an Archetype?
An archetype is the original pattern on which other things are based; it is the prototype, or blueprint, as it were. In essence it is something that is universally recognised as a typical example of something or someone. In Jungian theory, this definition is taken even further and used to describe the collective unconscious we inherited from our earliest human ancestors, something almost hardcoded into us.
What is a Character Archetype?
Character archetypes represent a specific set of universally recognisable characteristics and patterns of behaviour. Each archetype is defined by a distinct set of motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. They are so ubiquitous to us that we recognise them instantly. When someone says, ‘the hero’, we instantly think of someone fighting for good, someone who we wish to succeed. The hero is just one of the 12 archetypes, and we will explore these in more depth later in this article.
Why are Character Archetypes Important?
Character archetypes are important because they resonate with the reader; they are recognisable and intrinsically understood. Using them to our advantage can elevate our stories by drawing the reader more fully into our character’s world.
One of the biggest obstacles for writers when creating great characters is ensuring they are believable and that they act in realistic ways when faced with certain situations. Understanding the archetypes can help us ensure our characters are consistent and feel authentic. Put another way, the archetypes can give us a blueprint to ensure our reader sees a truth in our character’s actions because they fit a known psychological profile.
The 12 character archetypes described in this article (along with examples of archetypes from literature and popular culture) will help us develop our characters and ensure they are believable, recognisable, and resonate with readers.
The character archetypes are also often associated with 7 seven basic plots on which almost all stories are built.
Archetypes, Stereotypes, Stock Characters, and Clichés
Although archetypes are the typical example of certain character types, they are not stereotypes, stock characters or clichés.
Stereotypes are overly simplified characters, usually defined by a small number of characteristics and are often negative caricatures.
Stock characters (including the ‘boy next door’ or the ‘cat lady’) represent generic character types and, in contrast to stereotypes, are not intrinsically positive or negative. Their use may be seen as rather lazy; but they may offer great opportunities to subvert the form, especially for comic effect.
The main thing to watch out for with stock characters is avoiding the cliché. This is a character who has been used so often throughout literature that it has become boring and predictable. Stereotypes and clichés will act predictably and according to type in a way that can easily be anticipated. They are therefore likely to be boring for the reader. Archetypes, however, may be seen to speak a universal truth and therefore, although we recognise them and empathise with them, they are not inherently predictable.
12 Character Archetypes
Jung noted that there were 12 character archetypes, each with its own set of values, traits, and motivations. They are broadly grouped into three categories:
- The ego archetypes: the Innocent, the Everyman, the Hero, and the Caregiver
- The soul archetypes: the Explorer, the Rebel, the Lover, and the Creator/Artist
- The self archetypes: the Jester, the Sage, the Magician/Wizard, and the Ruler
The Ruler is obsessed by the pursuit of power and may become consumed by it. They are often the antagonist, someone against whom the protagonist must battle. However, there are plenty of opportunities to subvert the form here and create an anti-hero type like Tony Soprano or Walter White.
The main strengths of the Ruler are their status and their access to resources. They may be charismatic and demonstrate enviable leadership skills. However, they are prone to suspicion and fear others are attempting to grab their power. They may also appear aloof and be disliked by many (if not all) of the people surrounding them.
Examples of the Ruler include the titular character in Edward St Aubyn’s Dunbar (based on King Lear), Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, Macbeth, and Joffrey Baratheon from A Song of Ice and Fire.
The Ruler may also be described as the Leader, the Boss, the King/Queen, or the President.
The Creator or Artist
The Creator, also known as the Artist, is a visionary who creates things of enduring value, such as art, music, structures, or even entire worlds depending on the scope of their role within the story.
The main strengths of the Creator are their flair for creativity, their drive, and general ability to execute their vision. This makes them extremely determined, but this may also give rise to perfectionism and egotism. Creators may also demonstrate weakness in their willingness for personal sacrifice in the name of their vision or be overly single-minded at the expense of wider goals.
Examples of the Creator or Artist include Marvel’s Tony Stark, Dr Jekyll from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Geppetto from Pinocchio, and Slartibartfast fromThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who is literally a designer of planets.
The Creator may also be described as the Inventor, the Innovator, the Musician, or the Writer.
The Sage is the wise character who offers up their knowledge, typically using their intelligence to provide context or impart this wisdom to another character to improve their chance of success. They often perform the role of a mentor to the protagonist.
The main strength of the Sage is their accumulated wisdom, and they will often provide considerable insight. However, they may be overly cautious and prone to excessive study. This gives rise to a large weakness in the form of a hesitancy to take any action.
Examples of the Sage include Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Magwitch in Great Expectations, Dumbledore in Harry Potter, and Master Splinter in The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The Sage may also be described as the Expert, the Teacher, the Scholar, or the Advisor.
The Innocent archetype is the embodiment of all that is good in the world. They are unsullied by life or tragedy (in contrast to the Hero archetype) and wish for happiness for themselves and others. Often depicted as children, the Innocent is used to inspire a sense of compassion into even an apathetic reader. However, this archetype is not immune to hardship, and many literary Innocents do meet a terrible end (Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol for example).
The main strengths of the Innocent are their moral purity and sincerity. They will be kind and by extension well-loved. However, the Innocent’s weaknesses of naivety and lack of skills may make them especially vulnerable.
Examples of the Innocent include Pippin in The Lord of the Rings, Dory from Finding Nemo, and Lyra from His Dark Materials (although she eventually transforms away from the Innocent towards the Hero as she matures).
The Innocent may also be known as the Child, the Youth, the Mystic, or the Naïve.
