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English 11-12

Literary Techniques: Character Archetypes

We will show you everything you need to know to analyse archetypes in your text!

Archetypes may seem overwhelming or challenging to discuss in your responses. They need not be.

Character archetypes are essential tools for storytelling, they’re everywhere in literature, poetry, drama, and film. In this article, we will discuss what character archetypes are, some common ones, and how to analyse character archetypes step-by-step, with an example.

Table of contents:

 

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What is an archetype?

Archetypes refer to a recurring symbol, motif or character. In other terms, it is a pattern of an idea. This can refer to both archetypal characters and situations.

Archetype has two definitions, one refers to the term in general, the other to psychoanalysis. Here are the Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions:

  1. The original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies
  2. psychology: an inherited idea or mode of thought in the psychology of C. G. Jung that is derived from the experience of the race and is present in the unconscious of the individual.

Character archetypes are characters you see recurring throughout different literary texts. They share similar narrative roles, characteristics, and behaviours.

These characteristics, qualities and story arcs reflect archetypal human behaviour and experiences.

Think about it, have you ever noticed that Gandalf (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings), Professor Dumbledore (Harry Potter) and Obi-wan Kenobi or Master Yoda (Star Wars) are all a little similar? That’s because they are all old, wise, powerful and respected magicians who mentor the protagonist through their journeys. This is because these characters rely on the magician or wise old man literary archetype.

This archetype crops up in Old English myth – Merlin the magician; Greek myth – Nestor (the Illiad) and Tiresias (The Illiad, Oedipus Rex); Norse myth – Odin; Chinese myth and history – Huang Shigong (The Three Strategies of Huang Shigong); Persian myth and history – Zarathustra. Because of their prevalence throughout cultures and history, we recognise them in narratives and understand the relationship they will have with a protagonist – for example, triggering a journey or provoking a transformation.

 

What’s the difference between a character archetype and a stock character?

You might think archetypes are similar to stock characters, but they are not the same!

Both character archetypes and stock characters are recognisable characters that reoccur in literary texts. However, stock characters are flat and predictable; they are often written without much thought because they are exactly the same in every text.

On the other hand, archetypes are three dimensional and are more complex.

There are significant differences between the characters, whether it is their backstory, personality traits, or innate flaws. Archetypal characters don’t have to be exactly the same as each other!

For instance, Professor Dumbledore is riddled with guilt from his sister’s death which affects his actions and emotions in the novels. This particular backstory and characteristic flaw add complexity to his character. It is also an uncommon characteristic of the mentor/magician archetype.

Obi-Wan Kenobi is scarred by training Anakin Skywalker who would go on to become Darth Vader. While, Merlin was the hermetic and mysterious magician and prophet who trained King Arthur and Nestor was the advisor to the Greek Heroes at the Trojan War – his backstory was entirely heroic.

literary techniques character archetypes - rice crackers filiming

 

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Some popular character archetypes

Now that you know what archetypes are, let’s look at some character archetypes that are popular in literature and art. Let’s see if you recognise any of these archetypes!

 

The hero/heroine

A hero/heroine is often the protagonist of the story. However, they are not the same! A hero/heroine must display signs of courage and bravery, has special achievements or is recognised as a role model.

Let’s go through some hero archetypes. You might find that some heroes fit into multiple archetypal characters. This is normal and is a sign of the complexity of the characters!

