Raise your hand if you’ve ever cheated on a test. I don’t mean anything serious, just glancing over at your neighbor’s answers, who you know studied. We’ve all done it, right? Don’t shake your head ‘no.’ Yes, you have! Writers steal answers all the time. We take plot structures from other stories, steal themes, and create characters out of well-used models. These character models are called archetypes.
In this article, we are going to cover twenty-nine character archetypes. Use these archetypes and graft your characters over them. I would encourage you to combine two or more of these archetypes to create a deep and vivid character.
We’ll start by reviewing the twelve Jungian archetypes; then, we will move on to a set of eight character models developed by Joseph Campbell. Then we’ll round things out with another nine character types that I found while researching but can’t attribute to any one person or story structure. Nevertheless, these last nine models are, I think, fun and interesting.
What is a Character Archetype?
An archetype is a pattern or model that can be copied or repeated to create something over and over. A character archetype is a set of personality quirks, morals, values, and behaviors found in specific characters across multiple stories.
Writers use many different character archetypes to create an exciting and varied cast. It’s important to note that you can combine the traits of two or more archetypes into a single character.
Character archetypes were developed initially in psychology. Carl Jung argued that a collective unconscious housed a set of inherited archetypes inherent to all people. However, the archetypes we will discuss in this article are meant only to create fictional characters within a story.
Real people are complex, and their personalities constantly evolve and change- sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. It is impossible to reduce a real person or group down to a fixed set of traits, personality quirks, or behaviors. So, you know, don’t do that.
The 25 Character Archetypes:
(that I could find)
Jungian archetypes do not originate in the literary world but were adopted by literary analysts in the mid 20th century. The famed psychologist Carl Jung developed these archetypes in the early 20th century. Now, I’m not a psychologist, but I’ll attempt to explain how Jung viewed these archetypes (and I’ll probably get it wrong, so let me know in the comments if I do.)
Jung believed in the collective unconscious or a set of traits, knowledge, and memories that all humans inherit at birth. He argued that his archetypes were part of inherited knowledge or collective unconscious. They helped shape a person’s development and personality.
This idea has since been rejected by modern psychology. There is no hard evidence to back up Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. Others have argued that archetypes are reductionist and play into cultural and gender-based stereotypes.
With that being said, storytellers still find these archetypes a valuable tool to build characters from. Think of these basic concepts as the core of your character as you plan your story. The archetype is just a skeleton, and you’ll need to apply muscle and tissue to create a full-fledged character.
So, let’s get into the Jungian archetypes.
The ruler is a character who is motivated by power. A ruler will seek to create a prosperous family, community, or even kingdom. The strength of the ruler is that people want to follow them. A ruler is not afraid of responsibility and is a born leader. The weakness of a ruler is their desire for power and control. The need for power can lead the ruler down the path of cruelty, totalitarianism, and paranoia.
Example: Tony Stark in the Marvel universe. After his many traumas, Tony believes that only his vision can save the world from the kind of suffering he has endured. He states he wants to wrap the world in a suit of armor at one point. He believes that only his creations can protect the world, which drives him to create Ultron, a mechanical version of him. Ultron is also saddled with Tony’s unbridled desire for control.
A creator or artist strives towards a single abstract goal. Creators believe anything that can be imagined is possible. And, indeed, artists are capable of some truly extraordinary creations.
An artist’s strength is their drive and ability to execute a vision that others see as impossible. Their weakness is their single-mindedness and often their oversized ego. Creators tend to strive for unachievable perfection.
Example: John Hammond from Jurassic Park. He has a single, seemingly impossible vision in the film- to bring dinosaurs back from the dead. However, his ego proves the downfall of his creation. Hammond proves that no person can play god. At least not for very long.
The sage is usually a mentor figure for other characters in a story. The sage is also a character defined by their relentless search for the truth. The sage is often a character older than the protagonist, bringing wisdom with that age. A strength of the sage is their wisdom and insight.
The weakness of a sage is their tendency to overanalyze. The sage may suffer from “paralysis by analysis.” The sage may need a strong-willed hero to put their ideas into action.
Example: My favorite example of the sage or mentor character is Hermoine Granger from the Harry Potter series. Hermoine is, without a doubt, the smartest of our three main protagonists. And, she indeed teaches Harry more about magic than the supposed magic school headmaster, Dumbledore. Let’s be honest; Dumbledore is not very helpful.
