15 Character Archetypes For Your Next Big Adventure
Your guide to some of the most popular character building blocks in literature.
Have you ever looked at a character and thought, “wait, this sounds familiar. Where have I seen them before?” If so, you’ve probably picked up on a classic literary building block: the character archetype.
Character archetypes are blueprints, or collections of personality traits, that you can use to build relatable, interesting, and interactive characters that build off of each other and their environments. They’re recurring types of characters that can be combined into familiar story types or deconstructed to make some interesting commentary.
Here are some of the most popular character archetypes that you need to know to build a great story.
What is an archetype?
Before we get heavily into the examples, let’s clarify exactly what it is we’re talking about. What exactly is an archetype?
Well, according to Masterclass, it’s “an emotion, character type, or event that is notably recurrent across the human experience.” Carl Jung referred to them as a “Pervasive idea or image from the collective unconscious.” Generally, this means that it’s an overarching idea or motif that anyone can recognize and sympathize with on some level. It’s a relatable experience or person in an experience that, when you look at it, makes you think either “I’ve been there” or “I know someone like that.”
Think of it like a crafting project: archetypes are your stock box. They’re the rough materials and ideas that you can customize and adjust to get the finished product that you want. They’re starting points from which you can shape character arcs.
Archetypes versus stereotypes versus stock characters
“So wait,” I can hear some of you thinking, “if an archetype is a relatable thing, isn’t it just the same thing as a stereotype? And aren’t stereotypes bad?” The thing is, archetypes aren’t stereotypes; those are two different literary concepts.
A stereotype is an extremely simple and reductive take on a particular category or character type. It’s things like “the dumb blonde” or “the cocky jock,” or cruder assumptions about people based on something in their identity, like their race or belief system. Stereotypes aren’t always bad, per se, but they are reductive, and in terms of writing, don’t make for very sound stories or characters. Stereotyped characters rarely see meaningful character development.
On the other hand, an archetype isn’t based on a personal identity so much as a set of experiences or characteristics. An archetype might be “the naive hero” or “the cruel idealist dictator.” Archetypes describe the role that a character plays more than the character themselves, and are intentionally vague so that individual writers can flesh out the details of their characters themselves.
Somewhere in the middle of this is the stock character. Most often found in comedies, these are characters based on the vague concept of an archetype and very little else. They have no depth and are mostly used for examples, satire, and foils for actual characters in a story.
Knowing what an archetype is helps you describe your story, but knowing the archetypes themselves helps you build it. I’ve got some common character archetypes that I want to share with you and to make them easier to understand, I’ve broken them down into familiar groups.
The Five Man Band
The Five Man Band is a format used to create an interesting ensemble cast of characters. It’s a fairly old concept that is pretty easy to identify: a group of five heroes band together for some reason, each one taking on a different but complementary role in the party.
The group I like to think of for this trope is the Teen Titans. The original Teen Titans series, which aired from 2003 to 2006 on Cartoon Network, follows Robin, Beast Boy, Starfire, Cyborg, and Raven as they battle villains and balance their personal connections with their heroic duties. It’s pretty easy to see how the group fits into the different archetypes of the Five Man Band, making this team an excellent tool for our purposes. Let’s look at that in more detail.
The Leader is the person in charge of the band, and is often the main protagonist of the story around whom the others are built and the plot itself revolves. This isn’t always the case, though; in some versions of the FMB plot, all of the characters have equal footing. When that’s true, the Leader won’t take up more space than any of the others, but will be the one everyone turns to for guidance and answers.
Leaders typically struggle with some internal conflict surrounding their role. Maybe they’re insecure about their ability to lead, or don’t want to lead at all. Maybe they have a dark secret or tragic past that comes back to haunt them just when they thought they’d escaped it. Maybe they let the power of leadership go to their head, and end up lording it over their teammates to everyone’s detriment. If your book or series is long enough, they might face all of these challenges and more. The main use of this archetype is to point out the inherent dangers and flaws in leadership of any kind, and the importance of seeing yourself as part of, not above, the people you lead.
So, obviously, the Teen Titans’ leader is Robin, the Boy Wonder. Fresh from his career with Batman, Robin sets up the Teen Titans to protect the city and carve out his own place in the world. He’s the only Titan without any kind of special power or augmentation, using only his wits and training to fight off the bad guys. Robin has a troubled past with one of the series’ main villains, Slade, and is desperate to thwart him no matter the cost, which often causes trouble when the other Titans value something over Slade’s downfall, even if that something is their safety. He also struggles with the fear that he’s not good enough to lead or be a hero without powers, leading to lots of issues with envy and frustration at the others’ abilities, but also a valuable outside opinion that you don’t need to be “special” to succeed or have value.
Lancers are the characters that are directly opposite the Leaders, and serve as narrative foils for them. These guys are usually suave and powerful compared to a stumbling or naive Leader, or comic relief to a serious Leader.
Because they’re narrative foils to the Leader, they tend to have the most conflict with that character. A standard FMB plot trope is the “break up” episode, where the Lancer and the Leader have a massive argument due to their conflicting natures and end up splitting up. Usually, this resolves with the two characters realizing that they need each other to balance out and accomplish their goals, and that they work better together than apart.
So, the Titan’s Lancer is Beast Boy. With an incredible superpower and relaxed, comical attitude, he and Robin almost never see eye to eye. Where Robin is serious and progress-focused, Beast Boy is silly and focused on his friends. Where Robin values action, Beast Boy values comfort. What’s even more interesting is that their key flaws are nearly exactly opposite - Robin often overcompensates his need for independence by being cold and unapproachable, unwilling to ask for help, but Beast Boy is overly compassionate and finds it difficult to remove himself from others’ situations even when he knows he’s being used.
The Caregiver, also called the Healer, is the character in the FMB that takes on a nearly parental role in the group. They’re the innocent one – often most naive to the potential wickedness of others. This character is often responsible for the group’s emotional and mental health and is frequently the only woman in the group. This character can either be a sweet and ostensibly naive one or a somewhat cantankerous older character who “begrudgingly” cares for the others. They have some overlap with the Mentor archetype. More on that later.
Caregivers are the emotional catharsis for the audience. Our characters go through hell - sometimes literally - in our stories, so they need someone to talk to and rely on. As with the other archetypes in this group, the main conflict of the Caregiver comes from this role; they spend so much time taking care of others that they neglect themselves in the process, often to the point of burning themselves out and having to be reminded that they matter too. They may also feel weak for their emotional openness and need reassurance that their compassion is a strength.
For the Titans, Starfire acts as the Caregiver. She is an alien, so everything about Earth and its customs is new and strange to her, but because of her kind and gentle personality, she interprets everything in the nicest light possible. Not only that, but her powers revolve around passion and emotion; she literally uses her emotions to fight the enemy. Still, this constant giving often leaves Star feeling drained, and she frequently questions whether she’s “too much” for the others to handle.
Other examples of the Caregiver:
Hermione in Harry Potter
Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings
Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird
The Tank is the heavy-hitting, heavy-hit-taking character of the FMB. Their role is to be the physical support for the team, lending muscle and strength where it’s needed. Because of this, this character’s conflict often comes from feeling weak in some aspect - usually emotionally or mentally weak. They may see themselves as little more than a shield or a weapon to be used and struggle to find meaning beyond their practical applications. They may also feel as if they are too strong, and worry that their physical prowess will hurt someone accidentally.
The Titans’ Tank is Cyborg. Physically strong because of his cybernetic enhancements and generally a large dude, Cyborg puts on a front of being a laid back, over-the-top bombastic character, but struggles a lot with his identity as a human, often feeling that he more machine than man, and as a member of the Titans worthy of recognition beyond his body. He clashes frequently with the other members of the team because he often sees his condition as a curse rather than a power.
The Professor, otherwise called the Brains or simply the Smart Guy, is the character whose defining trait is their intelligence, either in one core area or academically overall. They aren’t always a literal professor - sometimes they’re just the character with the most knowledge on a particular subject.
While the Leader is usually the audience insert in a story, Professor archetypes are often used as a sort of encyclopedia for the reader, introducing them to the world and concepts in it that might otherwise be difficult to understand. Their struggles often revolve around having some physical or emotional weakness or a fear of being unable to control their surroundings or themselves, mirroring the Tank’s mental and emotional struggles quite well and setting up parallels that can be interesting to explore.