Archetype Characteristics Examples
Willing hero They are brave, honourable and self-motivated individuals who are committed to the journey. Often, they are ready to face obstacles and jump head-first into danger. However, they can also be arrogant and stubborn.
  • James Bond (James Bond series)
  • King Arthur (King Arthur)
  • Hercules (Greek mythology and Hercules, the Disney film)
  • Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games)
  • Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
Unwilling hero This hero is full of doubt, scared, and often require external motivation to complete the journey (eg. a mentor). However, there is always a turning point in the story where the hero changes and becomes a willing hero. Their hidden bravery and strengths will shine.
  • Bilbo Baggins (Lord of the Rings)
  • Spiderman (Spiderman)
  • Aang (Avatar the Last Air Bender)
  • The Doctor (Doctor Who)
  • Han Solo (Star Wars)
Classical hero (or superhero) These are seemingly normal, everyday people. However, they have special or unique talents and abilities that set them apart from everyone else. Often, they have humble upbringings and are unaware of their talents until something big happens.
  • Harry Potter (Harry Potter)
  • Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
  • Wonder Woman (DC Universe)
  • Hercules (Greek mythology and Hercules, the Disney film)
  • King Arthur (King Arthur)
  • Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)
  • Captain Marvel (The Avengers)
Tragic hero Tragic heroes have all of the conventional heroic virtues like courage, intelligence, and strength. However, they have a major flaw (called hamartia) that ultimately leads them to their downfall, whether it’s greed, fear or love.
  • Macbeth (Macbeth)
  • Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones)
  • Medea (The Argos)
  • Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars)
  • Jay Gatsby (Great Gatsby)
  • Hamlet (Hamlet)
Anti-hero Unlike the tragic hero, anti-heroes are the heroes who don’t have conventional heroic virtues like morality… However, they step up when it’s needed, even if it’s done in a questionable manner or for their own self-interest.
  • Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean)
  • Catwoman (Batman & DC comics)
  • Harley Quinn (Batman, Suicide Squad, DC Universe)
  • Gru (Despicable Me)
  • Deadpool (Deadpool – Marvel universe)
  • Loki (Loki – Marvel Universe)
  • Severus Snape (Harry Potter)
  • Elsa (Frozen)
Epic hero The epic hero arose from the Greeks. These are legendary heroes who tend to have a noble birth (eg. royalty or demi-god) and supernatural abilities. They are known for travelling across lands and fight supernatural enemies.
  • Beowulf (Beowulf)
  • Odysseus (The Odyssey)
  • King Arthur (King Arthur)
  • Thor (Thor – Marvel Universe)
  • Aragorn (Lord of the Rings)
  • Hippolyta – Queen of the Amazons (Greek Myth)
  • Hercules (Hercules)
  • The Morrigan (from Celtic myth)

 

literary techniques character archetypes - superhero

 

The villains

The villain is the hero’s opposition or foil. They tend to be evil or involved with bad schemes.

Archetypes Characteristics Examples
Evil mastermind This villain is known for being a genius who schemes and plans to defeat the hero. They often have no political affiliations because they believe that their opinion is always right.
  • Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz (Phineas and Ferb)
  • Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes)
  • Dr Evil (Austin Powers)
  • Megamind (Megamind)
  • The Joker (DC Comics)
  • Dr Eggman (Sonic the Hedgehog)
  • Cruella de Ville (101 Dalmations)
Beast/monster The beast or monster is often an animal, monster or human who are driven by animalistic instincts. They harm and terrorise others. This archetype often appears in horror, fantasy or sci-fi.
  • Shark (Jaws)
  • Big Bad Wolf (Little Red Riding Hood)
  • Smaug (The Hobbit)
  • Grendel (Beowulf)
  • Bellatrix Lestrange (Harry Potter)
Evil incarnate/dark lord They are the personification of evil. The evil incarnate/dark lord tends to appear in fantasy, superhero or horror films.
  • Voldemort (Harry Potter)
  • Darth Vader (Star Wars)
  • The Joker (DC Comics)
  • Sauron (Lord of the Rings)
  • Lucifer (Supernatural series)
  • Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest)
Tyrannical/evil ruler Often, a ruler or leader is obsessed with power and control. They often rule over their people in a tyrannical way and exert power without consulting others. They fear being overtaken.
  • Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland)
  • Ice Queen (Narnia)
  • President Snow (Hunger Games)
  • Kingpin – Wilson Fisk (Daredevil – Marvel Comics)

 

literary techniques character archetypes - villains

 

Female archetypes

There are many archetypes that are commonly used for female characters.

