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Have you ever wondered why characters like Yoda from Star Wars (1997) and Gandalf from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954) seem to be quite similar? It’s because they’re based on a similar archetype: the sage. There are also many other types of archetypes. Can you think of any other characters that seem similar?
There are multiple levels to the definition of an archetype. The first is the following.
An archetype is a recurring example of a character, image, or object that is easily identifiable to readers.
The second definition is more complex and involves theories conceptualised by the Swiss philosopher Carl Gustav Jung. He divided the human psyche into four levels: the persona, the shadow, the anima or animus, and the self.
For Jung, eros and logos represent the two opposites of rationality and irrationality, or reason and imagination. Logos is the more masculine and rational aspect, while eros is the more feminine and emotional counterpart.
Jung suggests that archetypes reside in the collective unconscious as repeated images, characters, and scenes throughout history. They occur as universal images throughout dreams, artworks, literature, religions, and myths, among other things.
There are twelve main archetypes that Jung identified, which can be put into four categories, depending on their general goals.
Archetypes are so common in everything around us that archetypal characters can even be applied to brands. M&Ms, for example, are often associated with a ‘jester’, while Nike evokes a ‘hero’.
Ego types are those that seek to impact the world around them. These archetypes are labelled as ‘rebel’, ‘magician’, and ‘hero’.
The ‘rebel’ archetype is also commonly referred to as ‘outlaw’, ‘radical’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘misfit’, and ‘retaliator’. They try to seek balance in the world around them in the form of either justice or revenge. Because of this, they are sometimes prone to extreme retaliation to greater forces around them, which can result in them committing a crime.
Examples of this archetype include Ferris Beuler from Ferris Beuler’s Day Off (1986) and Han Solo from Star Wars (1997).
The ‘magician’ is an archetype, also labelled ‘scientist’ or ‘inventor’, that primarily focuses on creating dreams by having a greater understanding of the world. Despite their pleasant-sounding aims, they can become quite manipulative characters in their attempts to achieve their goals.
Examples include Prospero from The Tempest (1611) and Morpheus from The Matrix (1999).
The ‘hero’ is associated with being a ‘warrior’, ‘crusader’, ‘winner’, or ‘rescuer’. They try to prove themselves and their worth in the world by trying to make it a better place (whether that’s by removing a dragon, fighting in a war, or taking out an oppressive government). They do, however, run the risk of becoming too arrogant and prioritising themselves over others.
Examples include Achilles from the ‘Iliad’ (8th century BC) and Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings (1954).
The social types of character archetypes are those that try to connect with others around them. These archetypes are often the ‘lover’, ‘jester’, or ‘citizen’.
The ‘lover’ is synonymous with other names like ‘spouse’, ‘intimate’, and ‘partner’. They are characters that seek intimacy and love with another person. This desire, however, runs the risk of them becoming too selfless or too naïve.
Examples include Jack from Titanic (1997) and Belle from Beauty and the Beast (1991).
The ‘jester’ is also known as ‘fool’, ‘trickster’, or ‘comedian’. They try to enjoy life as much as possible and often try to help others do the same. Unfortunately, they often waste their time attempting to do this.
Examples include Loki in Norse mythology and Fat Amy/Patricia Hobert from Pitch Perfect (2012).
The ‘citizen’ is a very generalised character whose main desire is to belong. The ‘citizen’ is often the most relatable to any reader or viewer. They are also called an ‘Everyman’, a ‘regular’, or ‘the person next door'. Their aims to fit in with others runs the risk of them conforming too much and losing their sense of self. They may also be too reluctant to take part in anything too adventurous and so are often sidekicks who need to be encouraged by their friends.
An example of this archetype is Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit (1937).
The freedom types are the character archetypes who try to seek paradise. This is often a personal type of paradise, but it can be expanded to seeking a better place for others as well. These can be the ‘explorer’, ‘sage’, or the ‘innocent’ in a plot.
The ‘explorer’ is also known as ‘wanderer’, ‘seeker’, or ‘pilgrim’. They try to find a greater purpose in the outside world, whether for themselves or for those they care about. However, their constant state of outward-looking might leave them in a state of aimlessness or even perhaps lead them to lose themselves.
An example of this is Odysseus from the ‘Odyssey’ (8th century BCE) by Homer.
The ‘sage’ prioritises greater understanding and truth above most other things and is, therefore, also known as ‘scholar’, ‘philosopher’, or ‘detective’. Sages are often idolised by other characters as ‘teachers’ or ‘mentors’ because of their intelligence. Despite this, they run the risk of becoming inactive in their thirst for knowledge.
Examples include Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda from Star Wars (1997).
The ‘innocent’ is a character who seeks to find their freedom. They are often depicted as a ‘child’ or ‘dreamer’. As a result of their innocence, they are very naïve and ignorant of the ways of the world.
Examples include Desdemona from Shakespeare’s Othello (1604) and Forrest Gump from Forrest Gump (1994).
The order character archetypes are those that try to provide structure in the world around them. They might try to do this for themselves, someone they care for, or even for an entire group of people. These archetypes can be the ‘sovereign’, the ‘caregiver’, or the ‘creator’.
The ‘sovereign’ archetype is also called the ‘ruler’, ‘judge’, or ‘boss’. Through their power, they hope to achieve a better world for their communities, people, or family. However, their fear of losing power means that they may become corrupt.
The ‘caregiver’ often also fulfils the roles of ‘parent’, ‘helper’, ‘saint’, ‘supporter’, or ‘carer’. Their kindness expands to those close to them and others around them, often leaving the potential for others to exploit them.
