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What are archetypes
universal symbols found in literature
can include characters, plots, themes, and settings
convey universal meanings and shared human experiences
Character archetypes are….
complex and compelling
Hero or heroine archetype
goes on a journey
is often victorious
offer guidance and support
is usually older than the hero
is courageous and strong
opposes the hero
may be corrupt or evil
rejects societal norms
lives by own moral code
Tragic hero or heroine archetype
faces downfall or ruin
evokes pity and distress
How to analyze character archetypes
what is the character’s goals what is the character’s personal traits what universal appeal does the character evoke what emotional response does the character evoke
How to determine the theme through archetype
identify the main characters determine which archetype the character represents use prior knowledge about archetypes to help determine the message
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4.3 Archetypes in literature
7 min read • january 25, 2023
Hey there! Welcome to study guide 4.3. Today, we’ll be exploring a few topics. We’ll focus on archetypes , but also briefly look at contrasts within texts. The form relates to plot, and the latter relates more so to the conflicting ideas represented in a text. Let’s get started!
What are Archetypes?
First, let’s begin with an introduction/definition of archetypes . You may have heard of this word before, but maybe not!
Archetypes are universal, recurring patterns or themes that are present in works of literature. They are universal patterns that are deeply ingrained in the human psyche and often reflect fundamental human experiences or desires. Examples of archetypes in literature include the hero , the mentor , the villain , the mother , the trickster , and the outcast . You can almost think of them as “templates” for characters. These archetypes can be found in stories, myths, and legends from around the world and are often used by authors to create complex and relatable characters .
Let’s define a few archetypes to better understand each:
The Hero : This archetype is typically a protagonist who overcomes obstacles and adversity to achieve a goal or accomplish something great. Examples include Beowulf , Odysseus , and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye .
The Mentor : This archetype is typically an older, wiser character who guides and advises the hero . Examples include Merlin in Arthurian legend , and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird .
The Villain : This archetype is typically an antagonist who opposes the hero and cause conflict. Examples include Iago in Othello , and the witch in Hansel and Gretel .
The Mother : This archetype is typically a nurturing, supportive character who cares for the hero . Examples include Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Marmee in Little Women .
The Trickster : This archetype is typically a clever and cunning character who uses wit and deception to achieve their goals. Examples include Loki in Norse mythology and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream
The Outcast : This archetype is typically a character who is marginalized or rejected by society. Examples include Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein and Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird .
These are just a few examples, and different books will use archetypes in different ways. Archetypes are not limited to any single work of literature and are not limited to the above examples.
Archetypes in literature serve several important functions. One of the most important is that they help to create relatable, multi-dimensional characters. By using archetypes , authors can write stories that resonate with readers across different cultures and time periods. Everyone knows the difference between a hero and a villain , for example. The archetypes impart on the reader certain expectations for what the character’s actions will be like and how the story will progress.
Archetypes also help to create a sense of familiarity and comfort for the reader. Because they are based on universal patterns , readers can often identify with the characters and situations in a story even if they are in a completely different setting or context. This can make the story more engaging and memorable for the reader.
Third, archetypes can be used to add depth and complexity to a story by exploring the different facets of a single archetype. For example, a writer may create a hero -like villain , where it is unsure what the character really is. This can create a rich and nuanced narrative that explores the human experience from multiple perspectives.
Finally, archetypes can also be used to create a sense of unity and continuity within a work of literature. By using archetypes that are found in myths, legends, and stories from around the world, authors can create a sense of shared humanity and connect their work to a larger literary tradition .
Overall, archetypes play an important role in literature by helping to create relatable characters , convey universal themes , and add depth and complexity to stories.
What are Contrasts?
A contrast in literature refers to the use of two or more elements, such as characters, themes, or writing styles, to create a sense of opposition or difference between them . As the name of the concept suggests, this technique can create a sense of contrast between different themes or ideas in a work of literature. This technique is also used to highlight the similarities and differences between characters and to create tension or conflict in a story.