The innocent is young, naïve, and not yet jaded by the harsh realities of the world. This lack of cynicism can be both the innocent’s greatest asset and a significant drawback.
An innocent character’s strength is that they are optimistic. The innocent’s weakness is their child-like naivete makes them vulnerable to manipulation. Or worse, these characters may fall into the depths of hopelessness if the world becomes too harsh for them. However, a positive arc may see this character become more world-weary but gain certain wisdom while embracing their youthful optimism.
Example: Buddy the Elf from 2003’s Elf is a prime example of an innocent character. Having lived his entire life as a human among elves, Buddy does not know the world outside Santa’s workshop. Buddy travels to New York to find his birth father and discovers the world is quiet as cherry down south.
Explorers seek freedom by pushing the world’s boundaries. These characters’ strengths are curiosity and a strong desire for self-improvement.
Explorers’ weakness is that they can become restless or easily bored. This weakness may lead them to wander. However, explorers are ambitious and want to know the world around them. An explorer’s biggest fear is conformity.
Example: The crew of the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation. All of these characters are explorers, and for a good reason. TNG is a show about exploration. The Enterprise crew is committed to self-improvement. Many episodes focus on a single character’s desire to move up within the ship’s ranks.
The main antagonists of the show come in the form of the Borg. The Borg are a race of zombie-like cybernetic beings. These cyborgs force conformity through assimilation and rob humans of their identity. What enemy could be worse for an explorer?
So, a rebel is a person fed up with their society. This frustration could come from a set of unjust laws, or the rebel’s society could just be a bit too stuffy. Rebels seek to upturn the established order. They hate rules and refuse to follow anyone’s lead.
A rebel’s strength is their willingness to disrupt the status quo and overturn that which isn’t working or is unjust. The weakness is that the rebel sometimes disregards systems that work perfectly fine. Also, rebels lead a solitary lifestyle, limiting their power to change things. Since rebels are willing to bend or discard, rules they can often fall into a life of crime.
Example: Ahsoka Tano from Star Wars: Clone Wars is a classic example of a rebel. Laboring under the strict doctrine of the Jedi Council, Tano often bends or breaks the rules to achieve a goal. She leaves the Jedi after they falsely accuse her of a crime. Tano realizes that the system she serves is broken and sets off on her quest to bring justice to the galaxy.
These characters got a bad case of “main character” syndrome, but that’s because they usually are one. Hero’s will also have aspects of other character archetypes. What defines a hero is their need to prove themself through their acts. Hero’s will rush headlong into danger when everyone else is running in the other direction.
There is a reason behind the hero’s seeming hubris. A hero’s strength is that the character is very competent in everything. They are used to winning. This strength leads to an apparent weakness that we’ve already mentioned- arrogance. When a hero does happen to lose, the effect is utterly devastating to their psyche.
A familiar story arc for a hero is their need to regain confidence after a devastating loss. Heroes can also be baited into forced errors, or traps, easily. To turn a hero bad, all you need to do is insult their ego.
Example: The rare hero who doesn’t seem to have an overwhelming ego is Eileen Ripley from the Alien series. She may only be a modest space trucker. Still, in a room full of colonial marines, she’s the only one who can keep her head when xenomorphs start busting through the ceiling tiles. I love this character. She’s intelligent, competent, but she never rushes into danger. Terrible things happen to her, and she spends most of her time saving herself and everyone else around her. She is a pure hero.
A magician is a character who can make impossible things happen. Magicians achieve impossible feats through a variety of means. Sometimes magicians use literal magic, like in the case of Gandalf or Harry Potter. Other times, magicians have a keen sense of the world around them.
Magicians, at heart, are investigators, and this is their true strength. These characters study the universe and wish to unlock its secrets. Through the hidden knowledge, they discover they can wield unreasonable power.
Can you spot the weakness rearing its ugly head? As the hero, magicians are prone to arrogance. When a magician breaks bad, they can fall deep into egomania- think Walter White cooking up his ‘Blue Sky’ in a busted Winnebago.
However, a good magician’s constant fear is the unintended consequences of their particular brand of magic.
Example: For this one, we’re going with Emmett “Doc” Brown from Back to the Future. Doc builds a time machine out of a DeLorean in a garage that serves as his home. By the second film in the series, his time machine runs on banana peels and discarded beer cans. It doesn’t get more magical than that! Also, he’s constantly worried about the unintended consequences of time travel to the point that you wonder why he even invented the time machine.
