Archetypes are original, universal patterns such as personality types or mythic story themes. These “first types” are recurring and familiar, because they exist in each of us, or at least their potential for expression. We are all in some ways ‘heroes’, ‘survivors’, or ‘conquerors’, etc., in our own lives.
In story, the Hero could be considered the archetypal character and the Hero’s Journey the archetypal story, the molds from which all other characters and stories are made.
These archetypes (think of Zodiac signs) are boldly drawn and larger than life, displaying their strengths, weaknesses and faults so that we can recognize these traits at work in our own lives and relationships. As we connect with the archetype, learning from its wisdom and mistakes, we gain insight on how to function in the world.
Archetypal vs. Typical:
Even the most mundane aspects of out daily lives can be considered in terms of archetype:
Typical: A man, his wife and their house
Archetypal: They are a king and queen, their house is a castle, and the property is their kingdom.
Typical: A single mom raising a child
Archetypal: The Goddess, Mother Earth, Venus, Mary, warrior, martyr and so on.
Archetypal Story Themes:
Most story themes are archetypal in nature, as they describe not just one story, but all similar stories that emanate from that ‘first type.’ The Hero’s Journey is the archetype of almost all stories ever told. Consider the following archetypal story themes and think of other movies that fit in each:
Rags to Riches – Pretty Woman, Cinderella, etc.
David vs. Goliath – Roger and Me, Erin Brockovich, etc.
The Quest – Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, etc.
Rites of Passage – American Graffiti (coming of age), The Hangover (marriage), etc.
Note: The archetypal story theme may be disguised by the outer appearance of a movie. The Sci-Fi thriller, Alien, could actually be seen as a traditional horror movie: it focuses on a small group of people, trapped in an isolated setting, who get killed off one at a time by a monster. In this case, the ‘haunted house’ is the Nostromo space craft, and the monster is the alien. Likewise, Star Wars is in some ways Luke’s coming of age story.
Character and Personality Archetypes
Dr. Carl Jung gets credit for identifying psychological archetypes and how they function in the lives of people, describing them as “pervasive ideas or images from the collective unconscious.” Yet, such archetypes have been around for thousands of years. Even the ancient Greeks knew their pantheon of gods and goddesses represented personality aspects of everyday people, and the myths were wisdom stories to show us how, or how not, to conduct ourselves in our lives. Jung noted the following four character types as the most important; see if you can come up with more personality archetypes and list movie characters for each:
Shadow (psychologically, this signifies one’s inner demons, in movies, its outer projection takes the form of the hero’s nemesis or opponent) – Darth Vader (Star Wars), Gordon Gecko (Wall Street), Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), etc.
Wise Old Man (mentor): Obi-Wan, Yoda (Star Wars), Morpheus (Matrix), etc.
Child (novice, innocent): Mozart (the eternal child in Amadeus), Mowgli (abandoned child in The Jungle Book), Neo (whose name means ‘new’ in The Matrix), etc.
Mother (nurturer): Glinda (Wizard of Oz), Erin Brockovich (Erin Brockovich), Leigh Ann (The Blind Side), etc.
Note: Certain characters can serve as multiple archetypes in their roles. Hannibal Lecter was both a Shadow (nemesis) figure as well as the Wise Old Man (mentor) for Clarise Starling in Silence of the Lambs. Also, the supporting characters in a movie can be viewed as projections of the various personality types of the main character, which together, are ‘constellated’ into a larger picture of the hero/heroine.
Assignment: Review The Matrix and see if you can recognize the other characters as archetypal personality aspects of Neo, or, the characters in The Wizard of Oz (including Toto) as being aspects of Dorothy…or, choose from one of your own.
Characters (and people) run the risk of becoming too overly-identified with their own personality type, or become ‘possessed by the archetype,’ so that it makes any change or transformation more difficult. Much more about the psychological aspects of story and character is provided on this site in the section, PSYCHE.
Also, the book “Sacred Contracts” by Caroline Myss is an excellent resource and provides detailed descriptions of dozens of character archetypes.
Ultimately, we connect more deeply to archetypal themes and characters in stories and movies because they are so familiar and universal. This is why it is so important to incorporate an understanding of archetypes into your project as a writer or a filmmaker – so that the audience has a better chance of connecting with your story & characters. And, if we can all relate to an archetype, then at least on this level, we can relate to one another.