Archetypes in stories express patterns.
While plots may be “archetypal” when they exhibit certain forms, in this post we are concerned with character archetypes.
In modern storytelling, to consider them as archetypes might suggest a bit of a corset, perhaps even a straightjacket for the characters. For today’s author, to present a character as an archetype does not seem conducive to achieving psychological verisimilitude.
But an archetype is not the same as a stereotype. An advisor or mentor does not need to be a wise old man like Obi-Wan Kenobi. And an antagonist does not need to be a baddy.
Consider archetypes as powers within a story. Like planets in a solar system, they have gravity and they therefore exert force as they move.
Archetypes denote certain general roles or functions for characters within the system of the story. There is ample room for variation within each role or function. Boundaries between one archetype and another may be fuzzy. And it is possible for one character to stand for more than one archetype.
Archetypes Through The Ages
Certain archetypes are ancient and have been around as long as stories have been told. Others have a Christian background. Some are modern interpretations of ancient archetypes seen in the light of dramaturgical principles.
Hence we may distinguish between three sorts of archetypes.
- Ancient – archetypes that we find in the very oldest stories, and in very modern ones
- Classical – archetypes that we find in works of literature of the past two thousand years
- Role-based – modern variants that consider the dramaturgical function of characters
This categorisation has overlaps. The ancient, original archetypes, such as the Mentor, are of course also classical. And certain role-based archetypes, such as the Protagonist, correspond to ancient ones, such as the Prince.
The Protagonist is sometimes called the Hero, a word which in terms of ancient archetypes might refer to a number of archetypes, for instance Warrior (Achilles) or Trickster (Odysseus). In the modern sense of role-based archetypes, this is the person (or rabbit, or robot, or whatever) the story is primarily about, the one whose travails the recipient, the audience or reader, follows through to the end of the story.
The Protagonist’s opposing power is the antagonism, which may be personified in an individual Antagonist. It helps to remember that in terms of function within the story, an antagonist does not necessarily have to be a baddy, but is a counterforce to the protagonist (for an ancient example, consider Agamemnon and Achilles in the Iliad).
The antagonistic force is sometimes referred to as the “Shadow”. This can be misleading, since really almost every archetype has its own shadow side. A Patriarch may be presented as benevolent or “light”, or as tyrannical and “dark”. Indeed, in one story the character (or characters) representing such an archetype might show signs of both.
Characters Wearing Hats
Several of the roles or functions that you find in all sorts of stories – such as the Mentor, the Ally, the Patriarch – do not always have to be riveted to one specific character. For instance, it is quite possible that one character may have the Mentor hat on at one point in the story, and the Ally hat at another.
The point is that such forces or functions tend to be present in stories, and characters express these forces through their role or function within the story at each point in the narrative.
There is even an archetype for a character that explicitly changes roles in the story, where it becomes part of that character’s function to jump role at one or more points along the story. That is a Shapechanger.
Some archetypes are gender specific. The Patriarch/Father/King stands for different values from the Matriarch/Mother/Queen. For other archetypes, whether the character is male or female is not the point. A Shapechanger or a Trickster is defined by what the character does in the story.
So archetypes are really little more than signposts. Assigning a character an archetype is not to pressure that character into behaving in a certain way. Calling a character an archetype is merely to give us a pointer to that character’s role and function in the story. Characters that allow themselves to be labelled as several archetypes tend to be multi-facetted. Hamlet, for instance, fulfils the criteria for several archetypes. So thinking about characters in terms of which archetypal roles they may play is actually a way of making the characters richer, giving them more depth, making them appear psychologically real and ultimately human.
Here are the main archetypes (click for descriptions):
- Gatekeeper/Threshold Guardian
- Friendly Animal
- Tempter/False Wooer
- Symbol for the problem (bad angel)
- Symbol for the solution (good angel)
- False Ally
- Loyal Subordinate
Find out more about archetypes in our post on how characters in story differ from real people: