by Becca Puglisi
What exactly is a character archetype? How many are there? And how are they different from character tropes?
These are the questions that were keeping me up at night as Angela and I started research for the newest thesaurus at our blog. So, as I often do when I’m confused by terminology, I started with a generic definition.
Archetype: a prototype that can be copied, adapted, or used to create other versions
Ok, so a character archetype is a common kind of character that others are fashioned after. That led to my next question: if there are certain prototypes off which other characters are patterned, what are those original archetypes? I went looking and immediately got buried in a deluge of contradictory information. So many lists, each with its own variety of characters. Some people called them archetypes, others called them tropes, and there was very little documentation or references to verify what I was seeing.
As a truth-seeker, the lack of consensus was driving me a little crazy. So I armed myself with chocolate and did a deep dive into psychology—directly to the source of where character archetypes began and how they evolved. I’m clear on this now, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with you.
The term “archetype” has been referenced in various historical documents all the way back to the time of Christ, so it’s by no means a new concept. But it wasn’t until the early 1900s that Carl Jung, a cohort of Freud’s, applied the term to psychology and brought it into the mainstream.
Jung had studied many myths, fairy tales, stories, religions, and dreams throughout history and realized that there were repeated events, figures, and motifs in these narratives—despite them coming from wildly disparate cultures and time periods. After a ton of research and discussion on the subject, he deduced that there are 12 archetypical figures that are common to the human experience and have become part of the stories we tell. Definitions vary, but here are Jung’s character archetypes.
According to Jung, character archetypes are recurring figures that show up in the dreams of all people and the stories of all cultures. They can be part of any narrative, regardless of the time period or audience. This universality is what makes a character an archetype. It’s why these 12 made the cut.
Jung’s is the original list of archetypes. Since he pretty much invented the concept, I feel good using this as my go-to index. But there’s another list many people like to use, and it has merit because its archetypes are established according to their roles in storytelling.
Forty or so years after Jung, Joseph Campbell was also exploring narratives throughout history and noticed a similar pattern in their structure. He discovered that many of these stories contained the following archetypal structure, which he titled The Hero’s Journey:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”~Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Through his exploration of this mythical structure (and greatly influenced by Jung’s teachings) Campbell identified some characters that appear again and again in these stories over time. But while his thoughts on the subject were insightful and inspirational, his writings weren’t the easiest to understand for many lay people. And this is why we all owe a debt of gratitude to Christopher Vogler.
Vogler was a devotee of Campbell’s and used his ideas frequently in his career as a movie script analyst. They were so helpful in troubleshooting and strengthening the stories he read that Vogler wrote a seven-page guide about The Hero’s Journey and began distributing it to his colleagues at Disney. It soon became required reading, and the demand for his pamphlet was so great that he expanded it into a book called The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Twenty-five years later, it’s still being sold and has become a foundational text for storytellers.
In this book, Vogler distilled Campbell’s ideas into an accessible list of 8 character archetypes:
These are essentially a reconfiguring of Jung’s archetypes so they’re defined by the role each plays in a story. As writers, we can see how valuable this perspective can be.
When it comes to archetypes, you can’t go wrong with either of these breakdowns. Personally, I prefer Jung’s because his is the original model—the prototype—that everything else is based on. But both are valid for establishing the kinds of characters you’ll want to include in your story.
Now. If these 12 or 8 characters are the only true archetypes, what about all the rest of the character types you find on the internet? There are dozens and dozens of listings containing 25, 50, 200+ characters. The queen bee, the mad scientist, the nerd, the class clown, the hot billionaire—are these archetypes, as well? If not, what are they?
Simply put, these are character tropes, not archetypes. Here’s why.
A literary trope is a recurring element that’s frequently used across narrative works. This makes character tropes very similar to archetypes. The difference is that archetypes, by Jung’s original criteria, are universal in nature and can be found in any story from any culture and time period.
If a character couldn’t appear in multiple narratives from multiple time periods for multiple audiences, then that character isn’t an archetype; it’s a trope. And most of the time, the character is a trope because it has been culturally influenced so it only works within a certain culture or timeframe.
Let’s take the nerd trope as an example.
Conventionally, nerd characters are highly intelligent, socially awkward, and are hyper-focused on topics most people aren’t interested in. They’re also clueless about fashion and style. This rendering is specific to Western culture and wouldn’t translate for certain other people groups. This makes it a trope rather than an archetype.
Class clowns need a classroom or school setting, so this character is a trope.
You wouldn’t find hot billionaires in a culture without an über-rich demographic, so this character is a trope…
It’s a relatively easy litmus test for determining whether a character is trope or an archetype.
Another clue that you’re dealing with a trope is when the character is clearly a derivative or modified version of an archetype. The class clown, for example, is a trope based on the Jester. The nerd is a form of either the Sage or Magician. The queen bee is a specific kind of Ruler, and so on.
So, to sum all of this up….
On the surface, it’s not easy to the see the difference between these kinds of characters. But this historical study has helped me understand things better. I hope it also clarifies these important character elements for you.
Angela and I are actively exploring this topic through a new thesaurus at Writers Helping Writers. The Character Types and Tropes Thesaurus will dig into Jung’s archetypes and many tropes—what the commonalities are for each and how writers can modify them to fit the needs of their stories. As entries are added each Saturday, this may become a resource to help you establish the cast for your next project.
Have you used archetypes or tropes in your writing? Do you find them helpful?
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers, by Christopher Vogler
(Note: the above resources contain affiliate links)
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 1 million copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that's home to the Character Builder and Storyteller's Roadmap tools.
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