Archetypes are recurring patterns (plot structures, symbols, character types, themes) that occur in mythology, religion, and stories across cultures and time periods. They embody universal meanings and basic human experiences and can evoke unconscious responses in a reader. For writers, archetypes are tools to employ that can deepen a reader’s understanding and emotional connection to a character or a story.
Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who founded analytical psychology, first applied the term archetype to literature. Jung recognized universal patterns in all stories regardless of culture or historical period. He hypothesized that part of the human mind contained a “collective unconscious” (a sort of universal, primal memory) shared by all members of the species.
American mythologist Joseph Campbell took Jung’s ideas and applied them to world mythologies. In his seminal work A Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Campbell refined the concept of hero and developed a theory he called the mono-myth (later dubbed the hero’s journey), an idea that famously served as the framework for George Lucas’s Star Wars saga. The theory is based on the observation that a common pattern exists beneath the narrative elements of most great myths, regardless of origin or time of creation.
Archetypes can be applied to a number of different facets of storytelling, including images, symbols, settings, situations and plot patterns–even colors and numbers. But for our purposes here, we’re going to look at character archetypes.
Author K.M. Weiland examines 8 1/2 Character Archetypes You Should Be Writing on her website, and proffers the graphic here.
These five characters are all integral parts of any story, but they are not all necessarily archetypal. We could argue that Protagonist and Antagonist are requisite roles to be filled in any story, regardless of genre. However, the other three, Sidekick, Mentor and Love Interest, have an archetypal nature. I realize I’m arguing semantics here, but it’s an important distinction when using the term “archetype.”
Most people associate the role of Protagonist with a Hero, and Hero, often times, can be generally presented as archetypal. But the question becomes, what type of Hero are you talking about? That’s my focus here.
At it’s most basic level, the general “Hero” archetype can be a character with great strength and courage; known for having honorable purposes; willing to risk life for the good of all; who often leaves the familiar to enter a new, unfamiliar, challenging world, and then returns to his/her “ordinary” world. This definition borrows heavily from Campbell’s work, but it’s a solid foundation from which to build upon. Here are 10 Hero-Character Archetypes to consider for your Protagonist role.
1. EPIC HERO, or, HERO as a WARRIOR
The Epic Hero is mostly closely associated with Epic Poetry (i.e. Odyssey, Beowulf, etc.) and is strongly identified with a particular people or culture. The circumstances of his birth are unusual, and he is raised by a guardian. He will have to leave his kingdom, only to return to it upon reaching manhood. Characterized by courage, strength, and honor, the hero will endure hardship, even risk his life for the good of all. The Epic Hero leaves the familiar to enter an unfamiliar and challenging world. Examples here include William Wallace (Braveheart), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and even Wonder Woman.
This archetype can include sub-archetypes like The Young Man from the Provinces, who returns home after being raised in secret. Examples of this include Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.
2. ROMANTIC HERO, or, HERO as a LOVER
I’m using the term “Romantic” here to refer to the modern conception of romance and romantic relationships, not as a reference to literature during the Romantic period, with works by such authors as Byron, Keats, and Goethe.
Here, I’m referring to a Hero whose primary motivation is love. It’s this love that drives the hero to complete his/her quest during the story. However, there is a connection between the classic “Romantic Hero” of Romanticism. This Hero-character must understand the value of his experiences through emotion and intuition, rather than logical reasoning. Also, the reader must be able to emotionally connect with this hero on some level so that no matter the journey of the hero, the audience will relate to his experiences.
Think of basically any protagonist from any romance (comedic or dramatic) that you’ve ever read or watched as an example.
3. TRAGIC HERO
It was the philosopher Aristotle who first defined an ill-fated protagonist as a Tragic Hero. Aristotle suggested that a hero of a tragedy must evoke a sense of pity or fear from the audience. The Tragic Hero is someone whose misfortune is brought about some fatal flaw. The Tragic Hero’s fatal flaw initiates his downfall, but not before he achieves some kind of transforming realization or wisdom.
Famous examples include Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello, but modern examples are Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman) or even Walter White (Breaking Bad).
