Definition of Archetype

An archetype is a literary device in which a character is created based on a set of qualities or traits that are specific and identifiable for readers. The term archetype is derived from the studies and writings of psychologist Carl Jung who believed that archetypes are part of humanity’s collective unconscious or memory of universal experiences. In a literary context, characters (and sometimes images or themes) that symbolically embody universal meanings and basic human experiences, independent of time or place, are considered archetypes.

For example, one of the most common literary archetypes is the Hero. The hero is generally the protagonist of a narrative and displays ubiquitous characteristics such as courage, perseverance, sacrifice, and rising to challenge. Though heroes may appear in different literary forms across time and culture, their characterization tends to be universal thus making them archetypal characters.

Common Examples and Descriptions of Literary Archetypes

As a rule, there are twelve primary character types that symbolize basic human motivations and represent literary archetypes. Here is a list of these example literary archetypes and their general descriptions:

  • Lover: character guided by emotion and passion of the heart
  • Hero: protagonist that rises to a challenge
  • Outlaw: character that is rebellious or outside societal conventions or demands
  • Magician: powerful character that understands and uses universal forces
  • Explorer: character that is driven to explore the unknown and beyond boundaries
  • Sage: character with wisdom, knowledge, or mentor qualities
  • Creator: visionary character that creates something significant
  • Innocent: “pure” character in terms of morality or intentions
  • Caregiver: supportive character that often sacrifices for others
  • Jester: Character that provides humor and comic relief with occasional wisdom
  • Everyman: Character recognized as average, relatable, found in everyday life
  • Ruler: Character with power of others, whether in terms of law or emotion

Examples of Archetype in Shakespearean Works

William Shakespeare utilized archetype frequently as a literary device in his plays. Here are some examples of archetype in Shakespearean works:

  • Lover: Romeo (“Romeo and Juliet”), Juliet (“Romeo and Juliet”), Antony (“Antony and Cleopatra”)
  • Hero: Othello (“Othello”), Hamlet (“Hamlet”), Macduff (“Macbeth”)
  • Outlaw: Prince Hal (“Henry IV”), Edmund (“King Lear”), Falstaff (“Henry IV”)
  • Magician: Prospero (“The Tempest”), The Witches (“Macbeth”), Soothsayer (“Julius Caesar”)
  • Sage: Polonius (“Hamlet”), Friar Laurence (“Romeo and Juliet”), Gonzalo (“The Tempest”)
  • Innocent: Viola (“Twelfth Night”), Ophelia (“Hamlet”), Hero (“Much Ado about Nothing”)
  • Caregiver: Nurse (“Romeo and Juliet”), Mercutio (“Romeo and Juliet”), Ursula (“Much Ado about Nothing”)
  • Jester: Touchstone (“As You Like It’), Feste (“Twelfth Night”), Fool (“King Lear”)
  • Everyman: Lucentio (“The Taming of the Shrew”), Valentine (“The Two Gentelmen of Verona”), Florizel (“The Winter’s Tale”)
  • Ruler: King Lear (“King Lear”), Claudius (“Hamlet”), Alonso (“The Tempest”)

Famous Examples of Archetype in Popular Culture

Think you don’t know of any famous archetypes? Here are some well-known examples of archetype in popular culture:

  • Lovers: Ross and Rachel (Friends), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Jack and Rose (Titanic)
  • Heroes: Frodo Baggins (The Lord of the Rings), Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Mulan (Mulan)
  • Outlaws: Han Solo (Star Wars), Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Marvel Universe), Ferris Bueller (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
  • Magicians: Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings), Dumbledore (Harry Potter), Doctor Strange (Marvel Universe)
  • Explorers: Huck Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones), Captain Kirk (Star Trek)
  • Sages: Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Jiminy Cricket (Disney’s Pinocchio), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars)
  • Creators: Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein), Willy Wonka (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood)
  • Innocents: Tiny Tim (A Christmas Carol), Dorothy (The Wizard of Oz), Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump)
  • Caregivers: Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins), Alice (The Brady Bunch), Marge Simpson (The Simpsons)
  • Jesters: Donkey (Shrek), Kramer (Seinfeld), Eric Cartman (Southpark)
  • Everyman Characters: The Dude (The Big Lebowski), Homer Simpson (The Simpsons), Jim Halpert (The Office)
  • Rulers: Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones), T’Challa/Black Panter (Marvel Universe), Don Corleone (The Godfather)

Difference Between Archetype and Stereotype

It can be difficult to distinguish the difference between archetype and stereotype when it comes to literary characters. In general, archetypes function as a literary device with the intent of complex characterization. They assign characters with specific qualities and traits that are identifiable and recognizable to readers of literary works. Stereotypes function more as limited and often negative labels assigned to characters.

