‘Character archetypes’ are something you imagine bohemian writers talking about at length — perhaps while smoking a cigarette and stroking their pointy beards. And when they move onto the topic of Jungian theory, you can see yourself tuning out of the conversation altogether. But despite their seemingly high-minded background in psychoanalysis, understanding character archetypes can help writers of all stripes gain a better understanding of storytelling.
In this post, we’ll explain to you what character archetypes are, reveal some of the most popular ones — and show you how to prevent your archetype characters from becoming clichés.
What is a character archetype?
In storytelling, an archetype is a character who represents a specific set of universal, recognizable behaviors. Carl Jung, one of the forefathers of psychoanalysis, suggested that they are part of the human collective unconscious. He believed that these recurring figures are part of the mythmaking fabric that is common to all humans.
If we are to believe Jung and Joseph Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey, stories and myths are an intrinsic part of human development and evolution. They are a teaching tool, a way to warn each other of dangers and the simplest method of examining human behavior and better understanding one another.
We’re not saying that these archetypes are embedded into human DNA: they are simply the character forms that have resonated most over the generations.
If myths and fireside stories were originally ways that people had to impart knowledge to society at large, then each of Jung’s archetypes might represent a different lesson: care for your children like a mother, be brave like a hero, be wary of tricksters posing as friends, and listen to your elders.
Like the terms used in Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Jung’s archetypes sound somewhat biblical (animus, wise old man, devil, et al), making it harder to apply them to contemporary stories. Later in this article, we’ll feature some of our favorite archetypes, giving them names more suitable for a wider range of storytelling.
Are archetypes the same as cliché or stock characters?
Not necessarily. Archetypal characters and stories will boil down the human experience to a relatively small number of patterns, which is perfectly fine. Human beings aren’t that unique when you think about it: we are all governed by a finite set of wants and fears.
Archetypes only become stock characters when the specifics get repetitive and predictable. A muscle-bound, sword-wielding warrior out to avenge his slain family might be interesting until you’ve seen a dozen Conan the Barbarian rip-offs. Some of the most compelling and enduring stories will adhere to archetypes while introducing enough of a twist to make a character seem fresh. Neo in The Matrix would be just another ‘chosen one’ cliche were he not a hacker who discovers that he’s been plugged into a virtual world his entire life.
If you'd like to make sure that your character isn't a stock character, we recommend downloading and filling out this character profile template. In a later section of this post, we’ll also look at ways to subvert archetypes while also staying true to them.
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12 Common Character Archetypes
Every character archetype has a unique set of strengths, flaws, and desires which drive their stories. Some of these archetypes are seemingly gender-specific, which is perhaps a result of gender roles that span back millennia.
Here are 12 common character archetypes in fiction:
1. The Warrior
It’s the man with a plan. Armed with a particular set of skills and the sheer force of their will, the hero will conquer the enemy and carry the day. This incredibly competent character will usually suffer a crisis of confidence at their lowest ebb — which they must overcome if they are to rise once more.
Strengths: Courage, strength (physical or mental), and ability.
Weaknesses: Overconfidence, ego.
Desires: To save the day and prove their worth.
Examples: Hercules, Odysseus, Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, and any Tom Cruise character.
2. The Child
Innocence is lost and children grow up: that’s entropy, and the only way this story goes. This archetype usually follows a young or naive character who sees the world through rose-tinted glasses — until reality comes knocking. That’s not to say that they end the story as jaded husks of their former selves — but they will learn a lesson or two about the world around them.
Strengths: Optimism, enthusiasm, imagination.
Weaknesses: Naivete, physical powerlessness.
Desires: To be happy (or happier).
Examples: Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
3. The Orphan
The dream of being plucked from obscurity and elevated to prominence is a fantasy nearly everybody’s had at some point in their lives. That’s one of the reasons why Orphans are in such high demand as protagonists: they’ve got the most to gain from good fortune. They don’t need to be literal orphans, but in most cases, these characters are in search of a new “family.”
Strengths: Survival instinct, empathy, perseverance.
Weaknesses: Lack of confidence, willingness to please others.
Desires: To thrive and connect with others.
Examples: Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
4. The Creator
For this kind of character, nothing is more important than the need to make something. In many stories, a creator will be an artist of some sort — willing to sacrifice their own well-being and relationships in the pursuit of this greater abstract goal. Because of their single-minded vision, creators often pay the greatest personal price.
Strengths: Creativity, drive, the ability to execute their vision.
Weaknesses: Personal sacrifice, perfectionism, egotism.
Desires: To create something of value to cement their legacy.
Examples: Remy from Ratatouille, Alexander Hamilton from Hamilton, Dr Jekyll from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Willy Wonka.
5. The Caregiver
Selflessness is the defining attribute of this character type. They might be a mother, father, wife, husband, or best friend — whoever they are, they’ll do anything to protect their child, ward, lover, or best bud. It’s quite rare for the caregiver to take center stage but such is the nature of one so selfless.
Strengths: Generosity, selflessness.