A Jester, or Joker, is a character whose desire is to live a life full of enjoyment. This attitude means they are often much more relaxed than the people around them. Not only are they relaxed, but their goal is often to lighten the mood of those around them.
The strength of a jester is their light-heartedness and likability. However, their weakness is their habit of wasting time seeking enjoyment above all other things. These characters appear in modern fiction as the stoner, slacker, or man-child. Their role is usually limited to comic relief.
Example: An interesting example of the Jester archetype is Jeffery Lebowski or “The Dude” from 1998’s The Big Lebowski. The Dude lives a relaxed life consisting of hanging out in his bathrobe, bowling, and drinking homemade White Russians. Then he meets his shadow self, another man named Jeffrey Lebowski.
This Jeffrey Lebowski or “Big” Lebowski is a wealthy businessman who treats The Dude, how society is conditioned to treat slacker-types. Big Lebowski criticizes The Dude for his unemployment, relaxed attitude, and lifestyle. However, the movie sides with The Dude when it reveals that Big Lebowski is a fraud who inherited his money wife. The theme of the movie- there is value in Jester’s approach to life.
The Everyman is a character who is relatable to the audience. This person is usually a working stiff thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Their goal is only to survive the conflict and return to ordinary life.
The strength of the Everyman is that they are relatable and usually possess virtue. They wish to be a productive citizen within their community. Their weakness is a desire not to stand out from the crowd. Their desire to live a quiet life has left them unprepared for the extreme challenges they face in a narrative.
Example: Jimmy Logan from 2017’s Logan Lucky is a prime example of an Everyman. Jimmy works construction at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he is unceremoniously laid off from his job one day. He is very close to his daughter, Sadie, who lives with Jimmy’s ex-wife and her wealthy husband.
When Jimmy loses his job, he risks losing his daughter, as his ex-wife tells him she is moving with her husband to Lynchburg. So, wanting to stay close to his daughter, Jimmy uses his knowledge of the Speedway’s underground tunnel system to plan a daring heist. From there, the movie hits the beats of a typical heist, but Everyman Jimmy ends up working at a Lowes in the end.
The Lover is a character looking for a deep and meaningful connection in life. This person is devoted to finding their one true love. Hell, they’re probably a match for most of their favorite friends, coworkers, teachers, gas station attendants, etc. The Lover loves love.
Strengths of the Lover include their humanity, devotion to the people in their lives, and their burning passion. However, these positives come with some downsides. A weakness of the Lover is that they can often lose their own identity in the pursuit of love. They often sacrifice too much of themselves in a bid to please others.
Example: For this one, let’s go with Cher from, Clueless. She is a well-off valley girl making her way through high school. But, unlike most students her age, her main concern is not what college she might attend or a potential career field. Cher’s primary objective is match-making.
Her intent is pure. Cher just wants to see the people in her life happy. She connects two of her teachers in hopes that their moods will improve. She also works tirelessly to find a boyfriend for the new girl at school, Tai. Cher’s one mistake is that she neglects her needs in a relentless search for love.
A Caregiver archetype will likely come in the role of a parent. These characters are not often at the center of a story. Caregivers are defined by their selfless nature.
A Caregiver’s strength is their willingness to protect and provide for others at the cost of their happiness or even safety. A weakness of the Caregiver is that they are not very concerned with their own needs, which leads them to be vulnerable to exploitation.
Example: Bryan Mills or Liam Neeson’s character from the movie Taken. Bryan puts his life at risk to save his daughter, Kim, from human traffickers. And, honestly, he seems like a pretty good dad under normal circumstances.
Character Archetypes of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey:
I’m not going into detail about the Hero’s Journey because I’ve already written an article on it here. And I wrote a whole freaking book about how to use the Hero’s Journey to model your own story (with expert examples, guiding questions, and writing exercises). You can pick up your copy, and support the blog, here.
In Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he mapped out a mythic story structure that he believed many narratives throughout history shared. To go along with that structure, and also borrowing from both Jungian and Freudian psychological concepts, Campbell described these eight familiar character archetypes:
The “hero” in a hero’s journey is the label we apply to the story’s protagonist. This character might not always begin as a hero but as an average person mired by seemingly unheroic traits. The hero may start their story as a coward or just a person living a quiet, peaceful life.
The structure will send our hero on a reluctant journey. The hero is hesitant because the protagonist will, at first, refuse their call to adventure. Eventually, this character will go on their journey, leave their ordinary world, and become transformed. The hero’s journey is the story of a regular character becoming a hero through tragedy and triumph.
