A wise owl. A trickster fox. An innocent heroine who needs a brave warrior knight to save her. How many stories can you name that have versions of these characters?
Throughout the ages, writers from William Shakespeare to George Lucas have drawn from archetypes, or prototypical characters, to populate their stories. Certain character types have always fit into the literature that’s been passed down over time. Psychiatrist Carl Jung said archetypes are part of our collective unconsciousness. And scholars such as Joseph Campbell point to archetypal characters in mythology and folklore to explain universal story structures such as the hero’s journey.
Author Christopher Vogler gives writers a handy guide in his book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. Vogler describes seven character archetypes:
Hero: This is the classic protagonist with whom the reader identifies. The Hero ultimately embodies our most cherished values, though may have to go through a period of learning or transition to get there. Heroes can be willing or unwilling, deliberate or accidental.
Mentor: The Mentor assists the Hero in some way, giving him advice or teaching him skills. Mentors can appear at crucial moments, or be present in large chunks of the story. Mentors symbolize wisdom, knowledge and experience.
Threshold Guardian: This is a character who shows up to pose an obstacle to the hero at a transitional point in the story (a gatekeeper would be a classic Threshold Guardian). In classic myths, the guardian often required the Hero to answer a riddle, give a gift, or even fight the guardian before proceeding on his journey. When the Hero passes the Guardian and crosses the threshold, he’s achieved a significant point of growth.
Herald: The Herald provides the information that triggers the Hero into action. The Herald can be a person, a letter, a phone call, a newspaper article; anything that sets the Hero’s story in motion.
Shapeshifter: The Shapeshifter represents uncertainty and change. He may be a character who keeps changing sides or whose allegiance is uncertain. Shapeshifters can combine with other characters (such as the Trickster or Mentor) to keep the Hero on his toes.
Shadow: The Shadow creates the tension in the story. The Shadow is often opposes the hero and is typically the main antagonist. They may also be people who provide obstacles along the way, although not as a guardian. The shadow also represents the darker side of our own nature.
Trickster: The Trickster provides entertainment in the story. Tricksters can be silly, clever or even wise. They often keep the Hero a bit off balance.
These are not the only archetypes recognized in literature. In her book The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By, Carol Pearson identifies the Innocent, Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr, and Magician. She expanded on these ideas in Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World. Type the keyword “archetypes” in Amazon.com, and you’ll pull up dozens of other listings. It’s easy to get lost in academic studies of archetypes and what they mean to our shared human history. But the bottom line is this: certain characters have always struck a chord with storytellers because they represent different aspects of our own nature. This is especially true with science fiction and fantasy, where stories contain many symbolic elements (think of The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars). If we throw these often-competing aspects into the same pot and stir it up, we get some interesting results.
A word of caution: Don’t rely on standard archetypes exclusively when developing your characters, or you’ll quickly devolve into stereotypes. We all know these characters inside and out because we’ve seen them so often. So while it’s useful to have a general understanding of archetypes and how they react to one another, use them as inspiration but take them in unexpected directions. As a starting point, try combining two archetypes into one character: a Martyr/Shapeshifter (a jealous boyfriend who pretends to support a girl’s dream of being an actress, but really sabotages it); a Shadow/Trixter (an antagonist who uses humor to work against the Hero); a Wanderer/Hero who craves independence and autonomy but must learn to work with others to get what he wants.
If you see your characters reflected closely in the definitions of literary archetypes, you haven’t worked hard enough to make them unique. Use these definitions as a tool: learn what purpose each character serves in the story, understand how the characters react to each other, see what happens to the plot when a new archetype enters the scene. Then trust that an intuitive knowledge of archetypes is part of your storyteller’s DNA, and just write.