Weaknesses: Also selflessness: they are open to exploitation.
Desires: To protect and help others.
Examples: Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Samwise from The Lord of the Rings, Mary Poppins.
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6. The Mentor/Sage
Our protagonist might encounter some sort of mentor character, who will prepare them for the trials ahead. Sometimes this mentor is a parent. Other times, it might be a wizard or a suburban Karate teacher. Whatever form they take, they are there to guide our hero through the unknown.
The original purpose of this archetype was probably to convince younger generations of people to listen to their older, frailer tribe-mates.
Strengths: Wisdom, experience.
Weaknesses: Caution, inability to act.
Desires: To help the hero push past their boundaries and make sense of the world.
Examples: Magwitch in Great Expectations, Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
7. The Joker
The fool, the clown, the jester, the hedonist, the laid-back stoner. This archetype has many faces, but if you see any character say something like, “Relax, dude” or, “Chill out,” then they’re the probably the Joker in the pack. In myth, Jokers often act as a cautionary tale, warning people not to waste too much time in pursuit of pleasure. In modern culture, they’re often the comic relief.
Strengths: Joyousness, likeability.
Desires: To live for today and be happy.
Examples: Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King, Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, Stifler from American Pie.
8. The Magician
The aspiring masters of the universe. Driven by their inquisitive nature, Magicians seek enlightenment — but unlike the sages and mentors, they also want to impose their will on the world around them. These classic fantasy characters can easily impress others: even if they are not literal wizards, their abilities are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.
Strengths: Knowledge, power.
Desires: To create order from chaos and bend the world to their will.
Examples: Sherlock Holmes, Dr Strange, Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby.
9. The Ruler
Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown. Any society needs a leader, but how does that leader cope with absolute power? What will they do to maintain control and order? Do they rule with kindness and compassion or with an iron fist?
Strengths: Leadership, charisma, power.
Weaknesses: Inability to delegate, suspicion.
Desires: Control, to hold on to power.
Examples: Macbeth, Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, Mr Burns from The Simpsons.
10. The Rebel
A rebel is mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. In the face of an unjust society, they are the ones with the will to overthrow the status quo. A rebel might be a charismatic leader, but they also might work in secret. They can be a freedom fighter, or rock musician, or the girl in chemistry class with the purple highlights in her hair.
Strengths: Resourcefulness, perseverance.
Weaknesses: Small in power, status, and resources.
Desires: To change the world around them.
Examples: Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Ferris Bueller, Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.
11. The Lover
Just like Meatloaf, this archetype will do anything for love. They might be a prince, a pauper, a pop star or Sandra from HR — whoever they are, they have love in their lives and it makes them more driven and devoted than you can imagine. The downside of this passion is that they’re often willing to sacrifice everything for the ones they love — which can be a one-way ticket to tragedy.
Strengths: Devotion, passion.
Weaknesses: Willingness to sacrifice identity, life, and liberty.
Desires: Being in a relationship.
Examples: Edward from Twilight, Romeo and Juliet.
12. The Seductress
“I’ll give you whatever you want,” is the refrain of the seductress — a character that comes in all shapes, sizes, and genders. They might offer power, sex, love, money, or influence but remember, these things always come with strings attached. If a seductress is involved, the moral of the tale is almost always, “Don’t believe anything that’s too good to be true.”
Strengths: Allure, charisma, lack of morals.
Weaknesses: The emptiness of their promises.
Examples: Mephistopheles in Faust, Delilah from Samson and Delilah, 90% of the female characters in The Odyssey.
Subverting archetypal expectations
In Christopher Brooker’s The Seven Basic Plots, the author casts his Jungian eye on the nature of storytelling and mythmaking. The basic gist is that there really aren’t that many unique stories to tell: most plots center on some form of ‘quest and return’ where the protagonist seeks something and returns ‘home’ with it.
Following on from that, it stands to reason that there are also limited character arcs that a story can follow. With that in mind, how can an author make an archetype fresh?
The answer, most likely, lies in the specifics.
As the writer and humorist John Hodgman will often say, “Specificity is the soul of narrative.” Stories resonate when they are universal (enter: archetypes), but they engage people by avoiding vagueness like a virus.
The plot of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight is nearly identical to Romeo and Juliet. Edward and Bella belong to the same archetype as those star-crossed lovers of Verona. The difference lies in the specifics: the way the characters speak, the Pacific Northwest setting, the fantastical conflict between vampires and werewolves. The book follows a similar narrative arc as Romeo and Juliet, but its fans certainly wouldn’t call it a ‘predictable retread of Shakespeare’s play.
For authors, character archetypes are a useful concept to understand — if only to save you from tying yourself in knots, trying to create stories and characters completely unlike anything that’s come before. Every story has already been told, so focus on what matters most to readers: creating rich, specific worlds populated by people living specific lives, whose struggles are so grounded in realistic human behavior that their stories become universal — no matter where the reader is from.
What other character archetypes have we missed from this list? Drop them in the comments below along with your favorite example!