The Explorer archetype is driven by a desire for adventure and to discover the previously unknown. They are characters who will typically seek out new experiences and opportunities, and who wish for more freedom.
The main strength of the Explorer is their innate curiosity; they demand answers and are driven by a need for self-improvement. However, their weaknesses include a tendency for aimlessness, and they may become misfits, especially if they become unreliable as a friend or ally.
Examples of the Explorer include Odysseus in The Odyssey, Indiana Jones, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, and James from Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.
The Explorer may also be described as the Seeker, the Wanderer, or the Pilgrim.
The Rebel lives by the idea that rules are made to broken and are often driven by one of two primary urges: revenge or revolution. They do not live within the boundaries that society has demanded and will often be the character who leads the fight to overthrow the status quo.
The main strengths of the Rebel are their independent thinking and dogged perseverance to achieve a change. However, this can make them self-involved and may even force them towards criminal activity. They may also lack the resources to achieve their aims, resulting in frustration which further increases their propensity towards crime.
Examples of the Rebel include Katniss from The Hunger Games, Robin Hood, Sirius Black from Harry Potter, and even Elle Woods in Legally Blond as she takes on the status quo entrenched in the legal profession.
The Rebel may also be described as the Revolutionary, or the Outlaw.
The Hero is the one who ‘saves the day’, rising to the challenge with the aid of their unique set of skills. They are generally depicted as the ‘good guy’ and embody the characteristics that are especially valued within society to represent a model of virtue.
The key strengths of the Hero include their courage and force of will, their strength (be that physical or mental), and their ability in specific areas that confers them an advantage over an intimidating enemy. However, they may have a propensity for overconfidence and an inflated ego, often bordering on hubris.
Examples of the Hero include Hercules, Achilles, Superman, Harry Potter, and Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Hero may also be described as the Warrior, the Crusader, the Superhero, or the Dragon Slayer.
The Magician or Wizard
The Magician, also known as the Wizard, is the archetype who brings significant knowledge or wields an ancient power. They are often key to achieving difficult goals within a story.
The main strength of the Magician or Wizard is their access to the ‘secrets of the universe’, most frequently coupled with a discipline to harness and wield that power effectively. They may provide an innovative solution to a problem; however, this may give rise to a series of unintended consequences. One of the main weaknesses of the Magician or Wizard is arrogance (which may exacerbate those unintended consequences) and they may become corrupted by their power (think Darth Vader in Star Wars).
Other examples of the Magician/Wizard include Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Prospero in The Tempest. Sherlock Holmes may also be considered as a Magician, although his skills are cerebral rather than supernatural.
As well as being known as the Magician and the Wizard, this archetype may also be described as the Shaman, the Inventor, or the Catalyst.
The Jester is a comic character, often also known as the Trickster. They may provide an element of comic relief but may also offer up important truths. They likely live by the motto ‘you only live once’.
The main strength of the Jester is their ability to be funny whilst also offering insight in an accessible way. They are much liked by readers, although this may be a superficial appreciation. The main weakness of the archetype is borne from this superficiality, and they can quickly become obnoxious or time wasters.
Examples of the Jester include the Fool in King Lear, the Weasley Twins in Harry Potter, Timon and Pumba in The Lion King, and Joey in Friends.
The Jester may also be described as the Fool, the Joker, or the Comedian.
The Everyman is someone to whom all readers can relate, someone who is recognisable as a ‘regular person’. They are likely to be characters who ‘fit in’ easily and are great at bringing people together.
The main strength of the Everyman comes from their ability to integrate; they are down to earth and easy to like. However, they may subsume their own sense of self to blend in, moulding themselves into who they think others want them to be. The main weakness of the Everyman archetype is that as a ‘normal’ person they likely lack specialised skills and so may not prove useful in difficult situations.
Examples of the Everyman include Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the anonymous narrator in Fight Club, and Philip J. Fry in Futurama.
The Everyman may also be described as the Person Next Door, the Citizen, or the Regular.
The Lover archetype is the great romantic, in love with the very idea of being in love. They may be anyone within a story, but their leading drive is to find (and keep) love.
The main strengths of the Lover are their passion and devotion, which may make them a powerful ally. However, this devotion may boil over into a willingness to sacrifice everything for love, including identity, life, and liberty (and not just their own). Further weaknesses include irrationality in their behaviour and a tendency towards naivety and a ‘love conquers all’ mentality.
Examples of the Lover include Romeo and Juliet, Edward in Twilight, and Jake and Rose in Titanic.
The Lover may also be described as the Partner, the Intimate, or the Spouse.
The Caregiver plays a nurturing role, and this archetype has also been known as the Mother Figure, although they certainly do not have to be female. They are often seen in supporting roles, such the spouse or best friend, in addition to the more obvious parent/guardian role.
The main strength of the Caregiver is their selflessness, and they will frequently put everyone else first while expecting little in return. They will also show significant loyalty and a focus on honour. However, they generally lack leadership skills or personal ambition.
Examples of the Caregiver include Samwise in The Lord of the Rings, Mary Poppins, and Miss Honey from Matilda.
The Caregiver may also be described as the Saint, the Helper, or the Supporter.
What Archetypes Work Best For Your story?
As this article has highlighted, understanding the main character archetypes can help you to build more believable and realistic characters that readers will be drawn to. Use them as a form of blueprint to ensure your primary characters jump off the page and into the hearts of your readers, keeping them turning the pages as they are sucked into your characters’ lives. Or use them to find new and exciting ways to give readers something unexpected: how about a young child in the Sage role for your ageing Innocent; or the assassin as the Caregiver?
Play around with your story and see what archetypes work best for your characters. You never know where your story may take you next!
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