Exploring Literary Archetypes

We all know about “personality types.” We call ourselves either “introverts” or “extroverts.” We describe ourselves as being “mediators” or “peace-keepers” or “hotheads.” Some of us tend to be more of the “leader” type, while others prefer to be the “follower.” Some of us rely on our emotions to guide us, while others rely more on “gut feelings” or instincts; and then some prefer to use their powers of logical, rational thought as a primary guide. As we grow and mature, sometimes these aspects of our personality can change, too. A number of factors, including role models, life experiences, and successes and failures can shape our personalities.

Carl G. Jung (pron. “Yung”), the famous Swiss psychologist, did some ground-breaking work in the study of human “types” in the 1920s and 30s that led to a revolutionary theory of archetypes. These archetypes, Jung posited, are unconscious personas we respond to or play out in our lives. They do not refer to any specific persons or even personality types, but are over-arching mythic models that Jung believes all humans carry in our “collective unconscious.”

Much of Jung’s work focused on dream analysis, where he discovered these familiar archetypes at work in people’s sub-conscious thoughts. At this deep level, Jung discovered, humans work out their fears and hopes through images of faceless “types” of characters who play a stock set of roles that either help or threaten us.

Jung believed that these archetypes are actually a combination of our “shadow” self, hidden deep within us as a kind of alter-ego, and the imprinted persona left upon us by our parents. As we grow up, our parental figures and the stages of growth we experience with these adults help us form into who we are – including our strengths, weaknesses, fears, ability to relate to others, and habits of living.


Various archetypes play vital roles for us throughout our lives, Jung argued, as we navigate through the twists and turns of family, friendships, jobs and civic life. The archetypes act as guides, friends, seducers or antagonists as we continue to re-formulate our identities and ways of thinking about the world.

Literary critics have more recently discovered that a culture’s literary endeavors nearly always include stories involving archetypal characters who play out the common themes in the human collective unconscious. Only the settings and specifics of the stories change. For example, stories of love, conquest, tragedy, coming-of-age, and friendship all involve archetypal characters we can relate and respond to.

Authors and playwrights as well as visual artists, musicians, and even creators of advertising consciously or unconsciously use the archetypes to establish universal meaning in their works. Since archetypes cross all cultural boundaries, literature and arts in all languages and time periods incorporate them equally. From Gilgamesh to Odysseus to Romeo and Juliet to Harry Potter, archetypes abound in the art world and popular culture. They represent all the various facets of the human character. We recognize and respond to them as readily in an advertisement for breakfast cereal or a cartoon as we do in a classic work of literature or painting.

Below is a fairly comprehensive list of some of the most common archetypes. See if you can’t think of at least 2-3 more people from your own life or characters from books, films, TV shows, advertising, and other art forms, who are representative of each archetype.

A Few of the Most Common Archetypes

1.) Chief / Boss / Leader – Odysseus; Julius Caesar; Torvald (Doll’s House); Mustapha Mond (Brave New World); Okonkwo (Things Fall Apart)

2.) Noble Hero / Vengeful Warrior – Antigone; Marc Antony (Caesar); Okonkwo (Things Fall Apart)


3.) Rebel / Non-Conformist – Odysseus; Aunty Ifeoma (Purple Hibiscus);
Bernard (Brave New World); Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis)

4.) Old Sage / Teacher – Tiresias (The Odyssey); Antonio Jose Boliver (Old Man Who Read Love Stories); Mustafa Mond (Brave New World)

5.) Nurturer / Healer – Calypso (The Odyssey); Father Amadi (Purple Hibiscus); Maude and Grandmother (Rabbit Proof Fence)

6.) Loyal Friend – Eumaeus (The Odyssey); the dentist (Old Man); Molly (Rabbit Proof Fence)

7.) Tempter / Trickster – Cassius (Caesar); Circe (The Odyssey); man at railroad station (Rabbit Proof Fence)

8.) Lover / Romantic Hero – Romeo & Juliet; John the Savage (Brave New World)

9.) Investigator / Scientist – Victor Frankenstein; Moodoo (Rabbit Proof Fence)


10.) Dreamer / Free Spirit – Esperanza (House on Mango Street); Antonio Jose Bolivar (Old Man); Marji (Persepolis)

11.) Lost or Damaged Soul – John the Savage (Brave New World); Kambili (Purple Hibiscus)

12.) Fool / Naif – The Mayor (Old Man Who Read Love Stories);

Types of Archetypal Journeys
  1. The quest for identity

  2. The epic journey to find the promised land or to establish the good city

  3. The quest for vengeance

  4. The warrior’s journey to save his people

  5. The search for love (to rescue the princess/damsel in distress)

  6. The journey in search of knowledge

  7. The tragic quest: penance or self-denial

  8. The fool’s errand (a quest that is bound to end badly or go unfulfilled)

  9. The quest to rid the land of danger

  10. The grail quest (as in "holy grail" -- the quest for human perfection as seen in the King Arthur legends)