Archetype Characteristics Example
Damsel in distress The damsel in distress is often portrayed as a woman who is in danger and needs to be saved by the hero. In many cases, she is also the hero’s love interest.
  • Mary Jane Watson (Spiderman)
  • Bella Swan (Twilight)
  • Princess Peach (Super Mario)
  • Snow White (Snow White)
  • Princess Jasmine (Aladdin)
  • Fay Wray (King Kong)

It’s worth noting that there are some famous male “damsels in distress”:

  • Steven Trevor (Wonder Woman)
  • Xander (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
  • Peeta Melark (The Hunger Games)
  • Fox Mulder (The X-Files)
Seductress/femme fatale She is independent, clever, cold and sassy. She manipulates and lures men by using her sexual charms to get what she wants.
  • Megara (Hercules)
  • Catwoman (DC Comics)
  • Jane Smith (Mr and Mrs Smith)
  • Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones)
Queen bee These women are known for their beauty, wealth and charisma. They tend to hold high social statuses and tend to be self-centred and find happiness in making others miserable.
  • Sharpay Evans (High School Musical)
  • Regina George (Mean Girls)
  • Chanel Oberlin (Scream Queens)
Nurturer/caregiver She is altruistic, generous and selfless. She is always willing to help you and is supportive and compassionate.
  • Mrs Weasley (Harry Potter)
  • Esme Cullen (Twilight)
  • The three fairies (Maleficent)

 

literary techniques character archetypes - femme fatale

 

Male archetypes

Archetype Characteristics Examples
Mentor A mentor is often a trusted, knowledgeable and wise person who guides and advises the hero. They tend to be a hero in the past too.
  • Master Oogway (Kung Fu Panda)
  • Gandalf (The Hobbit)
  • Hans Solo (Star Wars)
  • Professor Dumbledore (Harry Potter)
  • Athena in disguise as Telemachus (The Odyssey)
Outlaw They like to rebel and shake things up. They tend to be misfits who live for a revolution.
  • Robin Hood (Robin Hood)
  • Rocket Raccoon (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Jester They tend to be the comical relief. They use humour and are always good company.
  • Donkey (Shrek)
  • Calvin Joyner (Central Intelligence)
  • King Julian (Madagascar)
  • Timon and Pumba (Lion King)

 

literary techniques character archetypes - dumbledore lego

 

How does the character archetype work?

Character archetypes work because they are recognisable and relatable. When we recognise the character’s archetype, we will build expectations for their behaviour and narrative arc. This gives the composer a chance to enhance the archetypal characteristics or challenge them.

Also, remember, archetypes are more than simple recurring characters who aid the storyline.

They also represent universal ideas and human experiences and behaviours.

This is why character archetypes are so useful in texts and also remain constant throughout time.

For instance, the mentor archetype was already apparent during the 6th century. In Homer’s Greek epic, The Odyssey, Athena was Odysseus’ mentor, like Gandalf was to Bilbo and Dumbledore to Harry Potter.

In real life, you will have mentor figures in your life too – be they grandparents, employers, older or younger friends, even your parents and teachers. They will guide you through a certain path and can even be role models. So, this archetype is relevant and relatable.

 

How to analyse character archetypes – Step-by-step

Analysing archetypes may seem intimidating at first. Where do you start and how do you find the significance of the archetypes? Well, don’t fear! We will guide you through each step to analyse the archetype.

  1. Familiarise yourself with the different character archetypes in literature
  2. Read/view the text wholly
  3. Identify key characters
  4. Figure out the archetype used
    1. Examine their characteristics, character arc, and purpose in the plot
    2. Recall archetypes with similar traits to the character
  5. Figure out the meaning of the archetype
    1. Consider ideas that are usually represented or associated with the archetype
    2. Create a logical and reasonable link to the text’s themes and messages
  6. Write your findings in a T.E.E.L paragraph

 

1. Familiarise yourself with the different character archetypes in literature

It is crucial that you are comfortable with the different character archetypes and their characteristics in order to identify and analyse them!

