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Literary Archetypes: Overview

What is an Archetype?

When we say something or someone is "archetypical,"  we are making note of how that person, object, or idea is universally recognized.  In literary terms, an archetype is a typical character or situation that appears in many pieces of literature. Psychologist Carl Jung proposed a set of twelve common character archetypes that he believed represented the "collective unconscious" of human beings as they deal with shared experiences (birth, death, love, religion, survival, etc.).  Authors employ archetypes as a sort of "universal grammar" that helps readers throughout culture to identify more easily with the stories they tell.  

 

Use the chart below to compare Jung's common social archetypes to the literary archetypes you are likely familiar with.  Consider how each of these archetypes acts symbolically to advance the story (or in some cases, to change a retold story). 

Literary Protagonists

Jung

 Archetype

Characteristics

Common tropes

The Innocent

a person untouched by cynicism or distrust.

The Innocent

a character who maintains his or her idealistic views throughout a story.

free-spirited, naive, saintly, romantic

  • The Child
  • The Maiden
  • The Pollyanna
  • The Pupil

The Victim

a character whose sacrifice or pain drives the story.

 

sacrificial, weak, ineffective

  • The Damsel-in- Distress
  • The Fall Guy
  • The Red-Shirt
  • The Scapegoat
  • The Tragic Hero

The Orphan

a child unbound to parental restrictions, seeks adventure and belonging.

 

 

The Initiate

an inexperienced character who grows in the course of the story.

coming-of-age

  • The Orphan
  • The Youth
  • The Troubled Teen

The Everyman

an average character facing difficult situations, either as the protagonist or as the companion.

real, solid, fair, relatable, blends in

  • The Conformist
  • The Watson
  • The Boy/Girl Next Door
  • The Underdog

The Hero

a person who acts to save others and improve the world around them.

The Hero

a person who acts to save others and improve the world around them.

 

courageous, strong, competent, may be arrogant

  • The Champion
  • The Dragon Slayer
  • The Knight in Shining Armor
  • The Messiah
  • The Reformer
  • The Rightful King
  • The Seeker
  • The Superhero
  • The Warrior

The Rebel /
The Revolutionary

a person who seeks to overturn what isn't working.

The Anti-Hero
The Flawed Hero

a reclusive or rebellious character who performs acts of heroism, despite his flaws.

 

outrageous, radical, outlaw, disruptive, misfit, revolutionary

  • The Gentle Giant
  • The Gentleman Thief
  • The Loner
  • The Lovable Rogue
  • The Mock Millionaire
  • The Outcast
  • The Outlaw
  • Reluctant Monster
  • The Swashbuckler
  • The Wild One

The Explorer

a person who seeks the freedom to experience life without boundries

 

non-conforming, autonomous, individualistic

  • The Wanderer
  • The Pilgrim
  • The Seeker

The Caregiver

a person who nurtures or otherwise guides others.

The Mother Figure

a character who cares for and guides a younger character.

 

 

selfless, compassionate, generous, loyal

  • The Enabler
  • The Messenger
  • Mother Earth
  • The Surrogate Parent

The Sage

a person who uses intelligence to understand the world and shares that understanding with others.

The Mentor

a character who protects and teaches other characters.

wise, scholarly, thinking, philosophical

  • The Advisor
  • The Detective
  • The Father / Patriarch
  • The Headmaster
  • The Observer
  • The Scholar
  • The Teacher / Professor
  • The Wise Old One

The Lover

a person who seeks a relationship with those they love.

The Companion

individual or multiple characters loyal to one another and protective of the hero.

intimate, passionate, enthusiastic

  • The Femme Fatale
  • The Ladies' Man
  • Prince Charming
  • Star-Crossed Lovers
  • Soul Mates
  • The Temptress
  • The Minion
  • The Side-kick
  • The Straight Man

The Jester

a person who wants to have a great time or who tends to amuse others.

The Trickster

a character (good or evil) who plays tricks on those around them, often leaving confusion and chaos in their wake.

playful, funny, frivolous, joyful, mischievous

  • The Absent-mined Professor
  • The Comedian
  • The Fool
  • The Imposter
  • The Joker
  • The Klutz
  • The Town Drunk
  • The Village Idiot

The Creator

a person who seeks to envision and realize an idea

 

visionary, artistic, creative, innovative

  • The Inventory
  • The Musician
  • The Tortured Artist
  • The Reclusive Writer

The Magician

a person who seeks to make dreams come true.

 

catalytic, spiritual, healer

  • The Blind Seer
  • The Fairy Godmother
  • The Healer
  • The Psychic
  • The Wizard

The Ruler

a person who seeks to lead others into prosperity and success.

 

managing, powerful

  • The Boss
  • The God / Goddess
  • The King/Queen
  • The Leader

Literary Antagonists

Jung's archetypes may be applied to antagonists, as well as protagonists.