Raven is the Titans’ Professor. She’s a student of arcane magic and the worlds beyond the physical plane, using her studiousness and careful control to manipulate her inborn magical abilities. Raven struggles with the thought of losing control; as the child of a powerful demon, she sees herself as something of a ticking time bomb, capable of destroying everything she holds dear if she doesn’t hold to a rigid personal code.
The Hero’s Journey
So what if your story has more than five main characters? Or what if it only follows one, and the others drop in and out? In that case, you might get more mileage out of the Hero’s Journey setup. This story structure is sometimes called the Monomyth because of its literary presence throughout history; it’s the oldest structure in the book – articulated in more modern times by Joseph Campbell.
The Hero’s Journey follows one character from their ordinary world through a daring adventure through unfamiliar territory and back again. Usually, the point of the story is for the hero to learn something, either about themselves, their world, their culture, or all three.
To tell the Hero’s Journey, you need a Hero. This is the character who goes on the quest, whose goal is ultimately to prevail over evil and villainy and save the day. Heroes are typically altruistic to a fault, desperate to protect their allies and defeat their enemies with minimal casualties. Heroes help to show us what we value and what we think the “ideal” moral person looks like.
Heroes come in as many flavors as there are cultures on Earth, but generally, they’re kind, somewhat naive, companionable, and compassionate. More often than not, they have a strong moral code that they follow and have immense trouble going against, sometimes to their detriment. They may struggle to see themselves as worthy of their position of power or authority and may have a hard time meeting their own needs because of their focus on the greater good.
Heroes are easy to recognize in fiction because they’re usually (though not always) the main character. If a character is referred to as the “chosen one,” they’re probably a hero. Harry Potter fits this archetype, as does Katniss Everdeen. Heck, if you want to get more classic, Huck Finn fits into this role as well, as do Frodo and Beowulf. And obviously, lots of superheroes fill this role in their comics and series; Superman is your basic modern Hero template.
The Mentor / Sage
Heroes are well and good, but as I mentioned, they’re almost always incredibly naive. So, who’s going to guide them into this brave new world and make sure they have the knowledge and wisdom they need to survive? The Mentor! This is the character that holds the wisdom and practical knowledge of the story, who’s willing to bring the Hero or Heroes under their wing and show them the ropes in order to progress their story. This character may act as the herald that sets the protagonist on their path or informs them of their destiny.
You may also see this archetype referred to as the “wise old man,” as these characters are often literally old men. Think Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, or Dumbledore in Harry Potter.
This is one of my favorite archetypes of all time because it can have such intense dramatic weight; a frequent staple of Hero’s Journey tales is the loss of the Mentor as a source of motivation for the Hero. They may simply step back and tell the Hero that it’s time to leave, letting them know that they’re ready to take on the world. In more tragic stories, they might actively die, either due to their old age or by protecting the hero, plunging the Hero into the real world whether they feel ready or not.
The classic Mentor is Chiron, teacher of Greek legends like Achillies and Perseus. You might also know him from the Percy Jackson series, where he keeps his archetypal role in a slightly modernized setting. Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi both fill this role in Star Wars, giving young Luke the control over his Force connection he needs to become a great Jedi. Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games exemplifies one of my favorite variations on this archetype, which is the Reluctant Mentor - someone who needs the hero to prove themselves worthy before they offer any advice, and then only does so grudgingly.
The Jester is also called the Joker, or Fool. If you’re particularly old-fashioned, you might call them the Hedonist. This is your typical class-clown character, the guy who’s constantly cracking jokes and giving in to those little indulgences that make everyone happy.
The point of this character is often to act as a point of caution; usually, the Jester’s indulgences get them or other people into trouble. There’s also a fun sub-variety of this I like to identify as the False Jester - a character that looks carefree and fun but has an underlying, rarely-seen serious side.
Some modern and popular Jesters include Shaggy from the Scooby Doo series and Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King. Pick your favorite comic relief side character - they’re probably a Jester.
The Seducer / The Trickster
So contrary to what you might think, the Seducer isn’t always about sex. This is the character that offers other characters “whatever you want” in exchange for something they want. Seducers frequently exemplify the “if it looks too good to be true, it is” idea - the point of them as a character is to temp others away from their goals or virtues.
