Character Archetypes: A to Z Introduction–What’s an Archetype?

Over the next few months this website will be posting an A to Z series on Character Archetypes.This post introduces archetypes as a concept.


Contents Below

This post below is longer in word count than the rest in the series, as it provides a reference to different types of archetypes. Please use it as that reference should you need.The theme currently used here does not allow for multiple page posts, so as a quick contents, please scroll down to find –

  • What’s an archetype?
    • Definition and origins, from Plato to Jung and others
    • Diagrams
  • Types of archetypes
    • Categories – situational, symbolic and character, or
    • story telling (plot) vs character and others
  • Character Archetypes (the post series theme) –
    • Types –
      • iconic, generic and elemental or
      • paired archetypes
    • Character Archetype definition – why the character does what they do
    • Shadow Archetypes
      • Shadow embodiment
      • 12 shadow archetypes (Jung)
    • Stereotypes, Tropes and Cliches
      • Definitions
      • Using Archetypes (and Stereotypes or Tropes) as a Base
    • A Word on Character Archetype Names

What’s an Archetype?

The term “archetype” comes from the ancient Greek root words – archein, meaning “original or old”; and typos, which means “pattern, model or type”. The combined meaning is an “original pattern” of which all other similar persons, objects, or concepts are derived, copied, modeled, or emulated.

Plato was one of the first to describe archetypes – which were in those times purely thought of as a universal understanding. Carl Gustav Jung used the concept of archetype in his theory of the human psyche, and said an archetype shows –

“…the existence of definite forms in the psyche which seem to be present always and everywhere.” ~ ‘The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Collected Works.’

Carol Pearson and Hugh Marr, in their book What Story Are You Living? define an archetype as –

“…a universal set of roles, situations and themes that are recognizable to everyone…”

Jung archetypes
Jung Collective Unconscious Archetypes

Jung arrived at a grouping of four “archetypes” he nominated from a collected unconsciousness (above). He then moved the term into the psychological domain to define 12 standard character archetypes (below).

Jungian archetypology

Nowadays we have hundreds of archetypes, and the writer can make use of any archetype as a basis for story telling or character development.

An archetype will be –

  • a pattern of behaviour
  • a philosophical idea
  • a constantly recurring symbol or pattern
  • universally recognised and collectively inherited (sometimes unconsciously)

Types of Archetypes

Jung analysed three main categories of archetypes – situational, symbolic and character.


In literature there are two main types of archetypes – in story telling (archetypal storylines as sequences in plot) and characters. Symbolic archetypes exist across both of these. The well-known Hero’s Journey examples both story and character – the hero’s journey contains a universal story of a hero’s external and internal journey from normal world through extraordinary world, and the journey also includes several archetypal characters to aid the hero.

Archetypes can apply to other elements too – if I said “gothic” to you, what would you envision regarding setting, for example? A gothic story has expectations of story content and character types also. In something like gothic, symbolic archetypes can be used to engineer a lot of the necessary elements. Genre has some associations with archetype.

Archetypes are a one word system which immediately conjure a reasonably standard vision of that concept in most people’s minds.

Character Archetypes

Character Archetypes have been handed down for eons just as universal stories have. In fact, many of the very ancient Gods and Goddesses of Mythology provide excellent examples of the same archetypal patterns occurring across many cultures and centuries. Nowadays gods, goddesses and other universal archetypes are being used in both fiction and everyday life.

There are three types of character archetypes (via) –

  • Iconic (typecast personalities and very specific roles, usually with a celebrity name) –  Amelia Earhart, Clint Eastwood, Prometheus, Pandora, Icarus
  • Generic (of family and community, but could include many personality traits) – brother, sister, brother-in-law, boss, neighbour.
  • Elemental (generic but simplified down to a very specific role) – warrior, mother, masochist, critic, saviour.

Breaking them down further

At Robert Munafo‘s MRob pages there is a periodic table of archetypes which breaks down common archetypes into four opposing or balanced pairs – task vs relationship (which became masculine to feminine), child to adult, passive to aggressive as shadow extremes, and the balanced vs shadow (unbalanced).

There are other defining oppositions to any archetype you may select, and it’s worthwhile exploring these while you develop your characters. Think about opposites.

What a Character Archetype Is and Is Not

Let’s clarify a difficult concept. Character archetypes can be labeled in many ways – names can arrive out of example people (like Greek Gods), or roles (what they do), or generically (their community role) or even how they [are expected to] behave (like the Joker). Many archetypes have a multitude of names also, and in many instances, a multitude of sub-tropes. However, if you select an archetype for a new character, this will not always and ever define how that character will act.



“I am serious – what the character does is not the defining element. The defining element is WHY the character does what he does.

Any archetype can do anything – the question will always be why.””

Shadow Archetypes

“How can I be substantial without casting a Shadow? I must have a dark side too if I am to be whole: and by becoming conscious of my Shadow, I remember once more that I am a human being like any other.” ~ Carl Jung, 1931. Quoted from Personality and Personal Growth, 2005 6th Edition, R. Frager & J. Fadiman.

In Jungian psychology, the Personal Shadow is the opposite to the Persona (our outer Ego mask).

Within all of us as people, and within any character with an archetype is a specialist archetype which we all have, that of the shadow. Carl Jung described the shadow as “part of self, but that part which we deny and project onto others” – in other words, our flaws and misbeliefs about ourselves.

In order to lead a balanced life, any fictional hero or protagonist must first learn to recognise their own shadow (to raise it to a state of consciousness) and to accept it. Most of our good stories tell us of this internal journey as part of the character arc of our main protagonists.