So, take your time, go through the list of archetypes above and memorise them. You should also memorise some examples so you can easily recall these characters and compare them to the characters you are analysing in your texts.

 

2. Read/view the text wholly

Before you jump straight into analysing archetypes, you should read or watch the text wholly.

You cannot possibly analyse archetypes by reading the first chapter or watching a scene of a film.

This is because character arcs and character development are key features of archetypal characters. Reading a chapter will only give you a brief look at their personality at that particular point in time.

For example, at the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is scared of the world and constantly begs to go home. However, by the end of the novel (and movie series), his hidden strength and bravery are revealed as he stands up and runs headfirst into battle.

If you only read the first chapter of the novel, then you would never see his growth and character development.

picture of a crowd of brightly coloured paper cutout people surrounding a pair of blank paper cutout people literary techniques character archetypes figure out which archetype fits the character

2. Identify key characters

So, once you’ve read or watched the text from start to finish, you should list out the key characters of your text. Key characters are the characters who are directly linked to the plot. Their actions can directly affect the plot.

Think about villains, heroes, love interests and sidekicks like Voldemort, Harry Potter, Ginny, and Hermione… not secondary characters who populate the fictional world like Padma Patil or Colin Creevey.

Secondary characters (also known as tertiary characters) can serve functions in the plot. However, they cannot directly affect the plot like key characters can.

Go ahead, put on your thinking caps and list out the key characters in the text to see if they fit into any archetypes.

 

4. Figure out the archetype used

Once you’ve listed the key characters in your text, you will need to determine whether or not they are based on an archetype, and which archetype is used (if yes). This is where your knowledge of the variety of different archetypes come in handy. The more archetypes you know, the easier it will be to recognise and analyse them.

So, let’s break down the steps to figure out the archetypes used for the key characters.

 

a. Examine their characteristics, character arc, and purpose in the storyline

As we mentioned earlier, archetypes are distinguishable from one another because of their characteristics, character arc, and the purpose they serve in the plot. It is crucial that you identify these features for your key characters:

  • Characteristics: Aspects of a character’s identity including personality traits, values, morals, beliefs, backstory/context, appearance and more.
  • Character arc: The path of a character from the beginning to the end of the storyline. Often, characters transform or grow.
  • Purpose in the plot: How does the character affect the plot? It is helpful to ask yourself what would happen to the plot if they were removed from it. That will help you figure out their purpose in the plot.

It is helpful to jot down your notes on a piece of paper or word document so you don’t forget anything!

 

b. Recall archetypes with similar traits 

Now that you’ve figured out the character’s traits, it is time to see if they fit an archetype. To do this, simply recall the archetypes that match your character’s traits.

Some characters will fit into the archetype nicely, whereas other characters may borrow some archetypal characteristics whilst changing other aspects of the archetype. The latter can still be relevant to your analysis, depending on how you approach it!

 

5. Figure out the meaning and significance

Once you’ve figured out the archetype(s) that relates to your key characters, it is time to get analytical! This step is all about figuring out why an archetype was used the way it was used in the text.

 

a. Consider ideas that are usually represented or associated with the archetype

Remember when we mentioned that archetypes represent human experiences and behaviours?

In most cases, these human experiences are typically associated with and/or represented by the archetype.

In most cases, figuring out the general meaning of an archetype will be intuitive. However, if you need some extra help breaking it down, follow these steps:

  1. Examine the characteristics of the archetype
  2. Identify their outcome in the plot

For example, heroes have strength, compassion, courage and bravery, and they are always unafraid to fight for what’s right. At the end of the story, they are always celebrated and appreciated by everyone. Why is that the case?

Well, the hero archetype is the epitome of society’s values! The characteristics that we see in a hero are often the characteristics that society admire and value. They are role models for citizens.

