7 Classic Story Archetypes with Examples

Archetype means a typical example of some person, individual, thing, or object. It is also used in psychology in the sense of a primitive mental image of earlier human beings. In literature, it is used as a model to follow. Such a model has certain features or character traits that human beings share across the globe. Some of the classic story archetypes are as given below.

Difference Between Archetype and Stereotype

Archetype and stereotype are both entirely different, though they appear similar in the literature. Whereas an archetype is a conscious or unconscious theme, idea, or a person, a stereotype is a deliberately made concept, idea, or theme that is derogatory as well as denigrating for the person or race or even for a group for whom it is generalized. Also, a stereotype is based on mere assumptions and generalizations. However, an archetype is a cultural motif that runs deep into unconsciousness or consciousness.

Difference Between Archetype, Stock Characters

Although both are a type of character, an archetype could be a non-character, for it could be an idea or concept, or person. However, a stock character must be a character. Also, even if an archetype is a character, this is predictable as the readers already know about such characters due to their cultural prevalence. Stock characters, however, are different as they are predictable and fit into a description bordering stereotypes.

Difference Between Archetype and Cliché

As stated in the definition that an archetype is a character, theme, idea, or even an object that repeatedly appears in a literary work and is culturally pervasive about which readers already know something. A cliché, on the other hand, is a word or a phrase that has become a general presence due to its overuse in the culture. These cliches often lose their real meanings and stress due to overuse in certain circumstances. Therefore, a cliché is entirely different from an archetype.

How to Write Archetypes

When writing an archetype, follow the steps listed below.

  1. Think whether the archetype you are going to use in the fiction is a character, idea or animal.
  2. Give certain character traits that you have noticed in similar famous classics. Make a list of these traits and create the character with those traits.
  3. If it is not culturally present, then you can make it culturally relevant.
  4. Make the character or object with the traits offer a solace, warning or similar important message to the reader.

When to Use Archetypes

You use archetypes in the following situations.

  1. When glorifying or denigrating a culture.
  2. When making positive comments about your culture.
  3. When you want to highlight a social issue.
  4. When you have an edifying purpose for your culture. 

Description and Examples of Classic Archetypes in Literature

Classic Archetypes are one of the categories of literary devices that are widely found in most genres of books and films. The themes and basic plots of these archetypes always remain close to the type of archetype used by the author. The description and examples are given below.

Example #1

Rags To Riches

As the title suggests, rags to riches mean a person, especially a protagonist, has gone up the ladder of social status from a pauper to a wealthy man. In other words, a person having no money gets rich within a short span of time. Such characters are often very poor, having nothing that others could appreciate or feel envy about them at the beginning of the plot. However, they become rich within a very short time, and by the end of the story, they win love, respect and appreciation, and even power in certain cases. The most popular examples of rags to rich archetypes are as follows.

  1. Cinderella by Charles Perrault
  2. Aladdin from The Arabian Nights by Sir Richard Burton
  3. The Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Example #2 

The Quest

This classical archetype demonstrates characters having been challenged to go through the quest of some place, some person, and some objective but after having undergone suffering when removing obstacles and overcoming hardships on the way. Such heroes often come back to the people to demonstrate their commitment to their original culture. Some of the popular quest archetype examples are as follows.

  1. Odyssey by Homer
  2. Beowulf by Anonymous
  3. Gilgamesh by Anonymous
  4. Ramayana, An Indian epic
  5. The Quest for the Holy Grail translated by Pauline M. Matarasso

Example # 3


Such archetypes heroes or characters experience death and rebirth and undergo a natural cycle. Some religious stories comprise such a cycle as Hinduism is called metempsychosis. Often the protagonist connects with other characters they remember from their previous life. Some of the examples of rebirth are as follows.

  1. The story of Adam and Eve as given in Paradise Lost by John Milton
  2. Lancelot and Guinevere by Chretien de Troyes
  3. My Name Is Memory by Ann Brashares
  4. Say That Again by N. Gemini Sasson
  5. The Incarnations by Susan Barker

Example #4

Overcoming The Monster

Such archetypes fight monsters, mostly in fantasy and supernatural genres, to overcome them to save the people. Several such stories have surfaced presenting these stock characters of overcoming-the-monster type of archetypes. Some ancient and classical tales, too, present the same characters. Oedipus, the first hero, also overcomes Sphinx to take up the throne of Thebes. Some other such archetypes are as follows.

  1. Beowulf by Anonymous
  2. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  3. Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  4. Jack and The Beanstalk
  5. Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Example #5

Comedy Archetype

Although some archetypes seem like heroes, the comedy archetypes and comedy genre’s aim is to entertain people and make them laugh with their unintentional goofy characteristics and actions. Very few protagonists will be found with a rich sense of humour or use witty dialogues. They are usually written as a neurotic, a rebel, an innocent, an eccentric, a buffoon, a cynic, a narcissist, or a dreamer.

Some of the best examples of comedic archetypes are as follows.

  1. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
  2. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  3. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
  4. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Example #6


Such archetype characters are truly tragic characters who allow the readers to experience sadness and closeness to the protagonists. Some of the best examples of such classical tragic archetypes are Oedipus, Antigone, Beowulf, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. A tragedy archetype character has the following common features like they are noble by birth, hubris or arrogance, hamartia or fall, free will, punishment and awareness.

  1. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Example #7

Voyage And Return

The last classical type of archetypes are heroes who embark upon long voyages and then return to their homelands as the homelands or families need them and the journey they took are either successful or ends tragedy. Odysseus displays these features in his character as his home and homeland are in disarray and he longs to return. Some other such archetypes are as given below.

  1. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  2. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum
  3. Ramayana, the Indian epic
  4. Orpheus and Eurydice, A Greek Myth
  5. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Synonyms of Archetype

Archetype doesn’t have direct or close synonyms. However, the following words are distant synonyms to the device: prototype, type, typification, representative, stereotyping, model, pattern, standard, mold, embodiment, essence, and exemplar.