Characters show up in all forms of storytelling. Be that in literature or in movies and television. That means the chances you’ve come across character archetypes already is high. Archetypes are the typical examples of a particular person or thing. When discussing characters, it’s also a sort of model for a character.
Don’t get confused though! Archetypes aren’t the same thing as tropes. Where archetypes are models, they’re largely independent of genres and themes. Tropes are conventions in storytelling typically defined by genre or theme. the Evil Overlord’s Monologue is a trope, but the Evil Overlord himself isn’t the archetype.
There are twelve common archetypes for characters in storytelling: the hero, the innocent, the orphan, the creator, the caregiver, the sage, the joker, the magician, the ruler, the rebel, the lover and the seducer. Although at first glance it might look like certain archetypes are bound to play protagonist and others are bound to play, don’t be fooled. Each archetype is defined by the behaviors, strengths or flaws they model.
The Hero. The hero archetype is almost always strong and courageous. Although physical strength is the most common form of strong to show up, consider magical characters. who’s magical strength may be unparalleled. In a negative sense however, Hero types can turn out to be overconfident and arrogant. If you’re having a hard time considering this for any sort of antagonist role, think about how well your generalized tyrant king fits the archetype here: he’s often strong, if not physically then through military or political force.
The Innocent. Typically, Innocent types bring optimism and enthusiasm as strengths, where their naivety and helplessness may often function as flaws and weaknesses. Initially you might see them suited for a secondary or side character, but consider someone like Dr. Horrible—who continues going for his goals with enthusiasm but is relatively powerless in the situation at large—as an example of how the Innocent archetype turns up in other roles as well.
The Orphan. Don’t automatically assume this archetype has no parents. Orphan types are defined by their perseverance and independence as strengths. They often show up as part of a group: either they want to belong to a particular group, or they’re willing to defend they group they belong with. Ironically it’s those same traits that can show up as weaknesses for orphans. They can put up with a lot of abuse from a group as a whole just to try and people please, or adopt an ‘us versus them’ mentality in which they believe they’re the only ones that can be trusted.
The Creator. Defined by their creativity and their ambition, Creator types are exactly the type to be driven by a goal to serve their world or community at large. On a personal level, they’re happiest when they can do things themselves and take a lot of satisfaction in their work. The negative side of this however is that they can be perfectionists and have an over-inflated sense of themselves. Both as antagonistic and protagonistic characters, the Creator archetype want to see their visions and goals realized.
The Caregiver. As the name suggests, this archetype is a caring one. Empathetic and selfless, their goals are often centered around helping others. As a downside however, they may not have a goal of their own. Their negative traits often show up as being exploitable and people-pleasers. In a lot of ways, those negative traits are what lead Caregiver types into trouble, either because they burn themselves out for trying to do everything, or because they can’t stop themselves from trying to ‘fix’ and ‘help’ everyone in need. Note that this is also a surprisingly good fit for horror and thriller antagonists and villains, being that the villains seem themselves as doing what’s best for someone else, up to the point of ignoring social, moral or personal standards.
The Sage. The Sage archetype shows up incredibly frequently as a mentor or teacher. They come across as wise and experienced, often seeking out knowledge strictly for knowledge’s sake. In negative senses however, Sage types have a lot of potential for flaws. They can come across as know-it-alls offering unwanted advice. For having all the knowledge they do, they can become inactive, knowing something and doing nothing about it, if only to see how the situation plays out. They may also use their knowledge manipulatively by either giving it out for the sake of stirring up trouble and seeing how people react, or by giving false information to try and manipulate the outcome of a situation.
The Joker. This archetype is also frequently referred to as the Jester—and for good reason. The Joker type loves a good laugh and uses playfulness and cheer as their top strengths. In a negative sense however, their pursuit of a laugh can make them flighty or present a lack of empathy. It’s not hard to think of a villain for this type either: Batman’s Joker is quite literally the Joker. Often comedic movies use Joker types as their protagonist.
The Magician. Although they closely resemble the Sage archetype, Magician types rely on their knowledge from other sources, sometimes occult or supernatural and sometimes from other secretive places. Unlike the Sage who doesn’t always meddle, the Magician will interfere to complete their own goals. In a negative sense however, Magicians tend towards egocentricity and arrogance. They can and absolutely will manipulate both their knowledge and others around them to fulfill their own end goals.
The Ruler. King, Ruler, Leader, Politician, Boss—whatever you call this archetype, the traits remain largely the same. These are the ones who remain goal-oriented and can control and handle most situations with ease. And, like the name suggests, Ruler types can easily become corrupt, using the power they for dominance. They may also become suspicious or even paranoid, fearing the loss of their control and power.
The Rebel. A good Rebel type is an innovative and outspokenly passionate one. Across the board, they also speak out against injustices and inequalities. The darker side of this passionate archetype is just that: they’re sometimes too passionate, giving in to anger and an unwillingness to follow a path set by others.
The Lover. Giving of themselves as freely as a Caregiver and as passionately as any Rebel, Lover types are strongly driven by their search for intimacy on both romantic and platonic levels. They can count empathy and charisma among their strengths, but when things go wrong their lack of self-identity and deep emotional drive can turn against them. Because the Lover archetype is directed primarily by their search for love and belonging, emotional turmoil is one of their biggest obstacles—and can all too easily turn them obsessive and needy when it comes to the object of their affection. This means they can play virtually any role, from the protagonist defending their loved ones, to the love interest and yes, even into the villain obsessively chasing the one they want.
The Explorer. The two key strengths of the Explorer archetype are curiosity and self-reliance. This is the type to seek out something new just for the experience. Because they seek out new experiences and things so often, it’s easy for the Explorer to alienate themselves from others in the belief that others will only encumber them. It’s the same reason they can end up trying a dozen different things without any results to show—they’re enjoying the attempt more than the success.
Which archetype do your characters fall under? Which one do you see yourself as?