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What Is an Archetypal Character?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2016
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An archetypal character is a basic character prototype found in stories and literature. It is a philosophical-psychological idea based on psychologist Carl Jung’s ideas on archetypes in society. In literature, the archetypal character often fulfills basic plot or story functions, allowing for a smoother run through the story. The character also often forms the basic outlines for main characters to be developed from.

Humans gain comfort from the presence of an archetypal character in stories, even though such characters are almost never present in everyday life. Carl Jung believed that such archetypes, whether characters or basic story elements, were essential to a human’s understanding of and relating to a story. If the story is not relevant to the person or he or she cannot relate to it, it creates alienation and separation.

The archetypal character, therefore, is a simple, readily identifiable character that does not require a lengthy introduction, description or back story. Jung believed there were four basic archetypes that all others have sprung from. These are the mother, rebirth, spirit and the trickster. The trickster is often called “the Devil,” as he performs the same function. One of the most famous tricksters in mythology is probably the Norse God Loki.

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These four basic archetypes then developed into a wider brand of character types including the hero, the child, the wise man and the mentor. William Shakespeare and other classical writers have introduced their own characters that have since become archetypes. Two of Shakespeare’s include the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet and the burly, bawdy knight, Falstaff.

Genre fiction, especially bad fantasy, is well known for stocking its stories full of simple archetypes. These are often called cardboard cutout characters because of their poor characterization. The fantasy band, about to embark on an epic journey or tale of daring do, is almost always filled with the same selection of archetypes: the honorable knight, the loveable rogue, the mysterious mage, the maiden, and so on. Detective fiction is also well known for its use of archetypal characters.

Harry Potter is a good example of the use of archetypes. J.K. Rowling has drawn upon many archetypes, motifs and mythological allusions to pull her story together and to make it readily identifiable to readers. These include the orphaned child (Harry), the mentor (Dumbledore), the villain who killed the orphan's father (Voldemort) and the sidekicks (Hermione and Rupert).

Good characterization in modern literature is seen as developing a character beyond the limits of its archetype. An archetypal character is seen as either minor and functional, or as an example of poor characterization by the author. Characterization is often accompanied by active attempts to move the character away from the norms of its archetype.

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