Twelve Common Character Archetypes in Literature

by Grace Dickins

An archetypical character is one that evinces a set of predictable traits. "Archetype" is derived from the Greek archein, meaning "old" or "origin," and typos, meaning "model" or "type." The following dozen archetypes are often singled out as prime examples for the college reader.

1. Hero

Ruled by a desire to prove him/herself to others, this character is constantly seeking to exhibit mastery, strength, and competence. This character frequently sets about rescuing the vulnerable characters and winning battles. The hero does not turn away from adversity and wants to improve conditions for all.

2. Common Man or Woman

This archetype reminds readers that the common people are the backbone of society. The common man/woman prefers to blend in and only reluctantly takes center stage.

3. Innocent

Also known as "the dreamer," this character relies upon faith and optimism to get through the day and inspire those around. Often crafted in literature to be naive and romantic, the innocent character never expects anything to go wrong. He/she simply desires happiness.

4. Nurturer

This archetype may also be termed "the saint" or "the caregiver," ensuring that others' needs are met before his/her own. Compassionate and generous, this character will protect the innocent and tend to the wounded.

5. Adventurer

Always seeking new experiences and fearless about risk, this archetype is also sometimes called "the explorer," "the seeker," or "the pilgrim." Intent upon fulfilling his/her passion for adventure, this character can seem dismissive or uncaring of those whom he/she leaves behind.

6. Rebel

These characters are motivated by the need for change, sometimes bordering on or crossing over into revolution. Desiring a different way and willing to destroy to achieve change, this outlaw acts in a shocking and outrageous manner. He/she usually has lofty goals in mind to rationalize this behavior.

7. Villain

Self-centered usually to the point of narcissism, these characters care only about their own needs, regardless of the pain caused to others. The villain is often described as embodying pure evil and may hurt others for personal pleasure.

8. Inventor

Fueled by a passion to build new things and improve systems, this archetype is also known as "the creator" or "the artist." Creative and focused on realizing a vision, these characters want to leave behind a lasting legacy. Inventors are often portrayed as absentminded dreamers.

9. Jester

Known in various cultures as the trickster, the joker, or the fool, this is a character who lives for the moment and gets joy out of all situations. The classic image of this character is the king's fool, but today, a comedian or practical joker might be a more accurate representation. The jester can lighten the mood but can also waste time and be sarcastic.

10. Sage

Truth sought by intelligence and logic is the sage's stock in trade. This character might be known as "the wise man" or "the scholar," always researching and thinking things through. Frequently seen as a counselor or mentor, the sage wants to see others benefit from his/her knowledge.

11. Magician

A figure of enchantment and mystery, the magician also goes by "the shaman," "the healer," or "the visionary." This character claims to have knowledge of the universe and is often approached to make dreams come true. In literature, care must be taken with this archetype so one does not to fall victim to his/her manipulation.

12. Ruler

Motivated by power and control, the ruler can be beneficent, desiring above all the progress of the land he/she heads. The dark side of the ruler can be dictatorial and unwilling to delegate. A huge ego is the ruler's pitfall.