Examples: Luke- Star Wars, Jay- Men In Black, Dorothy- The Wizard of Oz, Katniss- The Hunger Games
The Mentor acts as a catalyst in the hero’s journey- they get the hero moving. As I said in the sedition above, the hero does not want to leave their home when first asked. A Mentor is a person who has been to the extraordinary world and offers the hero help navigating that world.
The Mentor may also give the hero specific tools or resources that help the hero navigate and protect themself. An essential aspect of the Mentor’s character is that they will not accompany the hero on their entire journey. The Mentor will either die or leave the plot some other way. This departure is because whatever conflict the hero faces, they must overcome it independently.
Mentors often have magical/ other-world abilities- think Jung’s sage and magician combined. But, this is not always true. Mentors can come in all shapes and sizes- from Glenda the Good Witch to Mickey Goldmill in the Rocky films.
Examples: Obi-Wan Kenobi- Star Wars, Kay- Men In Black, Haymitch- The Hunger Games
An ally is a friendly character who joins the hero to help them on their journey. Allies might have a specific skill that helps your hero along their journey. For instance, Han Solo is an expert pilot and ferries Luke to his destination. Allies also act as moral support for your hero.
Allies also act as an ear for the reader. Hero’s will have to explain their plans or thinking to an ally and therefore to the reader. Allies can also act as a moderating force or a source of strength for the hero, the way Samwise supports Frodo in Lord of the Rings.
Allies should also have independent motivations and story arcs. These characters’ primary role is to support the hero. Still, a good ally will have a reason and experience growth as the hero does.
Examples: Han, Chewy, and Leia- Star Wars, Frank the Pug and Dr. Laurel Weaver- Men in Black, Peeta- The Hunger Games
The Herald is a character that calls the hero to adventure. As the Mentor, the Herald is a catalyst, this time causing or signaling the story’s inciting event. Because this role is so small in the larger story, other characters, like allies, will often double as a Herald. Or, the Herald could be an agent of the story’s villain. This character may only appear once in the plot.
Examples: Leia (via R2D2)- Star Wars, Cephalapoid alien- Men In Black, Effie Trinket- The Hunger Games
A Trickster is a character who brings humor to a story while also subtly highlighting specific themes. A Trickster will question the accepted logic of the world around them. This character is not content with the status quo and will bring attention to injustice. They may also be unfortunate, lazy, clumsy, drunk, or chaotic. These traits are a source of humor for the audience.
The purpose of the Trickster is to upset the established order. Let’s look at the Joker from 2008’s The Dark Knight. Although he is the story’s primary villain, The Joker is also the perfect example of a Trickster character. He is darkly funny and aligned against the established law and order of Gotham City.
Examples: Jar Jar Binks & R2D2- Star Wars, Frank the Pug & the Worms- Men In Black, Haymitch- The Hunger Games
A shapeshifter keeps a plot interesting by shifting their loyalties one or more times throughout a narrative. This character may start as an enemy but switch allegiances and help the hero at a crucial moment. Or, the character will begin as a friend and betray your hero during a climax.
Once the shapeshifter has switched sides, they may decide to reverse course and return to their former role as either friend or foe. If you’re looking for the perfect example of a hero and shapeshifter dynamic, think- Batman and Catwoman. Shapeshifters always keep your story interesting.
Examples: Lando Calrissian- Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back, Jack Jeebs- Men In Black, Seneca Crane- The Hunger Games
These characters are also called Threshold Guardians, and they guard the boundary of the ordinary and extraordinary worlds. They often block the path and test your hero’s mettle before they can move on in their adventure. Guardians may present puzzles or riddles for your hero to solve, or they may just want to fight your hero. These Guardians also signal to your reader and hero that danger lies ahead.
Examples: Dr. Evazan and Ponda Boba- Star Wars, Zed- Men In Black, the Tributes- The Hunger Games
The Shadow is your hero’s main antagonist. We call this character the Shadow because they often mirror your hero somehow. A Shadow character will share specific characteristics with your hero. This person represents a dark fate your hero could fall into if they are not careful.
Think about the similarities between a character like Harry Potter and his Shadow, Voldemort. Both these people are orphans, they went to the same school, and Harry even carries a piece of Voldemort’s soul. A good Shadow will highlight a character’s inner conflict.
