What Is Archetype?

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An archetype is a character who acts more like a symbol than a well-rounded character. Fairy tales, classical myths, and allegories, for instance, contain archetypal figures such as the wicked stepmother and the handsome prince, the earth goddess and the goddess of love, the good Christian and the evil temptress.

An archetype can be thought of as the original mold for a character that recurs over and over, with some variations, in the literary canon. Superman is the archetype for superheroes. Simon Legree, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is the archetypal villain.

Certain literary plots can also be thought of as archetypal. The journey, or quest, is one archetype. The marriage plot is another archetype.

How Do You Identify Archetype in Writing?

An archetype can fall into recognizable patterns, ones you are probably already familiar with: the innocent victim (Cinderella), the player (Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind) , the leader (Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead), and the genius (Dr. Ian Malcolm, the mathematician in Jurassic Park).

When identifying an archetype, ask yourself if you recognize this character from other short stories, television shows, or movies. If the answer is yes, you have probably found an archetype.

Examples of Archetype

Archetype Example 1. In Mean Girls, Lindsey Lohan plays the archetypal “good girl” who runs the risk of being just as bad as her “mean girl” rival. In real life, Lindsey Lohan is also an archetypal figure, the “bad girl.”

Archetype Example 2. In Modern Family, many of the characters are archetypes. Alex and Manny are nerds, Haley is popular, Gloria is a trophy wife.

Archetype Example 3. Norman Bates is the archetypal psychopath in Hitchcock’s film of the same name.

Archetype Example 4. Clint Eastwood is known for playing the archetypal loner in many of his early Westerns.

Archetype Example 5. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Chillingworth plays the archetypal role of Satan.