What do a villain, a hero, and a damsel in distress have in common? They’re all archetypes: typical examples of characters in stories. Archetypes can occur in literary plotlines, settings, and symbols, as they represent shared patterns of human experience. Keep reading to find common archetypes in literature, as well as examples from books, movies, and short stories.
Coming up with unique and interesting characters is a challenge for any author. But there are certain character archetypes on which nearly every character is based. Check out these examples of archetypes that you’re likely to see in adventure stories, romance novels, suspenseful movies, and epic narratives.
- The Bully - Intimidates others
- The Creature of Nightmare - Threatens the hero's life
- The Damsel in Distress - The hero rescues her
- The Devil Figure - Tempts the hero
- Dreamer - Wants to be something else
- The Evil Genius - Seeks revenge and hates all
- Friendly Beast - Assists the hero
- The Hero - Main character who may fulfill a task or bring justice
- The Initiates - Need training to become heroes
- Martyr - Willing to die for a cause
- Mentors - Train and counsel the initiates
- The Outcast - Exiled for a crime and becomes a wanderer
- The Star-Crossed Lovers - The pair usually meet tragedy
- Survivor - Never gives up and always pulls through
- The Temptress - A beautiful woman who seduces the hero
- Tyrant - Wants to be in charge
- Wizard - Has special powers
William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous examples of the Star-Crossed Lovers. In fact, the prologue explicitly name them as Star-Crossed Lovers:
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
Even though Romeo and Juliet love each other very much, their outcome defines them as the tragic archetype. This archetype is still common today, from movies like Titanic (1997) and Broadway shows like West Side Story, which is a modern remake of Romeo and Juliet.
If you’ve ever heard that there are only a few types of stories to be told, you’ve likely heard about situation archetypes. These plotlines include specific movements and plot twists, leading up to the inevitable ending. Understand which situation archetype you’re reading to determine the story’s theme and type of conflict.
Common situation archetypes include:
- Battle of Good and Evil - Good ultimately triumphs
- Death and Rebirth - Shows the circle of life
- Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity - A character will have intuition and knowledge that is better than those in charge
- The Initiation - A character matures and takes responsibility
- The Hero’s Journey - The hero confronts trials along the way
- The Magic Weapon - The hero has the ability to use this to be successful in the quest or to prove he or she is the chosen one
- Rags to Riches - A character rises from poor luck or station to a higher one
- Riches to Rags - A character falls from their station
- Nature vs. Mechanistic World - This has nature as being good and technology as bad
- The Quest - The search for someone or something
- The Task - Something that must be done
Look no further than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for an example of a situation archetype. The plot uses elements of both Battle of Good and Evil and the Hero’s Journey over its epic trilogy.
“I wonder if people will ever say, ‘Let's hear about Frodo and the Ring.’” (said Samwise). “And they'll say, ‘Yes, that's one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn't he, Dad?’ ‘Yes, m'boy, the most famousest of hobbits. And that's saying a lot.’”
Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring must destroy the ring, and therefore, destroy evil. However, Frodo encounters trials along his journey that test his goodness and fortitude, which is part of the Hero’s Journey.
Have you ever read a horror story that happened in the middle of the day? Probably not very often, since “dark and scary nights” tend to be where horror movies take place. Understanding the archetypes associated with different settings can be helpful in reinforcing tone, foreshadowing, and theme.
Some common examples of setting archetypes include:
- The Garden - Symbolizes love and fertility
- The Forest - Can be a wild place with dangers and beasts; it can also be a place to reconnect with nature
- The River - Water symbolizes life, and the river can show life's journey or boundaries
- The Sea - Can be both good and evil, with dangers and treasures. It can also show infinity
- The Island - Symbolizes isolation
- The Mountain - Climbing up can represent a spiritual journey
- The Wasteland - A place for cleansing and finding inner strength
- The Tower - Represents worship or power
- The Small Town - This is where everyone knows everyone and judges them, so it represents intolerance
William Goldman’s Lord of the Flies uses as many setting archetypes as it can. The boys are isolated on an island, chased by the dangers in the forest, safe by the lagoon, and often climb the mountain to light the signal fire.
The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid nearer and nearer the sill of the world. All at once they were aware of the evening as the end of light and warmth.
Not only is the location foreboding for the boys, but the descent into evening brings in the archetype of an unsafe night. The reader can also notice how the tone changes throughout the book as the characters move around the island.
There’s a reason why most villains wear black and most heroes wear white. Archetypes that take the form of colors, elements, shapes, and natural events are known as symbolic archetypes. Using symbolic archetypes is an effective way to establish the story a writer is trying to tell.
You may see these symbolic archetypes in stories and movies:
- Light - Hope or renewal
- Dark - Despair or ignorance
- Water - Birth and life
- Haven - Safety
- Wilderness - Danger
- Fire - Knowledge, rebirth
- Ice - Death, ignorance
- Black - Evil, mystery
- Red - Passion, blood
- Green - The earth, growth
- White - Purity, peace, innocence
- Three - Trinity; mind, body, spirit
- Four - Seasons, elements
- Square - Stability
- Circle - Heaven, perfection, eternity
- Spiral - Cosmic motion, growth
- Clouds - Mystery
- Rain - Change
- Lightning - Inspiration
- Hourglass - Time passing
- Heart - Love
Swords are a common symbol of heroism and chivalry. The most famous example of a sword in literature is Excalibur in the legendary tales of King Arthur and the Round Table. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote of King Arthur’s death in his poem Morte d'Arthur:
Thou therefore take my brand Excalibur,
Which was my pride: for thou rememberest how
In those old days, one summer noon, an arm
Rose up from out the bosom of the lake,
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
Holding the sword—and how I row'd across
And took it, and have worn it, like a king...
From the moment King Arthur pulled Excalibur from the stone, the famous sword symbolized the valiant spirit of the king and his knights. Even on his deathbed, handing Excalibur to Sir Bedivere symbolizes the end of King Arthur’s reign.
Writers use literary archetypes because they resonate with readers. Archetypes speak to a common human experience, whether they appear through characters, settings, situations, or symbols. To learn more about literary analysis, check out an article on different types of characters that you might find in stories, books, or movies.