10 Hero-Character Archetypes

pexels-photo-269923.jpegArchetypes 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.

kmweiland4Author 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. OdysseyBeowulf, 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

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 10.21.16 AMIt 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).

4. ANTI-HERO

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. 

6. SUPERHERO

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.

 

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Writing Advice from George R.R. Martin

So. It was a productive writing day for me yesterday. I had a new article published on DolphinsWire.com and I edited three chapters of a W.I.P. I’m co-authoring with a friend. It was a busy day waiting for the new Games of Thrones episode. With #GoT on my mind, I wandered around online a bit to see if Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin had ever published anything specific about writing advice.

3 Writing Tips from George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin speaking at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con, by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons.

There were a few things. A New Yorker article from 2011 that explored Martin’s life and career. A Business Insider article on Martin’s creative process. But nothing exclusively focused on writing advice. I did, however, come across a pair of sources that featured Martin’s own words on writing and writing craft: a Buzzed article reporting on a London speaking appearance from 2014, and the FAQ section of Martin’s own website.

 


The article, by Buzzed staff writer Dan Dalton, centered around a public speaking engagement at the Freemasons’ Hall in London on August 19, 2014. Martin appeared with fellow author Robin Hobb. During the panel discussion, Martin touched on writing in a few different ways that I found interesting.

“I never finished any of my early stories. They were all beginnings, an endless number of beginnings.” – George R.R. Martin

When I read this, a strange sense of freedom washed over me. While I’ve finished two novel manuscripts (early drafts, not at all ready for publication) and maybe half a dozen short stories, the majority of the stories I’ve begun over the years have been left unfinished.

I don’t know why I stop writing them. Sometimes, it was another story popping into my head. Other times, just life pulling me away from my desk. I’d lose interest in some, or feel the narrative wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t worth pursuing anymore. Sure, I save them and consider the different ways to push forward with them every now and then, but I haven’t. So seeing someone as successful as Martin having the same issue I’m facing is heartening.

Martin went on touch on the best writing advice he every received:

“The best writing advice I had was [in] ‘Heinlein’s Rules for Writers’ by (American science fiction author) Robert A. Heinlein. His first rule is that you must write, and I was already doing that, but his second rule is, ‘You must finish what you write,’ and that had a big impact on me.” – George R.R. Martin

These two rules seem obvious, but that’s where the challenge of being a writer lies. When I sit at my desk, I feel like I have ADHD. A million different things pull my attention away from the story. There are chores to be done, or grading to be done, lesson planning. Exercise. Blood sugar management.

But if I’m going to do this, really, I have to (to borrow from John Dufresne’s writing commandments) sit my ass in the chair. Every goddam day.

The “finish what you write” sentiment segues nicely to the content found on Martin’s personal website: GeorgeRRMartin.com. Found in the “For Fans” tab, under FAQ, Martin posits the following regarding writing advice:

The most important thing for any aspiring writer, I think, is to read! And not just the sort of thing you’re trying to write, be that fantasy, SF, comic books, whatever. You need to read everything. Read fiction, non-fiction, magazines, newspapers. Read history, historical fiction, biography. Read mystery novels, fantasy, SF, horror, mainstream, literary classics, erotica, adventure, satire. Every writer has something to teach you, for good or ill. (And yes, you can learn from bad books as well as good ones — what not to do)

This is something I have always heard, and it’s one of the best parts of being a writer. On some level, all writers come to the profession because they started as readers. We’re drawn into another world by the work of another, and we want to do the same for someone else. The first book that did that for me was C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My reading tastes tend to stay in the realm of fantasy, science fiction, and adventure, but I do make it a point to read the newspaper every day. I should probably expand my fiction horizons, too. My wife has plenty of mainstream novels laying about.

The idea that I can learn from the masters is an easy one to understand, but the concept that even the bad books provide teachable moments is interesting. It’s an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. How did they make this mistake? How could it have been better? It’s arrogant to assume my answers will be the right ones, but in formulating those answers, I’ll have learned something about my writing process I think.

For a long time, I wouldn’t put a “bad” book down, but at some point in my life I decided plowing through something that wasn’t holding my interest was a waste of time. There are some many other books to read. But now, I’ll hesitate before putting a book down in the future because I didn’t like it. According to Martin, those bad books can teach us just as much as the good ones. Martin goes on further:

And write. Write every day, even if it is only a page or two. The more you write, the better you’ll get. But don’t write in my universe, or Tolkien’s, or the Marvel universe, or the Star Trek universe, or any other borrowed background. Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out. If you don’t exercise those “literary muscles,” you’ll never develop them.

This goes back to the writing advice Martin took in from Heinlein. If we are to be writers, we need to write. As a basketball coach and someone who enjoys playing sports, I completely understand his “literary muscles” metaphor here. I tell my players all the time, the only way to improve upon your skills is to practice them. Time to adhere to my own words, it would seem.

This isn’t a unique proposition, and the fact that every writer asked to provide novices with advice probably answers the question with some version of what Martin’s said here is telling. It’s the inescapable truth of the profession.

Martin finishes his writing advice section with the following:

Given the realities of today’s market in science fiction and fantasy, I would also suggest that any aspiring writer begin with short stories. These days, I meet far too many young writers who try to start off with a novel right off, or a trilogy, or even a nine-book series. That’s like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest. Short stories help you learn your craft. They are a good place for you to make the mistakes that every beginning writer is going to make.

This one is interesting because it’s something that I’ve heard from a few different people over the years. But I’ve also heard the opposite, from agents, editors, and writers alike. I’m not sure what to make of it, but Martin’s sentiment here has merit. Being able to explore the form in a confined space teaches us certain aspects about the craft, but it’s the confined space that might frustrate certain writers (me among them). I’ve always heard a short story is almost like a snapshot, but my ideas tend to grow a little to wide for the frame.

Writing is hard, no matter the form or function. I mean, look at how long it’s taking Martin to finish Winds of Winter, the next volume in the A Song of Fire and Ice series. What Martin says in these places provides an incredible amount of value to writers like me, so if any of you are in this metaphorical boat with me, hopefully you found this helpful as well. Let me know in the comments below.