Creative Writing Tutorials

An archetype is a generic, idealized model of a person, object or concept from which similar instances are derived, copied, patterned or emulated. In psychology, an archetype is a model of a person, personality or behavior. This article is about personality archetypes, as described in literature analysis and the study of the psyche.

In the analysis of personality, the term archetype is often broadly used to refer to

  • a stereotype—personality type observed multiple times, especially an oversimplification of such a type; or
  • an epitome—personality type exemplified, especially the "greatest" such example.

In a strict linguistic sense, however, an archetype is merely a defining example of a personality type. The accepted use of archetype is to refer to a generic version of a personality type. In this sense "mother figure" can be considered an archetype and instances can be found in various female characters with distinct (non-generic) personalities.

Archetypes have been present in mythology and literature for hundreds of years. The use of archetypes to analyze personality was advanced by Carl Jung early in the 20th century. The value in using archetypal characters in fiction derives from the fact that a large group of people are able to unconsciously recognize the archetype, and thus the motivations, behind the character's behavior.


The word archetype appeared in European texts as early as 1545. It derives from the Latin noun archetypum via the Greek noun arkhetypon and adjective arkhetypos, meaning "first-moulded". The Greek roots are arkhe- ("first" or "original") + typos ("model", "type", "blow", "mark of a blow").

Pronunciation note: The "ch" in archetype is a transliteration of the Greek chi (χ) and is most commonly articulated in English as a "k".

Jungian archetypes[]

The use of psychological archetypes was advanced by Carl Jung, c. 1919, and generally adopted in the social sciences. In Jung's psychological framework, archetypes are innate, universal prototypes for ideas and may be used to interpret observations. A group of memories and interpretations associated with an archetype are a complex, e.g. a mother complex associated with the mother archetype. Jung treated the archetypes as psychological organs, analogous to physical ones in that both are morphological givens that arose through evolution.

Jung listed four main forms of archetypes:

  1. The Self
  2. The Shadow
  3. The Anima
  4. The Animus

Symbols of the unconscious abound in Jungian psychology:

  1. The Syzygy ("Divine Couple"), e.g. Gnostic Aeons
  2. The Child, e.g. Linus van Pelt
  3. The Übermensch ("Superman", the Omnipotent) e.g. The Joker, Iago, Superman himself
  4. The Hero, e.g. Siegfried, Batman, Beowulf, Doc Savage, Luke Skywalker and The Matrix's Neo.
  5. The Great Mother, either good or terrible, e.g. Devi (MahaDevi), the Great Goddess, Glinda the Good Witch of the North
  6. The Wise old man, e.g. Merlin, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, Albus Dumbledore, Mazer Rackham and Mr. Miyagi
  7. The Trickster or Ape, e.g. Reynard, Robin Goodfellow, Br'er Rabbit, Bart Simpson, Bugs Bunny, Ferris Bueller, and Loki
  8. The Puer Aeternus (Latin for "eternal boy"), e.g. Peter Pan
  9. The Cosmic Man, e.g. Adam, Pangu, Gayomart

Archetypes in Fiction[]

Archetypes often appear in many forms of literature. Many archetypes in literature have their roots in mythology. A model for Neo, the nearly godlike hero of The Matrix, can be found in the Ancient Sumerian character, Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh's friend, Enkidu, is the archetypal sidekick character (powerful but uncivilized), which is paralleled by Robin Hood's Little John, Sundance from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and perhaps even Chewbacca in Star Wars. This is not to imply that the film directors borrowed directly from an Ancient Sumerian epic poem, but, rather, these archetypes are perpetuated as a typecasting, repeated again and again as characters in a story. Indeed, these remain part of our cultural memory and may be rooted in a collective unconscious, as Jung described it.

William Shakespeare is known for popularizing many archetypal characters that hold great social import such as Hamlet, the self-doubting hero; Falstaff, the bawdy, rotund comic knight; Romeo and Juliet, the ill-fated ("star-crossed") lovers; Richard II, the hero who dies with honor; and many others. Although Shakespeare based many of his characters on existing archetypes from fables and myths (e.g., Romeo and Juliet on Tristan and Isolde), Shakespeare's characters stand out as original by their contrast against a complex, social literary landscape. For instance, in The Tempest, Shakespeare borrowed from a manuscript by William Strachey that detailed an actual shipwreck of the Virginia-bound 17th-century English sailing vessel Sea Venture in 1609 on the islands of Bermuda. Shakespeare also borrowed heavily from a speech by Medea in Ovid's Metamorphoses in writing Prospero's renunciative speech; nevertheless, the unique combination of these elements in the character of Prospero created a new archetype, that of the sage magician as a carefully plotting hero, quite distinct from the wizard-as-advisor archetype of Merlin or Gandalf (both of which may be derived from priesthood authority archetypes from the Bible such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Elijah, etc).

Certain common methods of character depiction employed in dramatic performance rely on the pre-existence of literary archetypes. Stock characters used in theatre or film are based on highly generic literary archetypes. A pastiche is an imitation of an archetype or prototype in order to pay homage to the original creator.