By Melissa Donovan/ Classic character archetypes are universal; they appear in stories all throughout history and in cultures all around the world. They also appear in a wide range of media: film, television, plays, and written fiction. They can even appear in nonfiction.
Archetypes are often confused with stock characters. However, stock characters are defined by their personality, behavior, and appearance: the neighborhood gossip, the town drunk, or the school bully. Archetypes are defined by their purpose or role in a story.
For example, a herald is an archetypal character that appears when there’s about to be a major change in the protagonist’s life. The herald could be a person or animal, male or female, and it can have any personality imaginable. The herald can be the neighborhood gossip, the town drunk, or the school bully. It can be a robot. The white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland is one of the most famous heralds in all of literature. The herald often appears just before the protagonist crosses over into another world.
Let’s take a look at five classic character archetypes and examine how they have been incorporated into some of the most beloved books and films of all time.
Traditionally a wise old man or woman, the mentor can be anyone who offers invaluable advice and guidance to the protagonist. Sometimes, the mentor trains the protagonist or provides essential tools that will be necessary for the protagonist to successfully resolve the main story conflict. Mentors are often on the protagonist’s side but they can also have their own objectives, which may or may not be in line with the protagonist’s goal.
Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda from Star Wars are classic mentors who teach Luke Skywalker to become a Jedi Knight and guide him through self-discovery and his fight against the Empire.
The Threshold Guardian
The threshold guardian is usually a character but it can also be an inanimate object or the protagonist’s own psyche. Its purpose is to test the protagonist’s worthiness in some way and then permit or prevent the protagonist from moving forward on the journey. A story can have multiple threshold guardians. They present tests of strengths, wits, or fortitude. Sometimes they function as an obstacle. They are commonly part of the villain’s entourage but they can also be neutral or even one of the protagonists’ helpers or sidekicks.
Cinderella’s stepmother is a classic threshold guardian who destroys Cinderella’s dress and locks her in a room to prevent her from attending the ball. With the help of her friends and fairy godmother, Cinderella passes this test, crosses the threshold, and attends the ball.
The shadow represents the hero’s opposite. It can be the villain or antagonist but a more interesting shadow represents the protagonist’s own dark side. A shadow can also represent the worst possible outcome—who the hero will become if he or she fails. The shadow does not have to be evil; its job is to bring out the best in the hero, sometimes by showing the hero which road not to take.
In the film Titanic, Rose’s mother is one of several shadows. Rose’s developing values are the exact opposite of her mother’s and Rose does not want to become like her mother.
If a single character performs the functions of mentor, threshold guardian, and shadow, then that character is a shapeshifter. As the name implies, shapeshifters are always changing. Sometimes their function in the story changes. Other times, they change their appearance or goals. They may even change sides.
Werewolves and vampires are the most obvious and well-known shapeshifters. In The Hunger Games, Effie Trinket is a shapeshifter. She’s the herald who signals the protagonist’s crossing over into another world. She is also a shadow (the protagonist’s opposite). Her role in the story changes; she starts out as the other (or the enemy) and becomes a friend (or helper).
The trickster can literally trick the other characters in the story but more often, the trickster’s purpose is to provide comic relief.
Tinkerbell is a trickster who provides comic relief and she also uses her wit, wile, and magic to trick Wendy and the other children, even attempting to get Wendy killed.
Practice Identifying and Using Archetypes in Fiction
The most important aspect of any archetype is the critical role he or she plays in a story. Archetypes assist, hinder, guide, teach, and confuse the protagonist. They may not be central characters but they are key characters, without whom, the protagonist’s story would not be possible.
- Next time you watch a movie or read a book, keep this list of archetypes handy and try to identify them in the story.
- Thinking back on stories you know and love, come up with a list of five characters for each archetype.
- In your own work, ask whether any of these archetypes could strengthen a story you’ve been working on. You may be able to use one of your existing characters to fulfill the role of an archetypal character.
Want to learn more about these and other classic character archetypes? Google “monomyth” or “hero’s journey,” and check out Crossing the Threshold.
Melissa Donovan is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas. She has also authored a book of creative writing exercises and works as a web designer and copywriter who you can find on Twitter: @melissadonovan.