A great story describes something interesting that has happened. To tell a good story similar types of people are needed to react to the events in the story or overcome the obstacles. The main character or characters are changed by the events in the story. These persistent fictional characters have been identified as character archetypes. The most well-known character archetype is the hero. There are also lower level characters. These are also archetypes but they are sometimes referred to as stock characters in television writing. They may die in every story or they may exist to pass along a single message, such as a warning to the hero.
An archetype is defined as a very typical example of a certain person or thing. Some of the character archetypes in fiction will be very familiar to you, such as the hero, villain, antihero, damsel in distress, mentor, sage and innocents. Some of these characters appear in all stories in some degree. Most archetypes have been part of fiction since the first stories were written. They can be found in the earliest myths and plays. Some archetypes also have symbols associated with them, such as the white or black hat in westerns. Using a common archetype in your short stories and novels is certainly not a "no no" but you do need to understand that readers are already accustomed to these characters and the roles they play.
Character Archetypes and Psychology
Many of the main character archetypes described are derived from core archetypes used in psychology. Psychologists over the years have tried to narrow down common character traits into temperaments and personality types. The work of other psychologists can also be used to analyze fictional characters. There are personality types, temperaments and the OCEAN acronym. We describe some of these on the character traits page.
The psychologist Carl Jung came up with 12 archetypal figures. They include The Hero, The Magician, The Rebel, The Orphan, The Jester, The Lover, The Innocent, The Sage, The Explorer, The Caregiver, The Ruler and The Creator. You can likely quickly connect characters you know from reading books to these 12 archetypes. You can find good descriptions of the archetypes on Learning Mind and Great Storybook.
Genre and Archetypes
Stories from different genres also tend to have similar character archetypes that reappear. The characters themselves may be very different from novel to novel but we can still recognize them for who they are. For example, romance novels have different types of heroes as the lead. The readers of romance don't want the exact same characters or settings. However, they do desire heroes that have similar core attributes they value or want to see changed. All About Romance describes eight hero archetypes in an article. They include The Chief, The Bad Boy, The Best Friend, The Charmer, The Lost Soul, The Professor, The Swashbuckler and The Warrior.
In fantasy novels you often follow the path or journey of the lead character, the hero. Similar character archetypes can be found in this type of story. Mythcreants describes eight archetypes found in the hero's journey mythic structure. They include the Hero (of course), Mentor, Ally, Herald, Trickster, Shapeshifter, Guardian and Shadow.
Horror films designed for teen screams offer some of the most obvious character archetypes. The Artifice lists six horror archetypes including the Jock, the Cheerleader, the Nerd/Stoner, the Token Minority, the Nice Guy and the Virgin/The Last Girl. These character archetypes are not as obvious as this in horror short stories and novels but you can problem think of some yourself, certainly certain types of heroes and villains. The Monster is a classic horror archetype. Stephen King put the monster archetypes into groups in Danse Macabre that include The Thing Without a Name, The Vampire and The Werewolf. He also mentions The Ghost and The Bad Place. These monster archetypes are described in more detail in a thread on SFFChronicles.com. King himself also has archetypes in his novels with Mythcreants describing six of them.
More Archetype Resources
Here are few more resources where you can find genre archetypes and stock characters.
- Screencraft: 99 Archetypes and Stock Characters
- Characters to Watch Out for in Classic Murder Mysteries
- TV Tropes: Western Characters
- 12 Common Archetypal Characters and How to Use Them
- Jill's List of Character Archetypes
- Fantasy Character Classes