"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.
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.
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.
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.