Literary Archetypes

Throughout history, we see the same figures, the dashing hero, the damsel in distress, the wise old mentor - but why is this? Literary archetypes are used to create not only these characters but also plot points and symbols in a story! Below we will discuss how literary archetypes can create meaning in a text, and some of the key archetypes found in novels.

Literary Archetypes Literary Archetypes

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Table of contents

    Literary archetypes: definition

    Literary archetypes are a critical element of literary studies that can be found in almost all pieces of literature.

    Literary archetypes - A character, situation, or symbol that occurs consistently throughout literature until it is a universally recognised concept.

    Archetypes make a reader feel familiar with a character, situation, or symbol without explaining it. Four of the main types of literary archetypes include the animal, the self, the shadow and the persona. These are aspects of a story you have seen many times without even realising! For example, the star crossed lovers archetype can include the titular characters of Romeo and Juliet (1597), Wuthering Heights' (1847), Heathcliff and Catherine or Brokeback Mountain's (1997) Jack and Ennis.

    Literary archetypes: list and examples

    There are three main categories of literary archetypes, character archetypes, situational archetypes, and symbolic archetypes.

    Character archetypes

    Character archetypes - This refers to a character based on recognisable qualities that are identifiable to the reader.

    There are a total of 11 main categories of character archetypes. Examples of character archetypes other than those discussed in this section include the outlaw, the magician, the explorer, the creator, the innocent, the caregiver, the jester, the lover, and the ruler.

    The Hero

    The hero is one of the oldest forms of the literary archetype. The figure of the hero can be seen in mythology across the world, as they are the principal character in most folklore stories. A story that features the hero typically sees the character try to overcome an obstacle. The hero archetype tends to possess traits such as honourable, courage and confidence. A classic example of a hero is Achilles in The Iliad (700-750BC), while a more modern example is Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (2008).

    In stories that use the archetype of the hero, the hero must go on a journey, during which they will be significantly challenged either physically or mentally. These trials will change the hero and their outlook on life. However, they will also see the hero triumph and succeed on their journey.

    Byronic hero:

    A Byronic hero is a form of the hero character archetype created by Lord Byron. The Byronic Hero differs from the conventional hero archetype as they will be flawed characters. These characters may be cynical, depressive or impulsive and are often intelligent and cunning. This archetype tends to adhere to strict core beliefs and may seem emotionally tortured. Classic examples of the Byronic Hero include Don Juan in Lord Byron's 'Don Juan' (1819), Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville and Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald.


    Another deviation of the hero archetype is the antihero. The antihero is a social outcast with a moral code that may be different from that of a traditional hero. Instead of honour, the antihero may be motivated by self-interest or pragmatism. The antihero will be deeply flawed, and part of the story's arc may see them overcome these limitations. Notable examples of the antihero include Meursault in The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus, The Narrator in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (1996), and Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess.

    The Sage

    The sage is a familiar character archetype typically depicted as an older figure in literature. This archetype is frequently portrayed as a teacher, scholar or mentor to the protagonist. They principally seek out the truth and have a philosophical mindset. The sage can be either a positive or negative role model for the hero, as this archetype can guide the protagonist or manipulate them. Examples of the sage can be found in characters such as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings (1954) by J.R.R Tolkien, Albus Dumbledore in J.K Rowling's Harry Potter (1997-2007), or Julian Morrow in Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992).

    The Everyman

    The everyman archetype is typically used as a stand-in for the audience. This character will often be an ordinary person who is placed in an extraordinary situation. The everyman archetype is separate from the hero archetype as here the character will lack some of the key traits of a hero. They may be naturally cowardly or nervous rather than the typical hero. The everyman archetype is seen in characters such as Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams' A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978-1980), Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit (1937) by J.R.R Tolkein, and Leopold Bloom in Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce.

    Situational archetypes

    In the scope of literary archetypal criticism, some scholars and experts believe that there are very few different stories. They argue that everything that can possibly be written has already been written.

    Situational archetypes refer to how plot points play out in a story. Character and symbolic archetypes are placed in these situations.

    In 2005, literary critic, Christopher Booker argued that there were only 7 basic plots (The Seven Basic Plots (2005) Christopher Booker). These plots are known as situational archetypes. Situational archetypes are useful as they provide a distinct setting to place characters. Some of the other situational archetypes include rags to riches, comedy, tragedy, and voyage and return.

    Overcoming the monster

    Overcoming the monster is a situational archetype that centres around either a hero or everyman archetype. In this story, the protagonist has to defeat a great evil causing destruction. The destruction caused may be of any type, such as the destruction of a place, person(s) or a way of life. This situational archetype is seen in stories such as Beowulf (700AD), which sees the titular character defeat three monsters. Sometimes the story may change, including saving a 'damsel in distress' or a kingdom. Other times, the monster may be metaphorical and used to represent a greater fear. A modern example of this situational archetype is seen in Peter Benchley's novel Jaws (1974).


