I. What is an Archetype?
An archetype (ARK-uh-type) is an idea, symbol, pattern, or character-type, in a story. It’s any story element that appears again and again in stories from cultures around the world and symbolizes something universal in the human experience.
Archetypes are always somewhat in question. After all, no one has studied every culture in the world – that would be impossible – so we never know for sure whether something is truly universal.
II. Examples of Archetype
The most famous example of an archetype is the Hero. Hero stories have certain elements in common – heroes generally start out in ordinary circumstances, are “called to adventure,” and in the end must confront their darkest fear in a conflict that deeply transforms the hero. Luke Skywalker is a perfect example of a this archetype: he’s born on Tatooine, is called to adventure by R2-D2 and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and must then face Darth Vader in order to become a Jedi. (There’s a book, called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, that lays out in detail the archetypal Hero story, and George Lucas read it many times before making Star Wars.)
After the Hero, the most common archetype is probably the Trickster. Tricksters break the ordinary rules of society and even nature. They are often androgynous (having both male and female attributes), and they love to play tricks on those around them. They may also laugh at things others find terrifying, such as death or isolation. Tricksters are believed to symbolize the chaotic and complex realities of the world that are beyond the understanding of the human mind. Tricksters can be evil (like Loki or the Joker), or they can be good (like Bugs Bunny).
Another archetypal character is the Anti-Hero, who has many of the attributes of a Hero but is not a traditional “good guy.” Batman, for example, is an anti-hero: while he fights crime and stops super-villains, he is also a moody recluse with a slightly cruel streak. As heroic as he may be, he is also fearsome and probably wouldn’t be much fun to have around.
III. Types of Archetype
There are far too many archetypes to list all of them, but they broadly fall into three categories:
a. Character archetypes
The most common and important kind of archetypes. Most popular characters have a universal archetype such as Hero, Anti-Hero, or Trickster (see the previous section). There are literally hundreds of different character archetypes, including the Seductress, the Father and Mother Figures, the Mentor, and the Nightmare Creature.
b. Situational archetypes
Situations that appear in multiple stories. Examples might include lost love, returning from the dead, or orphans destined for greatness.
c. Symbolic archetypes
Symbols that appear repeatedly in human cultures. For example, trees are an archetypal symbol of nature (even in cultures that live in relatively tree-less areas). Fire is also an archetypal symbol, representing destruction but also ingenuity and creativity.
IV. The Importance of Archetypes
The concept of archetypes was first developed by Carl Jung, a psychologist who discovered certain broad similarities among myths from all over the world. In particular, he noticed that “hero stories” all had similar elements, and that all cultural heroes had certain broad attributes in common. He theorized that this was because human beings all shared a “collective unconscious” – that is, a set of hard-wired expectations and preferences about stories. In much the same way that there is a “universal grammar” underlying all human languages, there may be a “universal grammar” of good stories!
So archetypes are part of the key to what makes a story compelling. The best storytellers draw on universal archetypes in crafting their stories, and thus tap into something elemental in the human mind – and in many cases, they do this automatically, without ever setting out to write an archetypal story.
V. Examples of Archetype in Literature
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the pig Snowball is a classic example of the Scapegoat archetype – a character who is blamed for everything that goes wrong, and must ultimately be sacrificed or driven away.
In the Old Testament, the story of Moses has many parallels to the Hero archetype. He is born in lowly circumstances (an orphan in a reed basket), and must face his greatest fears (both Pharaoh and his own fearsome God), before returning to his people bearing the 10 Commandments – in this case not only he, but the whole tribe of Israelites are transformed by Moses’s heroic journey.
In the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books, both Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins are classic Hero archetypes. They start out as ordinary Hobbits living under the hill, but hear a call to adventure when Gandalf and the Dwarves come to the door. Over the course of the journey, they must fight dragons and dark lords (both examples of the Nightmare Beast archetype), before returning to The Shire as transformed individuals.
VI. Examples of Archetype in Pop Culture
Bugs Bunny is a classic example of the Trickster. He frequently dresses up as a woman to deceive his pursuers, and is impossible for human beings like Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam to capture. According to archetype theory, these tricky escapes are symbolic explorations of the inherent limits on human thought.
Yoda is one of the best examples of the Mentor archetype. He lives on a faraway, inhospitable planet, similar to the way a guru might live on top of a mountain. And he trains the Hero (Luke) in both body and mind, but more importantly he forces Luke to confront the darkest parts of himself. That’s the symbolism of the cave scene, when Luke Skywalker fights a false “Darth Vader” – an illusory enemy who turns out to be merely a projection of himself.
The Mentor archetype is also exemplified by both Professor X and Magneto in the X-Men stories. These characters train various heroes (and villains) in their own way, and they live in secluded fortresses. But, like Yoda, part of the story is also getting the hero/villain to confront their own psyche. Think, for example, of Professor X’s relationship with Wolverine, in which Wolverine is forced to face his past and all the pain that it has caused. (Wolverine, incidentally, is an excellent example of an Anti-Hero.)
VII. Related Terms
Like an archetype, a cliché appears again and again in different stories. But “archetype” has a positive connotation, while “cliché” has a negative connotation. Why? Probably because archetypes come with genuine psychological force, and therefore we never get sick of them no matter how many times we see them. Clichés get tired from overuse – archetypes never do.
Typically, an archetype is also broader and more general, while a cliché tends to be a narrow, specific moment. So it’s an archetype (or at least a trope) to see a team of heroes in which one is far older than the other. Such stories evoke both the Hero and Mentor archetypes. However, if the older partner says, “I’m getting too old for this…” that’s a cliché.
An archetype is a particularly powerful kind of trope. Tropes are the broader category of common elements in stories, but a trope is generally not considered universal – it’s just very common, especially in a particular genre or culture. Again, the line between tropes and clichés is not black-and-white. For example, the “damsel in distress” figure is very common in literature, mythology, and popular culture – but it’s debatable whether this is a cliché, a trope, or even an archetype!