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Top 11 Examples of Archetypes in Literature


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Archetypes are tools used in literature to represent common aspects of human nature and life in general. We often see archetypes clearly examined in older literature, but these archetypes continue to be used in all types of literature, from children's books to romance and fan fiction.

While we study these archetypes in books, plays, and short stories from writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, and de Maupassant, modern writers can also use these representations of human nature to develop their own characters and plots.

What are the archetypes in literature?

There are two sets of archetypes in literature: Character and Situation. Character archetypes are precisely what the term describes. Characters in a story perform various specific functions throughout the plot, and these functions are what determines which archetype they fit into. Situation archetypes describe how certain situations play out in the story. The character archetypes are placed within the situation archetypes. Together, they create a story.

Character archetypes

The hero

The hero in a story can be male or female. This character is designed to be the "good guy" of the story. They are benevolent, honest, honorable, and have a passion for justice. They fight whatever evil forces are around them. This archetype represents our subconscious.

All heroes share certain characteristics. These characteristics include:

  • Unusual situations surrounding their birth
  • They leave their family or the area where they grew up to live life with others
  • Some kind of event, sometimes a tragic event, directs them into a kind of adventure
  • He or she has supernatural help
  • They must prove themselves during their quest
  • The hero's death is often accompanied by some kind of spiritual reward

In certain cases, heroes in stories are used to exhibit what a society's morals and values are. The hero is put into situation archetypes that society will understand and where the hero can portray what society wants people to be like.

Some examples of heroes in literature are Beowulf, Harry Potter, Katniss from The Hunger Games series, and D'artagnan of The Three Musketeers.

The mother figure

In literature, the mother figure is the character who provides either mental or physical protection or nurturing for other characters. This character doesn't have to be old, like Mother Goose. She can be the friend who helps the hero get through his task, or she can be the one who performs the selfless act in the story.

While we all think of the mother figure in one specific way, her role doesn't necessarily have to abide by standard societal behaviors. For example, the mother figure in Hamlet, who happens to be Hamlet's mother, is not selfless. She has a difficult time putting her wants and needs aside in order to help her son. When the mother figure does behave according to cultural expectations, it allows the reader to see some of the godly qualities we can possess.

The mother figure archetype can be:

  • Nurturing
  • Selfless
  • Teachers

Some examples of mother figures in popular literature include:

The innocent

This archetype also goes by other names. Sometimes this character is referred to as the youth, the mystic, or the naïve. This character embodies our desire to retain our youth when we are old. It shows a personality that has not been changed by the danger, depravity, or sad experiences going on in the world. They want to be happy more than anything else and want the same for everyone. They don't have the same capacity for wishing horrible things on their enemies—the innocent believes in the good in everyone.

Behind this archetype is the goal of inspiring even the most apathetic audience member to choose to be good. In comparison to the hero archetype, however, the innocent is neutral. They don't have a special quest or complicated history. They are simply representative of the good.

Some examples of the innocent archetype are:

The mentor

The mentor archetype is often the protector. They protect the main character most of all, but they also offer help to sidekicks and secondary characters. Their goal is to help the hero be successful in the task set before him or her.

This character type is often portrayed as a wise old man or woman, but this is not a requirement for the archetype. Even in more modern books, this archetype serves many functions as he or she helps the hero. For example, Q in the James Bond series is the mentor of the group. With his gadgets and unending support for Bond's needs, he allows Bond to achieve his objectives. Yoda from the Star Wars franchise and Gandalf from Lord of the Rings are other clear examples of a mentor archetype.

The sidekick

The sidekick is a tool often used by the author to present his or her perspectives about the main characters, whether the protagonist or the antagonist. Sidekicks are associated with heroes and villains. They are often a channel for comic relief as well.

The sidekicks' main characteristic is that they are absolutely loyal to the hero or villain—whichever one they are associated with in the plot. While you may not initially think of sidekicks as being brave characters, they often are written to make grand gestures, like throwing themselves in harm's way to protect the hero. This is representative of some real-life situations. There are many stories surrounding selfless acts for friends and strangers.

Some popular examples of sidekicks include:

The scapegoat

Just like its name suggests, the scapegoat is a character that is blamed for everything that goes wrong in the story. Going as far back as the Bible, scapegoats have been part of literature for quite some time. One big example of scapegoats in modern literature is the tributes in The Hunger Games series. These tributes have to pay the ultimate price for previous rebellions.

This character isn't always a major character, and can be represented by many characters or even a collective group that is held responsible for the actions of others.

The villain

Some people's favorite characters are the villains in a story. Like the hero, this character archetype is usually well thought out and plays a large role throughout a story. Their sole purpose is to bring down the hero or present a literary reason for the hero's quest. They are the antagonist in the story.

What Makes a Good—I Mean, Bad—Villain?

Most literature follows a "good vs. evil" structure that pits one or more people against another individual or group. The villain most likely wouldn't exist without a hero, and vice versa. They need each other as two sides of the same coin.

Their journeys are often juxtaposed, with similarities that they almost could unite under. Some popular villains are:

Situation archetypes

The journey

The entire plot of a story revolves around a journey that the main character or characters have to go through. This journey could be either emotional, mental, or physical, or the journey could be a mixture of these types.

This process drives the hero to discover his or her true nature or the nature of his or her existence. Throughout the journey, the hero and villain probably meet or engage multiple times, building up their need to conquer each other. One clear example of this journey is Frodo's quest to destroy the one ring of power. He is accompanied by his sidekicks, is helped and led by his mentor, and experiences interactions with multiple villains. The villains in his journey are many: the ring, Sauron, Gollum, and, even at one point, Boramir. He encounters a mother figure in the elf queen Galadriel.

The initiation

As the main character goes through his or her journey, he or she experiences situations through which he or she grows and matures. This maturity can be the result of good or bad experiences. Continuing with the example of Frodo, he begins as an innocent Hobbit who had never left the Shire, despite having read Bilbo's stories about his adventures. By the end of Lord of the Rings, however, Frodo has grown emotionally and spiritually as a result of all the challenges he has had to endure. Each one of those challenges is an initiation situation archetype.

Good versus evil

As mentioned above, story lines with heroes and villains revolve around some kind of good versus evil quest. Some good representations of good versus evil are Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, where Snow White is challenged by the evil queen; Lord of the Rings, as discussed above; and Shakespeare's King Lear.

The fall

In many, but not all stories, the main character experiences a downfall as the result of a poor choice or action. This might bring about an opportunity for redemption later in the story, or it could be the ending of the story. Some heroes are unable to rebound after experiencing a fall. Take for example Oedipus from Oedipus Rex.

Another example is Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Mr. Rochester made the mistakes of not being upfront with Jane about his mentally ill wife and of thinking he could properly care for his wife. As a result, he loses Jane and his wife burns down the house, which permanently disfigures the handsome Mr. Rochester. In the end, Jane makes her way back to him and they are able to continue their love story.

Why are archetypes important in literature?

Archetypes allow the reader or audience to connect certain parts of themselves with the characters, which can help them to become more invested in the story. This experience can help readers to see parts of themselves that maybe they hadn't considered before. Society as a whole might be able to see aspects of their laws or structure that maybe aren't so good.

Through literature and literary devices such as archetypes, society can become more aware of its positive and negative aspects, similar to the way that a court jester could tell the truth about a royal leader when no one else could. Common archetypes bring an aspect of realism to literature or other media that helps the story jump off of the page and into readers' hearts.

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