All characters whether in books, TV, or movies, are drawn from at least one archetype, usually more than one. The definition of an archetype is essentially a basic pattern of behavior and associated with a particular trait or concept.
Over several posts, not necessarily each week, I’ll touch briefly upon various archetypes in literature. The list is quite extensive and varies according to culture so I’ll just condense the posts to the Big Ones and may touch upon some of the lesser used archetypes that seem interesting to me. Keep in mind there are several variations within each archetype. Many characters we read or watch can be classified into more than one archetype.
Archetypes vary from culture and even genre of writing. An example could be a writer basing a character off of one of the figures from the Chinese zodiac. Each figure has character traits associated with it. Using that information the writer could incorporate some or all of the traits into their character. From the fairy tale genre we get a whole host of archetypes unique to that genre. The best example being the Fairy Godmother or Prince Charming.
Let’s start with the biggest and easiest archetype: The Hero
The formal definition of the Hero is a person willing to sacrifice his or her own needs on behalf of others. Usually the Hero is larger than life, sometimes supernatural or alien in the case of Superman or ancient Greek and Roman mythology. This archetype exists all over the world so it’s pretty universal.
For the Hero archetype his or her story has to have a purpose; a problem that he or she alone can solve. Usually this is expressed in the form of a question: “Will the Hero save the world before the missile launched by Evil Guy (or Girl) hits planet Earth?”
Another component to the Hero’s story is our lead should exhibit emotions and motivations we’ve all experienced in our life. Love, hate, anger, despair, idealism, etc. This helps the audience identify with and root for the Hero. He’s one of us only a better version of us. He has the power to right wrongs we ourselves wished we could but can’t.
Like all well-formed characters, the Hero has to experience growth. This happens through setbacks either of his or her own doing or due to obstacles put in the Hero’s way. Another way to ensure growth of the Hero is through sacrifice. Is the Hero willing to give up something near and dear to him or her, including his or her life, to save others?
But the Hero can’t only display positive characteristics. He or she needs to have flaws otherwise our Hero is too perfect and thus becomes un-relatable. Perhaps the Hero’s pride gets in the way or fear causes him or her to freeze at a critical point.
Another component in the Hero’s journey is he or she has help. The most common type of help is through the form of a mentor or sage, an archetype in of itself. Think of Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. The mentor or sage gives our Hero a tool that will help him or her through the journey, like Dorothy’s glass slippers. It doesn’t have to be something physical, either. The sage or mentor can provide knowledge to our Hero. Whatever it is, the Hero on the journey must use it.
Along the journey, our Hero must suffer setbacks as well as some successes before the final showdown with the villain. An excellent example is Harry Potter. Throughout the seven books, Harry suffers a lot. Terrible caretakers, abusive teachers, the Malfoys, the death of Dumbledore, etc. but he also has many successes that help him gain confidence for the inevitable showdown with Voldemort.
Our Hero must also suffer death. It could be his or her own physical death from which he or she is eventually brought back to life or it could be an emotional death. For example, Luke Skywalker learning Darth Vader is his father. This propels the Hero to continue his or her growth and also ups the ante for the outcome.
In the end, the Hero wins. The audience knows this but the Hero does not. Sure he or she can hope but doesn’t know if he or she has the strength, the courage to until the final battle happens.
Within the Hero archetype there are several subtypes. Here are just a few:
Willing Hero – Think of King Arthur. This is the most typical type and represents a person who has little or no hesitation to help.
Unwilling Hero – Think of Bilbo Baggins. This person is chosen or appointed by someone else to take on a task that the Hero would never willing volunteer for.
Group-oriented Hero – A Hero that is part of a group but must leave in order to complete the task. Or a Hero that takes on a task to save a group.
Loner Hero – For whatever reason, usually by choice, the Hero isn’t part of a group. They live alone but need to become part of a group in order to do something heroic before returning to their loner status. The Lone Ranger is an example of this.
Catalyst Hero – An exception to the rule that a Hero must change. This character, who through his or her actions positively affects the people around him or her. Detective-based mysteries can be example of this. The detective him or herself may not necessarily change a lot through the solving of a case but the people affected by the case change.
None of this is set in stone. That’s the great thing about writing. A person may come up with a completely new type of Hero or could take one of the Hero subtypes and spin it on its head. Heck your Hero could start out being the Hero but then turn into another archetype altogether. Keep in mind, too, it is easy to argue a character can embody more than one archetype.