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What Are the Different Literary Archetypes?

By Maggie Worth
Updated May 17, 2024
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Literary archetypes are identifiable themes that occur frequently throughout the history of literature. Generally, they are broken down into three categories: characters, settings and events. Common archetypal characters include the hero and the mother. Frequently-used setting archetypes include the mountain and the sea, and common archetypal events include the journey and the death and rebirth.

Characters are one of the most popular types of literary archetypes, and the most well known might be the hero and the villain. Most stories feature these two characters in some form. In the mystery genre, both are critical. The hero is often the main character of the book — the person whose story the reader is following and for whom the reader is rooting. The villain is the character who gets in the way or tries to defeat the hero, often considered the "bad guy."

Both the hero and the villain can be male or female, and they can be human, animal, artificial intelligence or fantasy creatures, depending on the story. There may be more than one of each, though this most often occurs with the villain role, such as in the case of a tribe of monsters. Other common character-based literary archetypes include the star-crossed lovers, of which the classic example is Romeo and Juliet; the mother, who takes care of the hero, even if she isn't his actual mother; and the innocent or the virgin, frequently represented by a child or by an inexperienced or mentally disabled adult.

Setting-based literary archetypes include the mountain or peak, which is used to represent a literal or figurative place from which the hero can see clearly, or at least see a long way ahead of him. The sea also is often used to demonstrate rough times, uncertainty or danger. Likewise, the island may represent isolation and loneliness or may, alternatively, represent an opportunity for peace and self-reflection. Additionally, a river often indicates a major change in the course of a character's life, and the fork in the road indicates an important decision.

Event-based literary archetypes can include a vast array of situations. Perhaps the most well known is the journey, sometimes called the quest. In a romance novel, for instance, the journey is usually the hero's search for true love. In classical literature, on the other hand, the journey is best seen in adventure tales such as the legends of King Arthur's knights and books such as The Odyssey. Other event archetypes include the sacrifice, in which the hero must give up something dear to him for the greater good; the coming of age, in which the character's life takes a dramatic turn, usually requiring him to accept new responsibilities or to give up his innocence; and the death and rebirth, in which the hero fails, then begins again or dies and is brought back to life.

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Discussion Comments

By serenesurface — On Mar 21, 2014

As far as I know, an archetype isn't only a concept, it could also be a person, an object or even a symbol. So for example, "the mother" is also an archetype. So is "the mentor" and "the villain."

I think that we come across archetypes so often in literary works, that unless we know what an archetype is, we don't even think about it. I have never read a story and then asked myself the archetype. Although I'm sure those who have studied this in school and writers look for the archetype and know what they are right away.

By turquoise — On Mar 20, 2014

@candyquilt-- I agree with you. Another very popular archetype, which the article already mentioned, is the eternal love or star-crossed lovers archetype. Rome and Juliet is definitely the best example. Every year, there are new adaptations of the story being written according to today's time. Every culture also has their version of Romeo and Juliet, such as the Arabian epic Layla and Majnun, or the Indian Punjabi story Heer Ranjha.

I guess this is what makes an archetype, an archetype. An archetype is universal. It is easily recognized by everyone, everywhere.

By candyquilt — On Mar 19, 2014

The "hero and the villain" is probably the most frequently used archetype and yet, it never gets old. There is something very amusing about the struggle between good and evil. Many literary works and many films use this archetype.

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