For example, the movie “The Breakfast Club” features characters that are far more stereotypical than archetypal. This movie features five representations of “typical” teenagers such as a dumb jock, conceited rich girl, skinny nerd, misunderstood rebel, and disaffected slacker that are forced to spend time together. These representations include what may appear to be archetypes in that they are identifiable by the audience. However, they function much more as stereotypes in the sense that their characterization is oversimplified and primarily negative. The characters assume their given stereotypical roles rather than display the complex characterization generally demonstrated by archetypes.

Writing Archetype

Overall, as a literary device, archetype functions as a means of portraying characters with recurring and identifiable traits and qualities that span time and culture. This is effective for readers in that archetypes set up recognizable patterns of characterization in literary works. When a reader is able to identify an archetypal character, they can anticipate that character’s role and/or purpose in the narrative. This not only leads to expectations, but engagement as well on the part of the reader.

It’s essential that writers bear in mind that their audience must have a reasonably clear understanding of how the character reflects a particular archetype in order for it to be effective. If the characterization of the archetype is not made clear to the reader, then that level of literary meaning will be lost. Of course, archetypal characters can be complex and fully realized. However, they must be recognizable as such for the reader on some level.

Here are some ways that writers benefit from incorporating archetype into their work:

Establish Universal Characters

Archetypal characters are recurrent when it comes to human experience, especially in art. A literary archetype represents a character that appears universal and therefore gives readers a sense of recognition and familiarity. This ability to relate to an archetypal character alleviates a writer’s burden of excessive or unnecessary description, explanation, and exposition. Due to a reader’s experience, they are able to understand traits and characteristics of archetypes in literature in an almost instinctual way without detailed explication.

Establish Contrasting Characters

Archetypes can also help writers establish contrasting characters, sometimes known as foils. In general, a literary work does not feature just one archetypal character. Since readers have an awareness of the inherent and typical characteristics of an archetype, this can create contrast against other characters in the narrative that are either archetypes themselves or not. Therefore, writers are able to create conflict and contrast between characters that are logical and recognizable for the reader.

Examples of Archetype in Literature

Archetype is an effective literary device as a means of creating characters with which the reader can identify. Here are some examples of literary archetypes and how they add to the significance of well-known literary works:

Example 1: Nick Carraway: Everyman (The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

In this passage, Fitzgerald establishes for the reader that Nick Carraway’s character is not just the narrator of the novel, but an “everyman” archetype as well. Though Nick’s father reminds him of “advantages” that he’s had, Nick is nevertheless considered the novel’s most relatable and “average” character. Therefore, as an everyman archetype, the reader is able to identify with Nick and consequently trust his observations and narration of the events of the story. This allows Nick’s character to influence the way in which the reader engages with the novel’s characters and events, as his everyman actions and interactions become vicarious experiences for Fitzgerald’s audience as well.

Example 2: Ma Joad: Caregiver (The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck)

Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself.

In Steinbeck’s heart-breaking novel, the female characters represent a life force. This is epitomized by Ma Joad’s character as a “caregiver” archetype. Ma Joad is not only literally a caregiver in the sense that she is the mother of the protagonist and cares for her family, but she is also an archetypal caregiver in the sense that she makes sacrifices in order to care for others. Readers’ recognition of the characterization of Ma Joad as a caregiver allows Steinbeck to portray her as a traditional and symbolic mother figure.

However, Steinbeck elaborates on this archetype by portraying the effects of these caregiver traits on Ma Joad’s character. Rather than establishing her as a passive maternal character which would be identifiable and understood by a collective readership, Steinbeck reveals the universal consequences of this archetype’s traits on the character herself. Ma Joad is a universal character, yet her character also has a universal understanding and experience of tragedy and suffering. This makes her role and sacrifices as a caregiver even more meaningful.

Example 3: Sancho Panza: Jester (Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes)

The most perceptive character in a play is the fool, because the man who wishes to seem simple cannot possibly be a simpleton.

In Miguel de Cervantes’ novel, Sancho Panza reflects the complexity and importance of the “jester” archetype. As Don Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza provides humor and comic relief as a contrast to the title character’s idealism. However, as Sancho Panza’s character becomes more developed in the novel, his jester archetype develops as well into a voice of reason and example of empathy and loyalty. This is beneficial for the reader in that, though they are contrasting characters, Sancho Panza as a jester beside Don Quixote becomes a more legitimate and influential character. In turn, the jester archetype legitimizes the protagonist as well, making the novel’s fool the “most perceptive character.”

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