Character Archetypes

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What are Character Archetypes? A Definition

Using Character Archetypes to Create Characters

Commonly used Character Archetype Sets

The Eight Hero’s Journey Archetypes

Michael Hauge’s Four Categories of Primary Character


What are Character Archetypes? A Definition.

"Model, first form, original pattern from which copies are made." - Oxford English Dictionary, 1600

"Pervasive idea or image from the collective unconscious." - Carl Jung

The term ‘archetype’ is based on the ancient Greek words ‘arche’ meaning ‘beginning, origin’ and ‘typos’ which means ‘pattern, model or type’. The combined meaning could be interpreted as ‘original model’.

A character archetype in novel terms is a type of character who represents a universal pattern, and therefore appeals to our human ‘collective unconscious’ .

For example, ‘hero’ is the most fundamental character archetype, which directly corresponds to us each being the hero (or protagonist) of our own life story.

The next most common character archetypes are: opponent, mentor and love interest.

It’s no coincidence that in our lives we all have people that make life difficult, people who help and guide us, and people who we fall in love with.

By skilfully applying the principles of character archetypes, writers are able to create well balanced casts of characters that propel the story forward and emotionally engage readers by tapping into our fundamental nature.

Using Character Archetypes to Create Characters

Plato believed that all physical forms were derived from a single, original archetype.

For example, there is one original, utterly perfect bird, which has the qualities of being small enough to comfortably fit in your hand, having a straight, wedge shaped beak, having a beautiful singing voice, being able to fly and having feathers.

That original is the ‘archetype’. All other birds are deviations and variations on that.

Plato’s ideas might cause a few raised eyebrows in scientific circles these days, but they are extremely useful for making sense of the chaos of creativity.

The perfect hero

In the same way as the bird, we could propose that there is a ‘perfect’ hero. This hero has certain qualities, such as having an internal struggle to get over, being essentially good, being brave, having a sense of humour and having a goal.

Most heroes in most stories will share those qualities. However, it is possible to deviate from the archetype and still have a beautiful bird (or hero).

So you might create your hero to have a goal and an internal struggle, but make them cowardly. They don’t fit the standard stereotype, but as long as they have enough of the established qualities of a hero, they will still tap into our subconsciousness understanding of a hero.

After all, there are birds that don’t even fly, and what could be more fundamental to a bird’s identity than flying?

Of course the further you deviate from the original archetype, the less people will identify a character as being that type of character.

That isn’t to say  that deviating is a bad thing – breaking the rules in itself can be incredibly powerful – but you can be far more effective if you know what the rules are and why you’re breaking them.

Keeping character archetypes discrete

In real life the roles of opponent, mentor and all the others will overlap, and multiple people will play the roles at different times of our lives.

However, fiction is a distilled, simplified reflection of our real life experience.

Therefore we simplify the roles, usually making them overlap as little as possible and having one character fulfilling each of these roles (with a few exceptions).

Commonly used Character Archetype Sets

There is no one set of roles which is accepted universally, but these are the most common and widely known:

  • The Eight Hero’s Journey Archetypes
  • Michael Hauge’s Four Categories of Primary Character

The Eight Hero’s Journey Archetypes

The hero’s journey archetypes are based on the work of Joseph Campbell, who demonstrated that there are commonalities shared across cultures and time which appeal to our human psyche. He did not ‘invent’ these archetype so much as identify  and distil them after studying a vast canon of human literature and spoken word stories from over thousands of years.


The Hero is the focus of the story, the main character who is followed from beginning to end. They will be the most prominent character, and it’s important they grow and change as a person as the story develops.

We follow them from their everyday life into new and uncharted territories, through a series of conflicts as they attempt to achieve an objective.

The audience should empathise with the Hero and want them to achieve their goal, even if they don’t agree with everything they do.


The Mentor is someone who teaches the hero to navigate the new situation they find themselves in.

The Mentor will often be kind and wise, but that’s not a given. Some Mentors might be bad-tempered, drunk or appear superficial.

Their tasks may include: explaining the rules of the new world, giving the hero a confidence boost, helping them access their innate skills and giving them useful equipment.

The Mentor will usually be an important character during the early stages of the story, but will fade away as the plot progresses, so that the hero must face their final battles using their own strength.


The Ally is a friend of the hero, who gives them assistance as they head towards their goal.

They can also serve as a sounding board and to show contrast with the Hero.

For example, the Hero can explain their plan to the Ally, and so share it with the reader.

And where heroes are instinctive and impulsive, Allies will often be found to be more cautious and thoughtful.


The Herald brings the invitation or threat that jolts the hero out of their everyday life and marks the beginning of the adventure.

The Herald isn’t always a person, it is often a letter or some other form of message.

If the Herald is a character, then they may also fulfil one of the other roles – if not, they may have a minor role at the beginning and not appear again.


The Trickster is an interesting role that often fills two contrasting purposes.

On the one hand, the Trickster provides comedy and light relief. But on the other side of the same coin, the Trickster will often draw attention to serious underlying themes. They can make you laugh but also raise important questions.


Shapeshifters are hard for the hero to pin down. One minute they are a staunch ally, the next they are revealed to be a secret betrayer. But suddenly, when the hero needs it most, the Shapeshifter shifts again, helping the hero out, even to their own detriment.

Having a character like this makes for extra tension and interesting, unpredictable relationships that keep the audience guessing.


The Guardian is a major obstacle on the hero’s adventure.

They stand on a threshold which the hero must cross if they want to move closer to their goal. It may be a real threshold, like a gate or a wall, or it may be something less tangible.

The Guardian wields power, whether it’s physical or bureaucratic, and they are a force to be reckoned with.


The  Shadow is the main opponent of the hero.

This character tries to stop the hero achieving their goals, throwing obstacles in their way whenever possible. The obstacles may be physical, mental or emotional – the Shadow will pull no punches.


Michael Hauge’s Four Categories of Primary Character


The hero is the main character, and they drive the story. The Hero is on screen or page the most, and the audience should empathise with them.

The audience should want the Hero to achieve their goal, fear for the safety of the hero when they come up against difficulties and rejoice in their success.

The hero must have an internal goal, and some internal conflict.


‘This is the character that stands most in the way of the hero achieving his or her outer motivation.’

The nemesis is most often a villain, but that doesn’t have to be the case. They may be indifferent to the hero, or even feel positively about them – but they must be blocking them achieving their goal.

Nemeses are usually powerful and formidable, as this makes the struggle against them more thrilling.

It’s critical that the nemesis be a specific character, not an idea, group of people or a force of nature. So not ‘poverty’, ‘the CIA’ or a hurricane. These things can certainly be obstacles, but they won’t work effectively as the nemesis as readers will find it difficult to emotionally engage with them.

Note – although the nemesis must be a specific person, that doesn’t mean the reader necessarily knows who it is through the story. They just know there is a person out there creating obstacles.


The reflection is usually sympathetic to the hero, and supports them as they strive for their goal.

The reflection provides support to the hero – after all, nobody can do everything alone. They also provide someone for the hero to talk to, sharing information and revealing inner motivation and inner conflict. They also provide a way to show contrast with the hero, to reveal both their strengths and their weaknesses.


The romance is as you might expect – the romantic interest of the hero.

According to Hague, a character only fulfils this role if winning their affections is a definite part of the hero’s goal.

If the hero is attracted to someone, but is not focussed on achieving their love, then that character is not a Romance in the primary role sense.

At some point in the story the Romance should support the hero’s goal, but at some point in the story they will also oppose it. There will be conflict, and then depending on the story, the Romance may end up supporting the hero in achieving their goal again as the story progresses.




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