Shadow Embodiments

Often this internal journey is helped along the way with shadow embodiment characters fitting these darker archetypes, and used to reflect (mirror) back those shadows to our protagonist. The classic villain, for instance, will embody the hero’s darkest tendencies. Other shadow characters might feedback total loss and fear to a hero who has a deep fear of losing everything.

Many archetypal lists (and personality type systems like the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs) offer the archetype’s greatest fears and weaknesses (or the shadow).

Jungian psychology suggests that the true shadow will include good or positive but hidden parts of ourselves also. We see this fictionalised when the hero comes to fight their shadow embodiment character and refuses to kill them, metaphorically rising above and accepting the shadow within himself. Shadows like those from within (when the hero is fighting an enemy within, or has a dual personality) will merge good with bad, and the hero will be born again or return from his journey as a more balanced man.

Whenever you develop a character from one or more archetypes consider their shadows also. This may immediately give you their biggest flaw or secret fear with their internal journey mapped out.

12 Shadow Archetypes

12 shadows 12 archetypes






Within the common 12 archetypes of Jung, diversified through many archetypal methodologies, there are 12 common shadows. These may be helpful when looking at your own character fears or flaws, or as embodiment characters for your hero to encounter.

Several shadow archetypes are listed at with an index filter here. Christopher Vogler also defined the shadow archetype as one of the main seven archetypes withinThe Hero’s Journey‘. Carolyn Myss’s archetypal system also includes a deck of 80 archetypal cards with shadow archetypes below each.

The diagrams above are attributed to Bran Collingwood from the book ‘Nature of Personality.’ I purchased this ebook from and recommend it if you want further information on some of the common archetypes and shadows from a religious science viewpoint.

Stereotypes, Tropes and Clichés

The problem with archetypes nowadays, particularly with character types, is that a lot of them are overused. When this becomes the case, and readers start to grow bored of poorly written and clichéd stereotypical characters, it can ruin the story.

A stereotype and cliché are not the same thing. A clichéd character is overused, trite, and predictable. Stereotypes can be clichéd, when used in fiction, but some aren’t. Because of the association between stereotype and cliché, in literary terms we stay away from stereotype, and use the term “trope“.

Writeworld provides the best definition and explanation of the terms archetype, stereotype, trope and cliché. Here’s the breakdown –

    • Stereotypes: Not literary. We avoid using this term to talk about classifying characters, settings, plot points, etc..
    • Archetypes: The broad, all-encompassing norms of the stories humanity tells. The same archetypes can be found in all or nearly all cultures.
    • Tropes: Culturally-specific norms in storytelling. Tropes are cultural classifications of archetypes. There can be many tropes found under the umbrella of one archetype. Literary devices are not tropes (i.e. narrators, foreshadowing, flashbacks, etc.).
    • Clichés: Overused and hackneyed phrases, characters, settings, plot points, etc.. Archetypes do not become clichéd. Tropes can become clichés if they are used too often and readers get bored of them. Clichés are defined by a loss of the meaning or as a distraction from the story.

But we shouldn’t throw stereotypes away, just because of predicatability or cliche avoidance.

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,but that they are incomplete.— Chimamanda Adichie (famous TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”).

Using Archetypes (and Stereotypes or Tropes) as a Base

A good knowledge of archetypes (and stereotypes, tropes or cliches) is beneficial to creative artists, allowing us to make use of the commonly understood patterns, symbols or images as a model to create a “story” or character from. This base model will be easily understood – and popular.

But to avoid the potential [incomplete] stereotype or trope problems after starting with any archetypal model, the good creator will build on with changes, traits, flaws, transitions and surprises to complete the model and ensure a more exciting story.

A Word on Names

When it comes to names or labels for character archetypes, most are called by a role (like warrior or hero). This can become confusing as roles are situational, and in the case of archetypes, it should be the decision or why behind that archetype which defines the person. Archetypes sit at a primordial level within character, whilst roles are transient.

Labels are also often misnomers. Often this happens when an archetype becomes a stereotype and people jump to conclusions about what the character should be doing based on a name.

The Lover is a good example – many people immediately link the name with sex, or a character who wants to find or give romance. But the name as true archetype actually stands for something much more – the lover appreciates beauty, sensuality, life and relationships of all types. This means that a platonic “Friend” with such a lust for life and beauty would be a lover, your mother could be a lover, a child could certainly be a lover.

Now that we’re done with the definitions, let’s move onto the fun part…

The A to Z of Character Archetypes

This post series through the next few months will define a random character archetype each day. There will be a mix of archetypes from modern or psychological sources, writing craft books, spiritual or arcane sources, and other archetypal systems.

The header image for this post hints at a few of the archetypes covered and will be updated over time. Can you name some of them?

It is intended that at some point at the end of the series, the posts may be extended into an ebook pdf for those wanting more information on particular archetypes, but the actual posts for each will be (generally) under the 750-1000 word mark. If you are interested in an ebook with more information, please add your comment.

Follow the series, and have fun. The first post (A for Alter-Ego) will be published in a couple of days.

Part of 2016’s Character Archetype Series (A-Z) @ Hunter is Writing.

5 thoughts on “Character Archetypes: A to Z Introduction–What’s an Archetype?

  1. The two diagrams in this article are taken from my book NATURE of Personality which has a copyright in my name. I appreciate your interest in my work which is not to be confused with Jung.

  2. I purchased the Nature of Personality as an ebook after Bran Collingwood’s comment. Highly recommended if you are looking for further thoughts on archetypes.

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