What Is an Archetype?

Daniel Liden

"Archetype" is a broad term used to describe any given type of character, personality, symbol, or other literary device that is widely recognized and used. In literature, the term almost always refers to a type of generic character personality that appears in many literary works. The "mad scientist," for instance, is a character archetype because it is almost universally recognized and widely used. The term may, alternatively, be used to refer to the original use of an often-reused character or personality type. Archetypes are used in a variety of types of literature, but most are thought to originate in early mythology and folklore.

In literature, an archetype is often a generic character type.
In literature, an archetype is often a generic character type.

It is important to note that the term "archetype" can refer either to the original model on which subsequent characters and character types are based or to the generic character type used many times in literature. The first use of the mad scientist in literature was an archetype, as is every single subsequent use of that character type. A type of character used only once and never imitated, however, would not be considered an archetypal character. It is, however, quite rare for characters to be completely and totally outside of any known or previously-used character archetypes.

The folktales of Hans Christian Andersen often made use of archetypical characters like evil stepmothers.
The folktales of Hans Christian Andersen often made use of archetypical characters like evil stepmothers.

There are countless different archetypes used in literature, some of which are based on classifications commonly applied to real people while others could never or only rarely exist in the real world. Common archetypes, for instance, include the brooding hero, the courageous youth, the joker, and the wise old mentor. Each of these, though not necessarily common, can be connected with little difficulty to real people. An archetype such as the wizard or the evil overlord may be more difficult to connect to reality, though connections sometimes can still be made. An archetype without a strong basis in reality tends not to lose any of its effectiveness, however, as the prevalence of such archetypes makes them seem perfectly acceptable to readers.

Novelists who place archetypal characters in their books do so for varying reasons.
Novelists who place archetypal characters in their books do so for varying reasons.

The use of an archetype in literature can have a variety of different effects. When it is revealed that a character fits into a given archetype, the reader may be compelled to assume that every aspect of the character's personality is based on the archetypal character. For this reason, a writer may find it difficult to break away from the archetype and create a truly original character. Alternatively, a skilled writer may be able to introduce character and personality traits that force the reader to reevaluate conventional ideas of particular archetypes.

The "mad scientist" is a character archetype.
The "mad scientist" is a character archetype.

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Discussion Comments


@lovealot - It's fun to try to come up with some interesting archetypes. I'll contribute a few.

One archetype that comes to mind is "lover boy." I think of him as someone who smothers a woman with words of love, but in the end isn't sincere.

The rebel can be a true rebel, who is fighting a cause. Or he/she can be a rebel who is a malcontent, like a rebel without a cause.

Then there is the "crinch or the killjoy" who puts a damper on everything. He's always looking on the negative side.

Anyone else have some archetypes to share?


@amysamp - I'm so glad we have archetypes in literature. It makes reading and writing novels and screen plays so much more intriguing.

One archetype I enjoy and notice often in literature is the born loser. I like them in a story that is somewhat humorous. i don't think anyone is truly a born loser. There's other ones that are preceded by "born" like born to be wild.

Then there's the bookworm archetype. He/she likes to be alone, wears glasses, reads a lot, doesn't smile much.

The coldhearted character has no feelings, or so it seems. He will hurt whoever he crosses paths with.


@amysamp - My favorite archetype is the opposite of the playboy archetype. The one that is usually being helped by the playboy archetype - the nice guy archetype. The one that is completely awkward with women, usually seeks help, tries the advice with no success but plenty of awkward stories, and then in the end finds the right girl by foregoing the advice.

But that is probably because my husband fits that type!


Ah the archetypes. I love them. Often and by definition stereo-typical writers of books and screenplays somehow always manage to make you feel that the archetype character is still different from other characters of the same archetype secondary to the way they incorporate amazingly vivid personalities.

In fact, that is what makes or breaks a movie or book for me. If I am not caring about and curious about, wanting to know more about a character then I usually can't finish the book or movie.

And this is probably due to the archetype; by definition you usually know what is going to happen to them. For example, the mean pretty popular girl is going to have something happen in her life to have it make more meaning.

The playboy archetypal character is going to finally fall for a girl and then all of the tips he has given other men to get women he is going to have to stop doing to get the girl he wants.

My favorite archetype, are the eccentric archetypes. The person that just can't seem to fit in archetype, that by the end of a story finds kindred souls or the story begins with their group of friends and goes on to tell about their uncanny adventures.

What are some other archetype examples people are fans of?


I read a book in which the main character seems to be an archetype of a crazy old lady. The writer incorporates vivid traits unique to this lady into the book after the first chapter, though, and we find that she is anything but a stereotype.

The lady had been a victim of a doctor’s clinical trial for a new drug against her will decades ago that caused her daughter, who she was pregnant with at the time, to die at a young age. As an old lady, she decides to track down the doctor and murder him.

The book follows her crazy train of thought as she finds him, befriends his family, and does little things to annoy and harm him before her plan is discovered. She is a colorful character who displays a wide range of traits. Some are archetypal, but others are just strange.

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