    Another common situational archetype is rebirth. This archetype is sometimes used to represent death or the cycle of life, as it sees a character being reborn. Rebirth can either be physical or metaphorical. This is because it can be used to symbolise an ending and a beginning for a character. The most famous example of this archetype is the resurrection of Jesus Christ in The Bible. Another example of this archetype is the rebirth of Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens.

    The quest

    The quest (or the journey) is a type of story where the hero must travel to a specific location to retrieve or restore an object. Sometimes these stories will also focus on how the hero returns to their home after this quest. One of the key examples of this archetype is 'The Odyssey' (725 BCE) by Homer. More modern examples include The Lord of the Rings (1954) by J.R.R Tolkien and Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1871).

    Symbolic archetypes

    Symbolism is a common literary device that can be found in most works of literature.

    Symbolic archetypes - These are colours, shapes, objects and elements that are frequently used in literature, and are commonly associated with a concept.

    Some symbols are consistently used in the same manner to represent an idea or concept. Symbolic archetypes are an easy way to include meaning and depth in a piece of writing.


    In literature, light is used as a symbolic archetype of hope or renewal. Light is commonly associated with The Bible, as God calls light 'good'. From this, the light became a symbol that was frequently associated with Heaven, and so it gained positive associations. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), the green light symbolises hope as it reflects Gatsby's dreams of being with Daisy. Light is therefore the symbolic archetype of positivity, dreams and hope. It is commonly linked with the situational archetype of rebirth.


    The symbolic archetype of the dark represents the opposite ideas of light. In literature, the dark is often used to symbolise the unknown or death. This symbolic archetype is commonly seen in horror stories as well as tragedies. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), darkness is used to symbolise the unknown and death. Another example of the dark being used as a symbol can be seen in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (1899). In the novel, this symbolic archetype is used to represent death and fear.

    Literary archetypes: criticism

    Archetypes may offer further insight into literary works.

    Archetypal literary criticism - This is a type of literary criticism that uses literary archetypes to analyse literature.

    Archetypal literary criticism is a form of literary criticism that emphasises the role played by archetypes in literary works. Literary critics who support this theory argue that humans have a 'collective unconscious,' which is why the same archetypes are seen across different cultures and time periods. The inclusion of archetypes in writing will encourage readers to think about human beliefs and fears. Archetypal literary criticism, therefore, argues that archetypes are used in literature to interrogate key aspects of human existence.

    Literary Archetypes and Carl Jung

    Carl Jung was a Swiss psychologist who pioneered the idea of literary archetypes. A lot of the major ideas of archetypal literary criticism can be found in his book, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconcious (1959). Jung argued that there were four main literary archetypes, the self, the animal, the shadow and the persona.

    These archetypes are created by a collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is the idea that people have shared memories that have been passed down throughout history. This would explain why an archetype such as the sage is seen in both ancient texts, as well as modern works.

    Literary archetypes: effect

    Literary archetypes are a key way to ensure that piece of fiction is memorable and easily understandable. Using literary archetypes is a means to introduce characterisation and symbolism to a piece, without having to explain a concept to the audience. Literary archetypes are also able to further develop a story if the writer chooses to subvert them.

    For example, the archetypal character of the damsel in distress can be subverted to save herself, rather than wait to be saved.

    Literary archetypes are therefore a simple way to introduce characters and concepts that readers can easily understand and connect to.

    Literary Archetypes - Key takeaways

    • Literary archetypes are universally recognised characters, situations or symbols in literature.
    • Character archetypes are characters based on recognisable qualities that are identifiable to the reader.
    • Situational archetypes are recognisable plots that occur in a story.
    • Symbolic archetypes are colours, shapes and elements that are frequently used in literature.
    • Literary archetypes are an effective way to make writing easy to understand and connect to.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Archetypes

    How do you identify an archetype in literature?

    To identify a literary archetype, look for recognisable characters or situations you have seen before. For example, rags to riches is a situational archetype seen in both David Copperfield (1849) by Charles Dickens and The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    What are the typical archetypes that exist in literature?

    The typical archetypes that exist in literature include character, situational, and symbolic archetypes. 

    What are the 7 character archetypes?

    Seven character archetypes include, the outlaw, the magician, the explorer, the creator, the innocent, the caregiver and the lover. 

    What is archetypal literary critcism? 

    This is a type of literary criticism that uses literary archetypes to analyse literature. 

    What are the 4 archetypes in literature?

    Four of the main types of literary archetypes include the animal, the self, the shadow and the persona. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How many main types of character archetypes are there?

    True or False: The Bryronic hero was created by Lord Byron. 

    Literary critic Charles Booker argues that there are how many situational archetypes? 


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