In literature, contrasts are used to draw attention to the specific traits, aspects, or characteristics of the elements being compared. This helps the reader to understand the similarities and differences between those elements, and to see how they relate to each other.
For example, in a novel, a contrast may be used to compare and contrast the main character with a secondary character. This helps the reader to understand the main character's personality, motivations, and beliefs, and to see how they differ from those of the secondary character. Additionally, this can also help in understanding the theme and message of the story.
Furthermore, contrasts often represent conflicts in values related to character, narrator, or speaker perspectives on ideas represented by a text. This means that the different elements being compared may have different beliefs, values, or perspectives on the ideas and themes presented in the text. This can create a sense of tension or conflict, which can be used to drive the plot or to explore complex ideas and themes.
Let’s look at an example to make this concept more concrete. We’ll use Franz Kafka’s “ Metamorphosis .”
In Kafka's " Metamorphosis ," there is a contrast between the character of Gregor Samsa , the protagonist , and his family. Before Gregor's transformation into a giant insect, his family relies on him for financial support, but they show little appreciation for him. After his transformation, his family's attitude towards him changes to one of disgust and repulsion. They see him as a burden and are eager to be rid of him. They become increasingly neglectful and abusive towards him, and ultimately, they lock him away in his room.
This contrast in the attitude of Gregor's family towards him before and after his transformation emphasizes the theme of alienation and rejection . Before his transformation, Gregor feels alienated from his family due to their lack of appreciation for him. After his transformation, this alienation becomes even more pronounced as his family actively rejects and mistreats him. This contrast also highlights the theme of the dehumanization of the individual in modern society and how one's value is often determined by their usefulness.
“Moby Dick” Example
In Herman Melville 's " Moby Dick ," there is a contrast between the characters of Ahab , the captain of the ship, and Ishmael , the narrator. Ahab is consumed by his obsession with revenge against the white whale , while Ishmael is more level-headed and rational. This contrast between the two characters highlights the theme of obsession and its destructive effects. Ahab 's obsession with the white whale ultimately leads to the destruction of his ship and the deaths of many of his crew, while Ishmael is able to survive and tell the story. This contrast also helps to create a sense of tension and conflict, which drives the plot of the story.
Additionally, there is a contrast between the natural and the supernatural, as the giant white whale is seen as a supernatural creature, and the sailors are portrayed as mortal, limited, and fallible. This contrast helps to create a sense of awe and danger, and also to emphasize the theme of the human being in front of nature.
Overall, the contrast in " Moby Dick " is a powerful tool to convey the themes of obsession , destruction and the human being's relation to nature.
In this guide, we looked at two main concepts: archetypes and contrasts . Archetypes are universal patterns or themes that are present in works of literature and help to create relatable, multi-dimensional characters. Contrasts in literature are used to create a sense of opposition or difference between two or more elements in a text to highlight similarities and differences and create tension or conflict. Both archetypes and contrasts play important roles in literature by helping to convey universal themes and add depth and complexity to stories.
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- Literary Terms
- Definition & Examples
- When & How to Write Archetypes
1. What is the main difference between an archetype and a cliché?
a. An archetype never gets old, while clichés do
b. A cliché is an evil archetype
c. Clichés are specific to Western culture.
d. Clichés appear mostly in fiction, while archetypes appear in myths
2. Which of the following is NOT one of the categories of archetype discussed?
a. Character archetype
b. Situational archetype
c. Literary archetype
d. Symbolic archetype
3. What is the best definition for “character archetype”
a. A moral hero from mythology
b. A very common sort of character
c. A universal type of character that appears in all cultures
d. A character that plays many roles in a single story
4. Batman is an example of which archetype?
List of Terms
- APA Citation
- Comic Relief
- Deus ex machina
- Double Entendre
- Dramatic irony
- Extended Metaphor
- Figures of Speech
- Literary Device
- Pathetic Fallacy
- Point of View
- Red Herring
- Rhetorical Device
- Rhetorical Question
- Science Fiction
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
- Turning Point
- Urban Legend
- Essay Guide
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Definition of Archetype
An archetype is a literary device in which a character is created based on a set of qualities or traits that are specific and identifiable for readers. The term archetype is derived from the studies and writings of psychologist Carl Jung who believed that archetypes are part of humanity’s collective unconscious or memory of universal experiences. In a literary context , characters (and sometimes images or themes ) that symbolically embody universal meanings and basic human experiences, independent of time or place, are considered archetypes.