The same goes for villains. Villains are evil, selfish, and often violent. At the end of the story, they are taken down by the hero and suffer. As such, the villain is a representation of what society doesn’t want.

Note: Characteristics of archetypes can change with time! For instance, Odysseus is the hero in the Ancient Greek epic. One of his main characteristics is his unfaithfulness to his wife. Today, we don’t see many heroes who are unfaithful because it is disapproved in our modern society. However, in Ancient Greece, adultery was a normal occurrence.

 

b.  Create a logical and reasonable link to the text’s themes and messages

Once you’ve figured out the general meaning of the archetype, it is time to relate it to your text.

General meanings are ‘general’ for a reason. You will always need to make it specific to your text.

So, the best way to do this is to think about the text’s themes and main message.

 

6. Write your findings in a T.E.E.L paragraph

Now that you have all the necessary ingredients, you can write up a T.E.E.L paragraph.

T.E.E.L stands for:

  • Technique: The technique used in the example
  • Example: The example
  • Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning
  • Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.

You can find a more detailed explanation of using T.E.E.L in our post on paragraph structure (this post is part of our series on Essay Writing and shows you the methods Matrix English Students learn to write Band 6 essays in the Matrix Holiday and Term courses).

 

literary techniques character archetypes - heroic knight

 

Example of how to analyse an Archetype

Archetype is a common technique used in texts. So, now that we know how the steps to analysing archetypes, let’s go through an example together! We will examine the 2014 Disney film, Maleficent.

 

1. Familiarise yourself with the different archetypal characters in literature

Read up on popular archetypal characters to refresh your memory before you begin analysing the text!

 

2. Read/view the text wholly

Watch the film from start to finish to really understand the characters and their arcs.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film, Maleficent is a powerful fairy who stands up against a greedy King and his army who are invading her forest. The King cuts off her wings which send her in a fury. So, she curses the King’s infant daughter, Aurora: when she turns 16 she will prick her finger on a spindle-wheel and go to sleep forever. So, the King sends Aurora to live with three good fairies to raise her until she is 16. Here, Maleficent also visits and raises Aurora but a conflict between them sends Aurora back to her father. Here, the curse comes to reality and Maleficent realises that Aurora is the key to peace between the forest land and the King’s land.

 

literary techniques character archetypes - maleficent film poster

Image: Official Disney film poster for ‘Maleficent’ 2014

 

3. Identify key characters

Some key characters in this film are:

  • Maleficent
  • Aurora
  • The King

 

4. Figure out the archetype used

Now, let’s see if an archetype is used for these key characters.

a. Examine their characteristics, character arc, and purpose in the storyline

Character Characteristics Character arc Purpose
Maleficent
  • Black horns
  • Black costume
  • Big wings
  • Scowl and menacing look
  • Compassionate
  • Cares for Aurora and the forest land
  • Protective
  • Strong and fierce
She appears to be “evil” at first because she places a curse on Aurora and the King’s land. However, her backstory shows that she was betrayed by the King and was acting out of anger. At the end of the film, she takes down the King and stores the peace between the forest land and the human kingdom. She is the protagonist of the film who attempts to resolve the complication.
Aurora
  • Kind
  • Innocent
  • Naive
  • Loving
  • Is saved by Maleficent
  • Strong and brave
  • Forgiving
Aurora starts off as a naive and innocent girl. By the end of the film, she grows courage and bravery. Aurora is a key element of the complication in the film; she is cursed and goes to sleep until a true love’s kiss wakes her.
King Stefan
  • Paranoid
  • Obsessed with hunting Maleficent
  • Obsessed with the crown (power)
  • Selfish (didn’t care that his wife was dying)
Years before Aurora was born, Stefan was a young peasant boy who befriends Maleficent and becomes her lover. However, when the dying King demands to kill Maleficent and claims that the killer will have the throne. Stefan cuts off Maleficent’s wings and becomes the King. Since then, he slowly spiralled. He becomes obsessed and paranoid. The King creates the complication in the first place; he betrays Maleficent. Then he exacerbates it by obsessively trying to hunt Maleficent.

 

b. Recall archetypes with similar traits 

Character Archetype
Maleficent
  • Villain
  • Anti-hero
Aurora
  • Damsel in distress
  • Heroic characteristics
The King
  • Evil leader

Note: The characters in Maleficent aren’t exact copies of an archetype. They borrow traits from multiple archetypes.

For instance, Maleficent has the characteristics of the evil villain archetype. She has horns and huge wings – like a demon – and dresses in all black. She always has a scowl, a menacing look, or a smirk on her face.

However, this archetype is challenged when the film slowly breaks down her backstory and emotions. We see that she was a victim of the King’s violence (he ripped out her wings) and that she really cares for Aurora. As such, Maleficent’s character leans more towards an anti-heroine. She tries to protect Aurora, even though it is done in unconventionally heroic ways.

It is a good idea to discuss both the evil villain and the anti-hero archetypes in this example because there is a significance to this.

Similarly, Aurora is initially portrayed as the damsel in distress. However, she isn’t entirely helpless because she shows bravery and strength when she frees Maleficent’s wings in battle to help her.

Let’s break this analysis down even further.

 

5. Figure out the meaning

A grade-A analysis will dig deep into the meaning of archetypes and their significance. Let’s break down Maleficent’s character here. You can further analyse Aurora and King Stefan’s characters on your own if you want to get some extra practice!

 

a. Consider ideas that are usually represented or associated with the archetype

As we discussed above, Maleficent is initially portrayed with villainy characteristics which are then subverted with her heroic characteristics.

These villainy characteristics are often a direct representation of the characteristics that society disapproves of. For instance, villains tend to be selfish, violent, and unempathetic. However, Maleficent’s ties to the villain’s characteristics are mainly physically with some personality traits like violence. However, heroes can also be violent if it’s warranted.

On the other hand, the hero archetype represents the ideal citizen or human. They are admirable because their traits are what society values: honestly, courage, bravery, and justice.

 

b. Create a logical and reasonable link to the text’s themes and messages

So, why did the director characterise Maleficent with villainy characteristics whilst being an anti-hero?

A key theme in Maleficent is the blurred lines between good vs evil and true love. The film aims to show that we shouldn’t judge people without understanding them first: don’t judge a book by its cover. Maleficent’s dark path was due to trauma and her past. However, she also redeems herself by protecting people she loves like Aurora.

As such, Maleficent’s initial villainy traits invites the audience to place pre-conceived judgements about Maleficent. So, when her true heroic characteristics shine, the audience is confronted by this change.

 

6. Write your findings in a T.E.E.L paragraph

Now, let’s write the above findings in a T.E.E.L paragraph.

Maleficent explores the blurred lines between good versus evil to highlight the importance of not judging a person without understanding them first. Maleficent’s character is initially portrayed as the villain beast archetype. Her costume is all black, a common trait of the ‘evil’ villain archetype. She also has horns and wide wings that mirror demons. This creates a scary and threatening tone that encourages the audience to build pre-conceived judgements of her relying on stereotypical depictions they’ve encountered elsewhere. The audience will automatically assume that she is innately evil. However, as the storyline unfolds, this judgement is overturned. Instead, Maleficent shows strength, courage, and love for Aurora. These are features of the hero archetype; in particular, the anti-hero. Maleficent is an unconventional hero because she is morally grey; she placed the curse on Aurora but also attempts to protect Aurora and her forest land. As such, by the end of the film, the audience’s view of Maleficent has changed, highlighting the importance of not judging a book by its cover.

Written by Tammy Dang

Tammy is a former student of Matrix and is now studying Law / Media (Screen and Sound Production) at UNSW. She is a Digital Content Writer for the Matrix Education blog. Tammy aspires to become a lawyer in the future while continuing to run her art business.

 

© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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