Quick Lesson: Archetypes

Once upon a time is understood at the beginning of every story, isn't it? Some things are just the same regardless of what kind of story you write. The same is true of characters. If you're new to the fiction writing game, you may have heard authors bandy about the term archetypes and wondered to what they referred. After all, if you're starting to write a novel, you're just going to tell a story about some character you made up. Aren't you?

Stories Old and New

Not necessarily. In all stories from the beginning of time to present day, there are character types and relationships that recur again and again. Carl Jung used the term archetypes to describe these common character types, relationships, and symbols. To really understand this subject, study The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler or any of the other books about mythic story structure. Gaining an understanding of the archetypes that occur in all cultures and eras will be a major asset for you and your writing.

Think about any good book you've read or any popular movie you've seen. I guarantee you the characters in either represent these Character Archetypes (as related by Vogler and others), whether they be male or female. Later works break down the archetypes differently and identify female archetypes differently, which I'll cover at a later date, but I like this delineation of the archetypes because I think it holds true.


1. Hero is the character who is on a quest to achieve something and who will change during the progress of the story. (Hero refers to male or female.) In the Bourne movies, Jason Bourne is the hero on a quest for his memory.

2. Mentor (Wise Old Man or Woman) is the positive character who aids, teaches, trains, or nurtures the hero to aid him in his quest. In the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Gandolf is the Mentor.

3. Threshold Guardians aren't necessarily the villain or antagonist in your story. They're usually the minions whose job is to keep interlopers, like the hero, out. They're a challenge to overcome. In action movies, they're the hired thugs who keep the crooked boss secure.

4. Herald is a character who is the harbinger of change either by issuing a challenge or announce a significant change. In Star Wars, the first appearance of Darth Vader is a herald of change.

5. Shapeshifter is a character who changes appearance or mood. They're difficult to pin down and cast into strict roles because they may mislead or behave in ways contrary to expectation. The female love interest is often the shapeshifter character in books and movies. In the TV series, the hero Edward/Henry is also a shapeshifter - a man who's never what he seems on the surface.

6. Shadow is a representation of the dark side. Like the old radio serial that was made into a movie starring Alec Baldwin (showing on the Encore channels endlessly of late): who knows what darkness lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows. The Shadow Archetype are your villains and monsters who oppose the hero. Or sometimes they're just opposed to the way the hero goes about achieving his goal. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lechter is a Shadow.

7. Trickster is the character who's usually the comic sidekick, but there are trickster heros too. The energy and desire for change is embodied in this archetype. In the Beverly Hills Cop movies, Eddie Murphy was a trickster hero.

Takeaway Truth

Every character you can create has a lineage dating back to prehistory. Knowing the archetypes and how they relate to each other will bring power and authenticity to your writing.

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