Examples: Darth Vader- Star Wars, Edgar- Men In Black, President Snow- The Hunger Games
Ok, here are four archetypes that don’t fit into any formal set of character types like the ones we talked about above. These are, however, characters that you’ll see pop up in a lot of different works of fiction. These character types can also be helpful in your writing.
This character is a man or woman who tempts a hero to abandon their quest, to give in to their most basic desires. A Seducer is a valuable tool for inserting conflict into a story.
Your hero is bopping along on their journey, probably near the end. Suddenly a character makes an offer that’s almost impossible to refuse. Maybe the seducer offers to bring back loved ones your hero has lost or shower them with unimagined wealth.
This temptation is one last internal conflict for your hero to overcome, one final test of their courage. Can they give up everything they’ve ever wished and sacrifice happiness for the greater good? Probably.
Gordon Gekko from Wall Street or Circe in The Odyssey would exemplify this character.
A bully is typical in coming-of-age stories or any narrative involving children. Of course, adults can suffer from bullying, especially in the setting of a toxic workplace. Bully characters are usually minor conflicts your hero encounters at the start of their adventure. Bullies make great Threshold Guardians if you’re writing a Hero’s Journey. Suppose you want an excellent example of a bully read any Stephen King novel.
Warriors are brave, strong, and confident characters skilled at combat. Warriors are characteristically selfless and willing to sacrifice their lives for a greater purpose or cause. These characters usually come in the form of soldiers, but not always. Examples of Warriors would be Achilles from The Iliad or, more recently, Greyworm from Game of Thrones.
Orphan characters are pretty standard in literature, and many heroes fall into this category. This trope is especially true of male heroes who are somewhat maladjusted- both James Bond, Tony Stark, and Bruce Wayne are all orphans. An orphan backstory seems to have become shorthand for a massive trauma occurring in a character’s formative years.
This type is a fun and light character. A “himbo” or “bimbo” character can be a man or a woman. The defining characteristics of himbos are that they are very conventionally attractive, a little dumb, and overwhelmingly kind. Jason Mendoza from The Good Place would be an example of a Himbo.
Archetypes vs. Clichés, Stock Characters, and Stereotypes
Archetypes vs. Clichés
A cliché occurs when you put little or no thought into an archetypal character. Clichés are characters or tropes that you see used in fiction repeatedly. And, most of the archetypes we’ve talked about can become cliché when underdone.
Take the Mentor archetype, for example. It’s become a bit cliché to have a mentor who is a mentor in the form of an old white man with a long gray beard who is also a wizard. We’ve seen this character done well many times, so I’m not saying avoid it entirely.
But, when creating an archetype character, it may be helpful to combine archetypes to create characters that haven’t been seen a thousand times before. Be careful not to fall back on the same physical descriptions you’ve read in countless other stories. When in doubt, use real-world examples as your guide.
Archetypes vs. Stock Characters
A stock character is a character that ‘stocks’ the background of your story. Stock characters play a small role in the plot. With stock characters, predictability isn’t a bad thing. These characters are often predictable for comedic effect or other reasons dictated by your plot.
When a reader can predict how a stock character will react, a writer can use that knowledge to build tension or set up a humorous situation. Take a stereotypical “angry drill sergeant” and put him up against the likes of a modest, bumbling country boy. You’ve got a recipe for humor. Think- Sergeant Carter and Gomer Pyle, or Lieutenant Dan and Forrest Gump.
A writer can also subvert a reader’s expectations by priming the reader to expect one thing with a stock character and then doing the opposite. Take the cop who’s a week from retirement and just wants to make it through alive so he can enjoy his family. Maybe that cop hates his family and knows he would be bored to tears without a compelling case to solve.
The vital thing to note is that stock characters inhabit the background of your story. So, these people can be simple, defined by one characteristic and a single motivation.
Archetypes vs. Stereotypes
Stereotypes are oversimplified and widely held beliefs about a specific group of people. You want to avoid stereotyping at all costs because it is terrible writing, and stereotypes are often offensive. Never rely on a simplistic characterization of the main character.
Simple characterizations of stock characters are ok unless they depend on a common stereotype. Most negative stereotypes are applied to people based on culture, religion, ethnicity, race, age, or gender.
Ok, that’s a quick (not really, that was like 5000 words) rundown of character archetypes. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you use these character types in your writing:
- Don’t fall into clichés.
- Don’t be afraid to combine different archetypes in one character.
And, otherwise, create interesting, believable characters. Easier said than done, right? But, try anyway. Like, right now. Start writing!
Continued reading on character archetypes: