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What Are Archetypal Patterns?

By Nicole Etolen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Archetypal patterns are characters or basic plot devices that appear repeatedly in various forms throughout different narratives represented in literature and film. Archetypes are like the blueprints for creating different characters and plots in works of fiction. Names and details may differ, but the underlying theme remains the same from text to text. Examples of archetypal patterns include the interactions between the hero and the villain, the fate of the star-crossed lovers, and the quest pattern.

The main aspect of archetypal patterns is that they are universally recognized, meaning the basic characteristics and interactions between archetypes translates across different cultures. These patterns are typically ingrained in society and children learn them from a very early age. Nearly every culture has at least one story that fits into one of the patterns.

The hero versus villain is one of the most popular archetypal patterns in the world. Examples exist in nearly every culture, from the epic adventure of Beowulf versus Grendel from Beowulf to modern day television plot arcs about police battling criminals. A hero cannot exist without a villain to fight, nor can a villain exist without a hero to stop him from succeeding in his evil plans. The two are mutually dependent on each other, and together they bring a sense of urgency and climax to a story.

Another of the common archetypal patterns deals with characters setting off on a quest. King Arthur and his knights of the round table quested for the Holy Grail; Hercules of Greek mythology went on a quest to complete the 12 labors with which he was sentenced as a punishment for killing his wife and child. Ferris Bueller can even be interpreted as spending his infamous "day off" questing. The quest itself rather than the final goal that the hero hopes to achieve is usually the main point of a quest narrative, as the hero learns the most valuable lessons during the adventure.

The star-crossed lovers theme is another popular archetypal patterns; the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet offers one of the best-known examples of this archetype. The overall theme of this narrative revolves around two lovers, typically young and innocent, who are fated to be separated by an unstoppable force of some type. Their lives traditionally end in tragedy. Although Shakespeare popularized the pattern, examples of star-crossed lovers can be seen throughout early mythology. Greek mythology, for example, is full of lovers drawn to each other only to be torn apart by the wrath of the gods.

Archetypal patterns play out repeatedly throughout stories, movies, and television shows. The strains of archetypes are so prevalent in human cultures that psychologist Carl Jung devised his own set of archetypes and applied them to his psychotherapy to help patients gain a better understanding of their motivations. Jung’s theories were based on years of research that determined that nearly every culture follows the same archetypal patterns. He posited that these patterns could be used to create a unified overview of how the human mind works.

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Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Mar 20, 2014

@fBoyle-- Yes, persons and symbols can also be archetypes. In order to be an archetype, that concept, person or symbol must be used again and again. It must also be something that the reader or audience immediately identifies and knows. This is why it's called an archetype pattern, because it is something known and repeated.

For example, angels, witches, old mentors and jokers are all archetypes. When we read or see these archetypes, we immediately identify them and know about them.

By fBoyle — On Mar 19, 2014

I'm a bit confused about archetypes. Do archetypes have to be a concept or can a person or a symbol be an archetype?

By burcinc — On Mar 19, 2014

I think that the best archetype is the "quest." The "good vs. evil" and "hero vs. villain" archetypes have been used excessively and are overrated in my opinion. Everyone knows how these types of stories end, the hero always wins.

On the other hand, more can be done with the quest archetype. Even though the characters usually achieve their goal, their experiences during the quest and the lessons that they learn vary greatly. I think this adds variety and excitement to a story, especially for a film.

I have seen many films with the quest archetype and they were all very different from one another in content, even though the pattern was the same in all of them. But most hero vs. villain films I have seen are indistinguishable from one another in terms of plot, characters and story. I may be wrong because I'm not an expert, but this is what I have observed personally.

Does anyone else agree with me?

By Melonlity — On Mar 13, 2014

It is also quite powerful how easily the public embraces these archetypes and apply them to actors. For example, someone who came to fame playing a villain might be typecast in that role and will find it difficult to branch into other things.

Edward G. Robinson, for example, was known to friends as a soft spoken, cultured fellow. However, he was known for playing gangsters and audiences just expected him to act in those roles -- his attempts to do other things met with limited success.

The point? Robinson wasn't a villain and, intellectually, anyone watching one of his films knew he wasn't a villain. Archetypes are so strong, though, that the public thought of him that way.

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