What is the definition of archetype in literature? An archetype is a typical character, situation, or object that appears in literature, art, or popular culture. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, first coined the term “archetype” in the early 1900s. He believed that archetypes are universal symbols that reside in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. The trickster
There are several different types of archetypal characters, symbols and objects. The most common Archetype examples in literature are:
The Hero: This character is brave, strong and often fighting for good. They go on a journey (often literal) and face many challenges before ultimately triumphing. Examples of this archetype include Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in the eponymous series.
The Mentor: This is an older, wiser character who takes the hero under their wing and helps them on their journey. Often they possess some kind of magical power or knowledge. Examples include Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Dumbledore in Harry Potter.
The Trickster: This character is another common archetype, who is often portrayed as a cunning character who uses deception and mischief to get what they want. A good example of the trickster archetype is Loki from Norse mythology.
When discussing an archetype definition literature is just one of the many areas that should be considered. Although the term “archetype” has different meanings across different focuses, literature is one of the most common uses of the word.
In this article, you’ll learn how to define archetype in literature settings. You’ll also be able to determine whether or not this definition pertains to other areas of archetype usage as well. With this information, you can think more about your favorite characters in literature, movies, or TV, and understand more about yourself at the same time.
Keep reading to learn more about the definition of archetypes in literature.
List of Archetypes in Literature
When trying to understand any archetype definition literary sources are a good place to begin.
Learn about the archetype literary definition below.
Definition: Character archetypes are any recurring theme present in characters throughout literature and other forms of media. They represent a part of humanity and make it easier for readers (or viewers) to understand that part of the human experience.
- Damsel in Distress: A female character who is waiting for a man to come and save her. Sometimes, this is subverted, especially in modern media. However, the archetype remains the same.
- Hero: Often, but not always, the protagonist of the story. The Hero is confident, strong, and capable.
- Outcast: The Outcast is a character who is disliked for some reason by characters in the story. However, many times, this character is quite popular with readers.
- Tyrant: Usually a villain, the Tyrant is any character who holds power over others.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Two people who are destined to fall in love but are doomed in some way fit into this category.
Examples: One example of a hero is Frodo from The Lord of the Rings novels. An example of Star-Crossed Lovers, on the other hand, are both Romeo and Juliet from the Shakespeare play of the same name.
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Definition: Although setting archetypes may not be quite as obvious upon first glance, there are many of these in the literary world as well. Setting archetypes tend to revolve around the mood or feeling a specific location calls to mind in the reader. They also help shape how the people in the story—especially the background characters who populate the setting—will react to certain people or events.
- The Sea: This is a lonely or chaotic setting, depending on how it is used.
- The Tower: This setting represents loneliness, struggle, and the need to be rescued or to defeat some evil.
- The Small Town: Small town settings invoke both nostalgia and toxicity at the same time. They can be used to create a dichotomy between themes within a novel.
- The Garden: Garden archetypes represent rejuvenation, good health, birth, and a fresh start. They are often related to children or female characters, but not always.
- The Wasteland: This setting archetype involves feelings of dread and despair, but may also be home to Hero or Challenger archetype characters who overcome those obstacles and create something new in the end.
Examples: The garden in The Secret Garden is a prime example of a setting archetype. In this novel, the garden represents rebirth and new “growth” within the main character, Mary. This theme spreads to the secondary main character, Colin, as his health is restored after many trips with Mary to the garden.
Definition: Story archetypes represent the type of story in question. There are seven main story archetypes, as detailed by Christopher Booker. Arguably all stories fall into one of these archetypal categories, although many span a wide variety.
- The Quest: The Hero must go somewhere to solve the overarching conflict.
- Rags to Riches: The Hero starts with nothing and becomes strong in some way.
- Overcoming the Monster: The Hero must battle a monster, whether literally or metaphorically.
- Rebirth: The Hero must change and become someone new and better than before.
- Tragedy: The Hero may not make it back, or the Hero’s efforts are in vain.
- Comedy: The Hero will make it back, and the situations he encounters will be humorous and light ones.
- Voyage and Return: The Hero leaves home to save the day and must then struggle to return.
Examples: The Odyssey is an example of the Voyage and Return archetype. The story follows Odysseus as he sails away from his island home and leaves his wife and son behind. He faces many trials along the way as he works to return home, and finally, after a long struggle, he is allowed to join his family once again.
***Find the archetype that best fits YOU! Answer the FREE Archetype Questionnaire as honestly as possible and learn your secret character within!
Definition: Situational archetypes are similar to story archetypes, but they are also somewhat different. They do not dictate the entire plot of the story, but they do categorize scenes, chapters, or acts within a written work. There are several of these archetypes, and they should not be confused with types of conflict—although there is some overlap there as well.
- Good vs. Evil: A classic battle between light and dark forces.
- The Journey: The Hero must look for something or someone to save the day.
- Nature vs. Mechanics: This is a more modern archetype that includes some elements of postmodernism and eco-literature.
- Death/Rebirth: The life cycle, as represented by different situations a character undergoes or symbolic scenes that character plays a part in.
- The Task: The Hero must do something surprising, difficult, or even impossible to save the day.
Examples: A popular example of the classic Good vs. Evil situational archetype is the Harry Potter series. However, this series also includes The Task (in scenes when Harry realizes there’s something difficult he must do in order to make the right decision); The Journey (Harry setting out on his path toward becoming a wizard); and Death/Rebirth (Harry’s brushes with death and narrow escapes that change him for the better). There are dozens of situational archetypes present within this series.
Definition: Symbolic archetypes are any type of symbolism that is present within literature and almost always used in the same way. These symbols can be found throughout centuries of literary works and help readers relate to what they’re reading.
- Light and Dark: A common symbol to help readers understand good versus evil.
- Wilderness: A symbol for chaos, danger, or fear.
- Water: A symbol for rebirth or cleansing.
- Clouds: A symbol for confusion, dreams, and mysteries.
- Spirals: A symbol for motion and outward or upward growth.
- Color Symbolism: Colors may symbolize love, life, death, growth, evil, good, and more.
Examples: In Fahrenheit 451, water is used to show a cleansing and rebirth as well as movement from a negative existence to a positive one.
So what is an archetype in literature? Now that you’ve had a chance to answer this question for yourself, you can take this information and use it to better understand your favorite literary characters. The more you get into the habit of doing this, the better you’ll be able to reach some conclusions about yourself by examining the kinds of characters, situations, and symbols you gravitate toward.
It is common to find real-life examples that mirror archetypes in literature, and you may even find yourself drawn to real-world settings and people that are similar to the fictional types you enjoy. Keep this in mind as you take time to really look deeply at your life and yourself.