The Villain

a human character who acts as an antagonist, opposing and often seeking to annihilate the protagonist.

angry, vengeful, manipulative, evil

  • The Bully
  • The Career Criminal
  • The Corruptor
  • The Mad Scientist
  • The Manipulator
  • The Nemesis
  • The Psycho/Sociopath
  • The Traitor
  • The Wicked Stepmother

The Monster

an unnatural or non-human character who acts as an antagonist who is a threat to the protagonist and other characters.

unnatural, non-human, instinctual, unsympathetic

  • The Creature
  • The Dark Lord/Wizard
  • The Devil
  • Little Green Men
  • The Robot
  • The Werewolf
  • The Wicked Witch
  • The Vampire
  • The Zombie

The Doppelganger

a shadow of the character that represents another side to his or her personality.

opposite, contrary

  • The Evil Twin
  • The Shadow

Other Literary Archetypes

Setting Archetypes

  • a threshold - a gateway to a new place
  • the underworld - place of darkness or death (hell)
  • a wilderness - place of unknown danger (hell, a desert, jungle or dark forest)
  • an oasis - place of safety  (heaven, haven)
  • a crossroads - a place of decisions
  • a maze - dilemma or place of uncertainty
  • a whirlpool - destructive forces
  • a lake - mysterious, deep
  • a mountain - challenge, loftiness, success
  • a valley - depression, unknown, low-points
  • a garden - innocence, fertility, new birth, hope
  • a cave or a tunnel - passage, rebirth, death
  • an island - remote, untouchable
  • a desert - thirst, death, hopelessness

Situational Archetypes

  • shared meals - community, commitment
  • sleep - healing or loss of self
  • death/rebirth - endings and beginnings
  • rituals/initiation - passage, coming-of-age, loss of innocence
  • a quest - seeking something elusive
  • a journey - traveling to a better place
  • revenge - seeking justice
  • rescue - saving someone else
  • a fool's errand - seeking something unattainable
  • a nightmare
  • a fall - suffering consequences for actions 

Symbolic Natural Phenomena

  • Air - breath, light, freedom
  • Earth - woman, sustainable, reliable, growth
  • Fire - transformative, love, regeneration
  • Fog/Clouds/Mist - mystery, uncertainty
  • Ice - barrenness
  • Lightning - inspiration, power
  • Moon - change, transition
  • Shadows - evil, doubt
  • Stars - guidance
  • Sun - knowledge, life, splendor, healing
  • Tree - knowledge
  • Water - rebirth, life

Symbolic Objects

  • a boat - safe passage
  • a bridge - transformation
  • feet - freedom
  • hands - right (correctness) left (deviousness)
  • a heart - love
  • an hourglass - passage of time
  • a feather - lightness, speed
  • a mask - concealment
  • a skull/skeleton - mortality
  • a snake - evil, untrustworthy

Symbolic Numbers

1  self, harmony, positive
2 duality, contrast, balance

  • Castle (stronghold) vs. Tower (isolation, imprisonment)
  • Light (good, certainty) vs. Darkness (evil, unknown)  
  • Nature vs. Technology
  • Nature vs. Nurture

male, divine, magical

  • father-mother-child
  • beginning-middle-end
  • mind-body-spirit 
  • birth-life-death
  • bronze-silver-gold medals

4  female, nature, stability

  • stages of life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, retirement)
  • four seasons (spring-summer-autumn-winter)
  • elements (earth-air-fire-water)
  • four legs on a table

7 a perfect number (3+4), wisdom

  • seven days in a week
  • seven colors in the rainbow

 10 perfection, completion

  • ten toes and ten fingers
  • The Ten Commandments

12 cosmic cycle, day and night

  • twelve months in a year
  • twelve gods on Mt. Olympus
  • twelve hours of AM/PM  

40 trial and tribulations, fatality

  • Hebrews wander 40 years  
  • 40 days/nights of the great flood
  • 40 days of quarantine a Roman port

Symbolism of Colors
Red
= passion, sacrifice, passion, heat, violence, anger
Orange
= fire, ambition, pride
Yellow
= happiness, wisdom
Green
= growth, fertility, nature, change, greed
Blue
= serenity, security, purity, peace, depth, height, devotion
Purple
= majesty, power
Black=darkness, chaos, evil, death, rebellion
White=light, purity, innocence, peace, goodness

Sources

This list was compiled after consideration of the following sources:

 

"5 Common Character Archetypes In Literature". Scribendi.com. N. p., 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

 

"12 Archetypes Guide Culture, Communications And Change.". CultureTalk. N. p., 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

 

"The 12 Common Archetypes". Soulcraft.co. N. p., 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

 

"Archetypal Character - TV Tropes". TV Tropes. N. p., 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

 

"Archetype - Examples And Definition Of Archetype". Literary Devices. N. p., 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

"Archetypes for Literary Analysis". Hillsborough Community College. PDF, Nd. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.  

 

"The Big Bold List Of 52 Character Archetypes!". Ewriterscoach.com. N. p., 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017. 

 

Jonas, J.J., "The Twelve Archetypes". http://www.uiltexas.org. N.p., N.d.. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

 

"List of Stock Characters". En.wikipedia.org. N. p., 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

 

"Number Symbolism".  Math.dartmouth.edu. N. p., 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

 

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