For example, one of the most common literary archetypes is the Hero . The hero is generally the protagonist of a narrative and displays ubiquitous characteristics such as courage , perseverance, sacrifice, and rising to challenge. Though heroes may appear in different literary forms across time and culture, their characterization tends to be universal thus making them archetypal characters.
Common Examples and Descriptions of Literary Archetypes
As a rule, there are twelve primary character types that symbolize basic human motivations and represent literary archetypes. Here is a list of these example literary archetypes and their general descriptions:
- Lover: character guided by emotion and passion of the heart
- Hero : protagonist that rises to a challenge
- Outlaw: character that is rebellious or outside societal conventions or demands
- Magician: powerful character that understands and uses universal forces
- Explorer: character that is driven to explore the unknown and beyond boundaries
- Sage: character with wisdom, knowledge, or mentor qualities
- Creator: visionary character that creates something significant
- Innocent: “pure” character in terms of morality or intentions
- Caregiver: supportive character that often sacrifices for others
- Jester: Character that provides humor and comic relief with occasional wisdom
- Everyman: Character recognized as average, relatable, found in everyday life
- Ruler: Character with power of others, whether in terms of law or emotion
Examples of Archetype in Shakespearean Works
William Shakespeare utilized archetype frequently as a literary device in his plays. Here are some examples of archetype in Shakespearean works:
- Lover: Romeo (“Romeo and Juliet”), Juliet (“Romeo and Juliet”), Antony (“Antony and Cleopatra”)
- Hero : Othello (“Othello”), Hamlet (“Hamlet”), Macduff (“ Macbeth ”)
- Outlaw: Prince Hal (“Henry IV”), Edmund (“ King Lear ”), Falstaff (“Henry IV”)
- Magician: Prospero (“The Tempest”), The Witches (“Macbeth”), Soothsayer (“Julius Caesar”)
- Sage: Polonius (“Hamlet”), Friar Laurence (“Romeo and Juliet”), Gonzalo (“The Tempest”)
- Innocent: Viola (“ Twelfth Night ”), Ophelia (“Hamlet”), Hero (“Much Ado about Nothing”)
- Caregiver: Nurse (“Romeo and Juliet”), Mercutio (“Romeo and Juliet”), Ursula (“Much Ado about Nothing”)
- Jester: Touchstone (“As You Like It’), Feste (“Twelfth Night ”), Fool (“King Lear”)
- Everyman: Lucentio (“ The Taming of the Shrew ”), Valentine (“The Two Gentelmen of Verona”), Florizel (“The Winter ’s Tale”)
- Ruler: King Lear (“King Lear”), Claudius (“Hamlet”), Alonso (“The Tempest”)
Famous Examples of Archetype in Popular Culture
Think you don’t know of any famous archetypes? Here are some well-known examples of archetype in popular culture:
- Lovers: Ross and Rachel ( Friends ), Scarlett O’Hara ( Gone with the Wind ), Jack and Rose ( Titanic )
- Heroes: Frodo Baggins ( The Lord of the Rings ), Luke Skywalker ( Star Wars ), Mulan (Mulan)
- Outlaws: Han Solo ( Star Wars ), Star-Lord/Peter Quill ( Marvel Universe ), Ferris Bueller ( Ferris Bueller’s Day Off )
- Magicians: Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings), Dumbledore (Harry Potter ), Doctor Strange ( Marvel Universe )
- Explorers: Huck Finn ( The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ), Indiana Jones ( Indiana Jones ), Captain Kirk ( Star Trek )
- Sages: Atticus Finch ( To Kill a Mockingbird ), Jiminy Cricket (Disney’s Pinocchio ), Obi-Wan Kenobi ( Star Wars )
- Creators: Victor Frankenstein ( Frankenstein ), Willy Wonka ( Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ), Daniel Plainview ( There Will Be Blood )
- Innocents: Tiny Tim ( A Christmas Carol ), Dorothy ( The Wizard of Oz ), Forrest Gump ( Forrest Gump )
- Caregivers: Mary Poppins ( Mary Poppins ), Alice ( The Brady Bunch ), Marge Simpson ( The Simpsons )
- Jesters: Donkey ( Shrek ), Kramer ( Seinfeld ), Eric Cartman ( Southpark )
- Everyman Characters: The Dude ( The Big Lebowski ), Homer Simpson ( The Simpsons ), Jim Halpert ( The Office )
- Rulers: Daenerys Targaryen ( Game of Thrones ), T’Challa/Black Panter ( Marvel Universe ), Don Corleone (The Godfather)
Difference Between Archetype and Stereotype