The Anti-Hero might be the most popular hero-character these days. The Anti-Hero features traits that are uncommon or unbecoming of a Hero. They display qualities that are more in-line with a Villain, such as conceitedness, immorality, rebellion, and dishonesty. Like many of the other heroes, Anti-Heroes start out as average people who are flawed but inherently good at the same time. An Anti-Hero, by definition, is a central character who lacks conventional heroic attributes. This hero-character can range from a good person with an unattractive vice to a criminal mastermind who has a heart of gold. Often times, this character has no interest in being an actual “hero.”
Anti-Heroes can be given the vocation of failure, frequently humorously, such as Homer Simpson, or they can be irreverent killers like Deadpool.
5. UNRELIABLE HERO
The Unreliable Hero is one that has (or must pretend to have) mental or emotional deficiencies (think Hamlet, or Randle Patrick McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). These hero-characters are often First-Person Narrators who manipulate the reader or viewer (think Holden Caufield from Catcher in the Rye or Edward Norton’s narrator in Fight Club).
The treatment of this hero-character’s mental state can be hidden, as in most of the examples above, or obvious, as seen in Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. The unreliable nature of the narrator calls into question all of their observations and declarations to the audience, and it’s used particularly well in USA’s Mr. Robot.
The superhero archetype has become a widespread phenomenon in popular culture today. This hero-character exaggerates the normal abilities and proportions of humanity. It frequently has divine or supernatural origins. In some sense, the superhero is one apart, someone who does not quite belong, but who is nonetheless needed by society.
Classical examples include mythological heroes, and modern examples come largely from the comic book realm. Superheroes can start out as classical heroes or even everyman heroes and be given a power that makes them ‘superhuman’. They can also be born with a ‘superhuman’ power.
7. THE EVERYMAN
The Everyman archetype often acts as the stand-in for the audience. This hero-character is an ordinary person, but for some reason, he/she must face extraordinary circumstances. Unlike the Epic Hero, the Everyman doesn’t feel a moral obligation to his/her task; instead, these characters often find themselves in the middle of something they have barely any control over. Unlike the Epic Hero, the Everyman isn’t trying to make a great change or work for the common good: these characters are just trying to get through a difficult situation.
Most protagonists in realistic fiction represent the Everyman archetype. Some famous examples include Marty McFly from Back to the Future, and classical literary heroes Huck Finn and Atticus Finch.
8. THE INNOCENT
The Innocent archetype is often represented by women or children. This hero-character is pure in every way. Though often surrounded by dark circumstances, the Innocent somehow hasn’t become jaded by the corruption and evil of others. The Innocent is often curious and adventurous, and isn’t stupid, just inexperienced. The Innocent trusts in faith and optimism, has exceptionally high ideals and aspirations and a belief in hard work and doing the right thing. They’re so morally good that the badness of others doesn’t seem to mar them.
Some examples of the Innocent include Cinderella, Alice (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), Dorothy (The Wizard of Oz), and Forrest Gump.
9. THE OUTCAST
The Outcast is a character who is separated from society due to an impairment or an advantage that sets him/her apart from others. This hero-character is banished from a social group for some real or imagined crime against his/her fellow man, usually destined to wander from place to place apart. The Outcast is often seen as The Other, and that status or essential Otherness makes heroism possible.
A classical literary example is Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man. A modern example is Juno MacGuff from Juno.
10. THE INITIATES
The Initiates are young heroes or heroines who must go through some training and ceremony before undertaking their quest. This group of companions progress through the situational archetype known as Initiation, where they come into their maturity with new awareness and problems. The Initiates are loyal companions willing to face hardship and ordeal in order to stay together. This archetype often combines the Innocent archetype with a Young Man from the Provinces archetype. The Initiates often find themselves under the tutelage of another archetypal figure known as the Mentor.
Modern examples of the Initiates include the young mutants in Marvel’s X-Men comics, as well as the main characters in Netflix’s Stranger Things series.
As writers, archetypes are tools we get to manipulate while fashioning our stories. The classical definition of a Hero has set a solid foundation for these 10 Hero-Character types to grow from. Some of these archetypes might be better suited for certain types of stories, but they are all potentially engaging protagonists that can all emotionally connect with a reader.