Examples include Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of The Rings (1954) and Samwell Tarly from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1996).
The ‘creator’ can also be an ‘artist’, ‘inventor’, or ‘dreamer’. They want to create something that supersedes them and express their thoughts on the world, but this desire is often met with perfectionism and self-criticism.
Examples include Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) by Roald Dahl and Doc Brown from Back to the Future (1985).
While there are archetypal characters that occur in literature, there are also many recurring events and motifs that appear throughout time.
Like Odysseus, who is trying to return home, there are many other texts and films that depict characters journeying to find something.
Birth and rebirth are key archetypal events. Rebirth can be literal, as in the case of Jesus, or figurative, as in a character’s sudden and drastic transformation.
This sort of archetype often consumes an entire plot. It demonstrates the wishes and hopes to proceed from less to more. It is a very common archetype in fairy tales such as Aladdin or Cinderella.
Marriage is often an essential event in literature and film as it is often a way to create a happy ending. Although it is considered an archetype, it does not occur in all literature globally, as marriage is not a universal concept. Alternatively, you could consider it the unification of two people.
Many forms of literature, film, and art explore the separation and isolation that characters experience. This may be a group of characters or a single one, and they may be excluded from family, society, or culture.
These archetypes most often occur in religious texts like the Qur’an, the Bible, and the Torah. However, the creation in the aftermath of apocalypses is becoming increasingly more explored in literature and film (through dystopian fiction), as it enables new societies to be developed.
Archetypes are important in literature because they are universally understood concepts. The fact that they repeatedly occur in film, literature, and myths creates a sense of familiarity with a reader or viewer that makes them more open to understanding a concept or character. Archetypes are also largely flexible and so can be applied to many different characters, helping a viewer and reader’s comprehension.
Archetypes assist in understanding the world around us. The fact that there are archetypal characters means that we can understand ourselves and others better, while archetypal events allow us to cope with large events happening to us.
Archetypes are closely related to other things and often overlap with them. They are most commonly confused with stereotypes, clichés, and tropes.
Stereotypes are generalised ideas about the characteristics of things. They can be about people, groups, places, and objects, among other things, but they can be incorrect if founded on prejudice.
Stereotypes are often made about marginalised groups of people. For example, the idea that ‘women are more complicated’ is a stereotype.
A cliché is an idea or expression that is overused. Clichés are often considered boring, uninteresting, and unoriginal because of how commonly they are used.
Terms in literature like ‘once upon a time’ or ‘they lived happily ever after’ are examples of clichés.
Tropes are common themes, ideas, and images that occur in specific categories of art.
For example, an artist might use similar brush strokes across their art, making it a key trope of their work. Similarly, the dystopian genre often has recurring tropes like government surveillance, powerful societies, and the denial of individuality.
As already said, these concepts all interlink with each other. Let’s use the concept of the ‘gay best friend’ in the romance genre to explore this.
This character is founded on commonly accepted stereotypes like that of being effeminate. There are also other stereotypes established for the purpose of the plot, as the gay best friend is good at giving relationship advice and acts as the comedic relief character in the narrative.
The gay best friend has been reproduced so many times that they have become an anticipated trope. In fact, the extent to which this character has been recreated has made their entire character a cliché that producers are trying to avoid in cinema and literature. Clichés, in general, are something people seek to avoid once they are established, but this particular one has become problematic in the representation of gay people.
The gay best friend character is derived from a combination of archetypes. They are predominantly a jester because they are often used as comic relief characters for the audience. However, they also act as a caregiver or supporter in giving advice to their friends.
An archetype is a recurring image, event, or character that can be found in literature, globally. Carl Gustav Jung theorised that these recurring things occur because of a universally collective unconscious that uses these archetypes to understand the world around us.
There are many types of archetypes in literature. These may be archetypal events (like marriage, birth, self-improvement, or the union of opposites), characters (like the trickster, sovereign, or hero), or motifs (like the apocalypse or creation).
Carl Gustav Jung divided the human psyche into four sections: the self, the persona, the shadow, and the anima/animus. These each interact with the layers of consciousness: the conscious, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious (the latter of which is where Jung theorised that archetypal imagery is found).
There are different ways of categorising archetypes. One way is defining eight traditional types of characters, depending on their involvement in literature or film, such as the protagonist, the antagonist, the reason, the emotion, the sidekick, the guardian, and the contagonist.
Archetypes are important in literature because of their familiarity. A reader will automatically understand a plot, character, event, or emotion because of the fact that it spans across other texts.
What is an archetype?
An archetype is an image, character, theme or motif that recurs throughout literature and art across time.
What did Jung say about archetypes?
Jung theorised that archetypes resided in the collective unconscious, hence why they reoccur.
How many archetypes are there?
There are many archetypes, but there are 12 main archetypes.
How are the 12 character archetypes organised?
They are organised into categories depending on their goals. There are ego types, social types, freedom types and order types.
Why are archetypes important?
Archetypes create a sense of familiarity for a reader or viewer.
What can archetypes get confused with?
Archetypes can get confused with clichés, stereotypes and tropes.
What are the ego type archetypes?
The rebel, magician and hero are ego type archetypes. They aim to impact the world around them.
What are the social type archetypes?
The lover, jester and citizen are the social type archetypes. They aim to connect with the world and people around them.
What are the freedom type archetypes?
The freedom type archetypes are the explorer, the sage and the innocent. They aim to seek paradise, which might be for themselves alone or for those they care about as well.
What are the order type archetypes?
The sovereign, caregiver and creator are the order type archetypes. They aim to create a structure to the world, which might be for themselves, their family or their people.
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