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What Is an Archetypal Character?

An archetypal character represents universal patterns of human nature, embodying fundamental qualities found across cultures and stories. These timeless figures, like the Hero or the Mentor, resonate deeply, offering predictability in storytelling that connects with our shared human experience. Curious about which archetypes you relate to? Discover more and uncover the characters that have shaped our narratives for centuries.
Mark Wollacott
Mark Wollacott

An archetypal character is a basic character prototype found in stories and literature. It is a philosophical-psychological idea based on psychologist Carl Jung’s ideas on archetypes in society. In literature, the archetypal character often fulfills basic plot or story functions, allowing for a smoother run through the story. The character also often forms the basic outlines for main characters to be developed from.

Humans gain comfort from the presence of an archetypal character in stories, even though such characters are almost never present in everyday life. Carl Jung believed that such archetypes, whether characters or basic story elements, were essential to a human’s understanding of and relating to a story. If the story is not relevant to the person or he or she cannot relate to it, it creates alienation and separation.

In literature, an archetype is often a generic character type.
In literature, an archetype is often a generic character type.

The archetypal character, therefore, is a simple, readily identifiable character that does not require a lengthy introduction, description or back story. Jung believed there were four basic archetypes that all others have sprung from. These are the mother, rebirth, spirit and the trickster. The trickster is often called “the Devil,” as he performs the same function. One of the most famous tricksters in mythology is probably the Norse God Loki.

Derived from the archetype expressed most famously in Arthurian legend, a "knight in shining armor" is a chivalrous and brave rescuer.
Derived from the archetype expressed most famously in Arthurian legend, a "knight in shining armor" is a chivalrous and brave rescuer.

These four basic archetypes then developed into a wider brand of character types including the hero, the child, the wise man and the mentor. William Shakespeare and other classical writers have introduced their own characters that have since become archetypes. Two of Shakespeare’s include the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet and the burly, bawdy knight, Falstaff.

Some of William Shakespeare's characters have since become archetypes.
Some of William Shakespeare's characters have since become archetypes.

Genre fiction, especially bad fantasy, is well known for stocking its stories full of simple archetypes. These are often called cardboard cutout characters because of their poor characterization. The fantasy band, about to embark on an epic journey or tale of daring do, is almost always filled with the same selection of archetypes: the honorable knight, the loveable rogue, the mysterious mage, the maiden, and so on. Detective fiction is also well known for its use of archetypal characters.

Star-crossed lovers became an archetype thanks to "Romeo and Juliet".
Star-crossed lovers became an archetype thanks to "Romeo and Juliet".

Harry Potter is a good example of the use of archetypes. J.K. Rowling has drawn upon many archetypes, motifs and mythological allusions to pull her story together and to make it readily identifiable to readers. These include the orphaned child (Harry), the mentor (Dumbledore), the villain who killed the orphan's father (Voldemort) and the sidekicks (Hermione and Rupert).

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung developed the idea of archetypal characters to help explore a patient's personality.
The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung developed the idea of archetypal characters to help explore a patient's personality.

Good characterization in modern literature is seen as developing a character beyond the limits of its archetype. An archetypal character is seen as either minor and functional, or as an example of poor characterization by the author. Characterization is often accompanied by active attempts to move the character away from the norms of its archetype.

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    • In literature, an archetype is often a generic character type.
      By: Dmytro Sukharevskyy
      In literature, an archetype is often a generic character type.
    • Derived from the archetype expressed most famously in Arthurian legend, a "knight in shining armor" is a chivalrous and brave rescuer.
      By: Karen Hadley
      Derived from the archetype expressed most famously in Arthurian legend, a "knight in shining armor" is a chivalrous and brave rescuer.
    • Some of William Shakespeare's characters have since become archetypes.
      By: Claudio Divizia
      Some of William Shakespeare's characters have since become archetypes.
    • Star-crossed lovers became an archetype thanks to "Romeo and Juliet".
      By: Anyka
      Star-crossed lovers became an archetype thanks to "Romeo and Juliet".
    • The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung developed the idea of archetypal characters to help explore a patient's personality.
      By: michaeljung
      The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung developed the idea of archetypal characters to help explore a patient's personality.
    • Some writers include archetypal characters, such as the hero or the wise old man, in their novels.
      By: daniaphoto
      Some writers include archetypal characters, such as the hero or the wise old man, in their novels.
    • Archetypal characters are commonly found in romance novels.
      By: Andrey Kiselev
      Archetypal characters are commonly found in romance novels.