It can be difficult to distinguish the difference between archetype and stereotype when it comes to literary characters. In general, archetypes function as a literary device with the intent of complex characterization. They assign characters with specific qualities and traits that are identifiable and recognizable to readers of literary works. Stereotypes function more as limited and often negative labels assigned to characters.
For example, the movie “The Breakfast Club” features characters that are far more stereotypical than archetypal. This movie features five representations of “typical” teenagers such as a dumb jock, conceited rich girl, skinny nerd, misunderstood rebel, and disaffected slacker that are forced to spend time together. These representations include what may appear to be archetypes in that they are identifiable by the audience . However, they function much more as stereotypes in the sense that their characterization is oversimplified and primarily negative. The characters assume their given stereotypical roles rather than display the complex characterization generally demonstrated by archetypes.
Overall, as a literary device, archetype functions as a means of portraying characters with recurring and identifiable traits and qualities that span time and culture. This is effective for readers in that archetypes set up recognizable patterns of characterization in literary works. When a reader is able to identify an archetypal character, they can anticipate that character’s role and/or purpose in the narrative. This not only leads to expectations, but engagement as well on the part of the reader.
It’s essential that writers bear in mind that their audience must have a reasonably clear understanding of how the character reflects a particular archetype in order for it to be effective. If the characterization of the archetype is not made clear to the reader, then that level of literary meaning will be lost. Of course, archetypal characters can be complex and fully realized. However, they must be recognizable as such for the reader on some level.
Here are some ways that writers benefit from incorporating archetype into their work:
Establish Universal Characters
Archetypal characters are recurrent when it comes to human experience, especially in art. A literary archetype represents a character that appears universal and therefore gives readers a sense of recognition and familiarity. This ability to relate to an archetypal character alleviates a writer’s burden of excessive or unnecessary description, explanation, and exposition . Due to a reader’s experience, they are able to understand traits and characteristics of archetypes in literature in an almost instinctual way without detailed explication .
Establish Contrasting Characters
Archetypes can also help writers establish contrasting characters, sometimes known as foils . In general, a literary work does not feature just one archetypal character. Since readers have an awareness of the inherent and typical characteristics of an archetype, this can create contrast against other characters in the narrative that are either archetypes themselves or not. Therefore, writers are able to create conflict and contrast between characters that are logical and recognizable for the reader.
Examples of Archetype in Literature
Archetype is an effective literary device as a means of creating characters with which the reader can identify. Here are some examples of literary archetypes and how they add to the significance of well-known literary works:
Example 1: Nick Carraway: Everyman ( The Great Gatsby , F. Scott Fitzgerald)
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
In this passage, Fitzgerald establishes for the reader that Nick Carraway’s character is not just the narrator of the novel , but an “everyman” archetype as well. Though Nick’s father reminds him of “advantages” that he’s had, Nick is nevertheless considered the novel’s most relatable and “average” character. Therefore, as an everyman archetype, the reader is able to identify with Nick and consequently trust his observations and narration of the events of the story . This allows Nick’s character to influence the way in which the reader engages with the novel’s characters and events, as his everyman actions and interactions become vicarious experiences for Fitzgerald’s audience as well.
