In literature, the word archetype refers to something that feels universally applicable. For example, a character, setting, or action that represents a recognizable pattern. This might be a type of character who always acts in one particular way, a foreboding setting that represents a particular atmosphere, or even an action with recognizable consequences before it even happens.
Archetypes are universal symbols. They are themes, motifs, and images that appear throughout literary works and help readers understand connections. Archetypes are generally most commonly connected with certain kinds of people but also expand to locations, actions, ideas, and relationships.
A very common archetypal character. This person is slightly outside the norm in any situation or group of people. They are unsatisfied with the status quo, dislike authority figures, and are determined to make their own way through life. Consider Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, Tom Sawyer, Dean Moriarty from One the Road, and Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
A passionate, dreamy-eyed character. This person has love as the prime driver of all their actions. They are motivated by another person and that person’s well-being. They might not want to get into confrontations and spend the majority of a story trying to get out of it, and back to their lover. Consider Romeo and Juliet who want nothing more than to leave their family squabbles behind. There is Helen from The Iliad who runs away from her one with Paris and in the end, starts the Trojan war.
The orphan is another common archetype. This character has a tragic backstory. They lack the support of a family and perhaps had to at some point depend on a distasteful and even cruel extended family member. They are great at overcoming obstacles because of all the suffering in their backstory. Consider Harry Potter from the Harry Potter novels, Cosette from Les Miserables, Jane Eyre from Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece of the same name, Cinderella, Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and Batman.
The Mother Figure
She is kind, supportive, always there when her child needs her. Mother figures in literature come from a variety of backgrounds but are united by their common love for those in their care. Consider Molly Weasely from Harry Potter who cares for Harry just as she cares for her own children. There is Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables and Ma from Room by Emma Donoghue. Think also of overbearing mother figures like Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen who really only wants the best for her daughters but ends up annoying many of them instead.
Archetypal Actions and Situations
There are endless examples of the expansive and powerful journey archetype. These are often up in and down in their moments of excitement, joy, pain, and suffering. The characters who go on them do so willingly and unwillingly. Sometimes they are physical journeys from one place to another and other times they are all mental. For example, the journey across American taken by Dean Moriarty throughout On the Road by Jack Kerouac, and the journey Frodo goes on throughout the Lord of the Rings novels.
Good Versus Evil
This is a wide-ranging archetypal situation and experience that can appear throughout any kind of novel or poem. It sets one character or group of characters against another and through their confrontation, their traits are shown. Consider the battle at the heart of The Stand by Stephen King. As well as that which lasts throughout the Harry Potter novels.
Fall from Grace
A good character gone bad, a group tuned evil, or one’s good intentions subverted. There are numerous examples within the literature of characters and groups that have fallen from grace. The most obvious being Satan in The Bible and then in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Voldemort from Harry Potter is another good example. He began as a talented and powerful wizard. But ended up being corrupted and becoming the overarching villain of the seven books.