Example 2: Ma Joad: Caregiver ( The Grapes of Wrath , John Steinbeck)
Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself.
In Steinbeck’s heart-breaking novel, the female characters represent a life force. This is epitomized by Ma Joad’s character as a “caregiver” archetype. Ma Joad is not only literally a caregiver in the sense that she is the mother of the protagonist and cares for her family, but she is also an archetypal caregiver in the sense that she makes sacrifices in order to care for others. Readers’ recognition of the characterization of Ma Joad as a caregiver allows Steinbeck to portray her as a traditional and symbolic mother figure.
However, Steinbeck elaborates on this archetype by portraying the effects of these caregiver traits on Ma Joad’s character. Rather than establishing her as a passive maternal character which would be identifiable and understood by a collective readership, Steinbeck reveals the universal consequences of this archetype’s traits on the character herself. Ma Joad is a universal character, yet her character also has a universal understanding and experience of tragedy and suffering. This makes her role and sacrifices as a caregiver even more meaningful.
Example 3: Sancho Panza: Jester ( Don Quixote , Miguel de Cervantes)
The most perceptive character in a play is the fool, because the man who wishes to seem simple cannot possibly be a simpleton.
In Miguel de Cervantes’ novel, Sancho Panza reflects the complexity and importance of the “jester” archetype. As Don Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza provides humor and comic relief as a contrast to the title character’s idealism. However, as Sancho Panza’s character becomes more developed in the novel, his jester archetype develops as well into a voice of reason and example of empathy and loyalty. This is beneficial for the reader in that, though they are contrasting characters, Sancho Panza as a jester beside Don Quixote becomes a more legitimate and influential character. In turn, the jester archetype legitimizes the protagonist as well, making the novel’s fool the “most perceptive character.”
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- Customer Archetype
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- Warrior Archetype
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- Anti-Hero Archetype
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- 1. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt What does the word " archetype " mean? Ancient ruins found all over the world. A patter repeated through the ages in literature. A type of arch found around the globe. Another word for an architect who also writes.
- 2. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt The three forms of archetypes commonly seen do NOT include which of these? setting character symbol motif
- 3. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt The first archetypal theme is considered to be what? (Hint: the hero undertakes a long journey towards a goal.) Initiation Quest Salvation Redemption
- 4. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt The second archetypal theme is what? (Hint: it includes a rite of passage where the character matures.) Initiation Quest Redemption Salvation
- 5. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt Which archetypal character has unusual origins, is strong, brave, smart, and is often a leader/prince? The companion The demonic adversary The hero The sacrificial scapegoat
- 6. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt Which archetypal character befriends and helps the hero, and is normally odd/quirky? The good mother The demonic adversary The companion The female soulmate
- 7. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt Which archetypal character is a villain who represents evil, is almost as strong as the hero, and may take on a monstrous form? The demonic adversary The hero The companion The terrible mother figure
- 8. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt Which archetypal is a hero who chooses to die or allows himself to be sacrificed to restore his people/land back to fruitfulness? The sacrificial scapegoat The hero The companion The terrible mother figure
- 9. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt Which archetypal character is the protector of good, home, and family; she may be a sacred woman who intercedes for those who pray for her? The great mother The hero The companion The terrible mother figure
- 10. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt Which archetypal character is the witch/stepmother/siren/temptress who does the exact opposite of what a mother should do? The great mother The demonic adversary The companion The terrible mother figure
- 11. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt Which archetypal character represents goodness, innocence, and purity? The great mother The hero The companion The female soulmate
- 12. Multiple Choice 30 seconds 1 pt Which psychiatrist came up with the "collective unconscious"? Carl Jung Sigmund Freud Erik Erikson Jean Piaget