Seducers aren’t always evil - heck, they don’t even always have bad intentions. They may legitimately want to offer something to the other characters; maybe they fell in love with the Hero and can’t stand to see them go, or maybe they offer a power but don’t know the dangers of it. The main arc behind them is that you shouldn’t give up your morals and values for simple pleasures.
Circe of The Odyssey is one of the most well-known examples of this character archetype, tempting Odysseus away from his home and his wife to stay with her, young forever on Aiaia. Cat Woman in the Batman series sometimes fills this role as well, in both the literal and figurative senses. Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe also falls into this category.
The Bully, or the Antagonist, is the character that’s always getting in the way of the main character or the “good guys.” While they definitely can be the main bad guy in smaller-scale stories (especially stories set in schools), more often than not, they’re a smaller inciting incident or incidental villain who pushes the plot along but isn’t the biggest threat.
Bully characters place themselves above our protagonists for one reason or another. The main key here is that they believe they have some strength - physically, mentally, morally, etc. - that the hero lacks, or that the hero is getting some unfair treatment and needs to be “put in their place.” Often, this superiority complex comes from a place of insecurity - Bullies (both in literature and in real life) often are only mean to have some sense of control over their environment.
Clarissa from the Percy Jackson series is one of my favorite Bullies because of her later evolution; her status as a daughter of Ares sets her up to be irredeemably cruel, but her devotion to her friends and her sense of justice make her into more than a jocky bad guy. Obviously, Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter also fits this archetype, as do Regina George from Mean Girls or Heather Chandler from Heathers.
The Loveable Band of Outcasts
A group of rebels in a dangerous society. A misfit team of kids growing together. A ragtag adventuring party with questionable morals. Everyone loves a good Band of Misfits story - it’s a great way of showing us how our uniqueness as people can work for us rather than against us, even when it feels like the world is out to get us. Ironically, anyone can relate to misfits because no one fits in completely; human beings are fickle like that.
The Loveable Band of Outcasts isn’t necessarily its own trope or archetypal grouping - in fact, most of the time, the band is composed of many of the archetypes we’ve already covered. Heck, some outcast bands are Five Man Bands in disguise. What I’m doing is using this familiar concept of unfamiliar characters to show off some tropes that frequent stories of societal subversion.
Hilariously, the first outcast we’re looking at isn’t an outcast at all. The Everyman archetype is exactly what it says on the tin - it’s a stand-in character for the audience, someone normal enough that anyone can relate to them. They’re just some guy; they don’t have any superpowers or big, tragic destiny. They’re usually very sensible, well-grounded individuals who approach problems practically because there’s no reason for them to go looking for complicated answers.
Often, they wander into our stories almost by mistake - some random happenstance forces them into an adventure they probably don’t really want but are obligated to complete because that’s just the right thing to do.
My favorite example of the Everyman is Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit. He’s perfectly normal, thank you very much, and really only got involved in the story of the ring because an old friend of his happened to be the most powerful wizard in Middle Earth and thought he was normal enough to not be corrupted by the ring - he was wrong because being normal is exactly how the ring seduces you into using its power, but still.
Another great example is Alice from Alice in Wonderland; Alice is a little English girl with a pet cat, bored of her lessons and exceptionally polite. Everything around her is so weird that the audience needs a stable grounding point in Alice to enjoy the story without floating off with it.
Okay, so this one borders on being a trope rather than an archetype, but it’s relevant to enough media that I felt like not including it would be wrong.
The Orphan is…well, they’re an orphan. Their parents are killed or die (depending on the level of drama you want) either onscreen or off fairly early in the character’s life. This tragic loss not only sets up motivation and conflict for the character later on - they often become overly independent and must learn to trust others again to grow as characters - but it also garners instant sympathy from the audience. I mean come on, you have to be some kind of heartless not to feel for a character who’s just lost everything they ever knew.
And that’s the thing. The Orphan often loses a lot more than just family; they usually lose a whole way of life and have to start all over again. This can set them up to become benevolent heroes or vindictive villains, or even grumpy mentors who don’t want to risk getting attached again. The main thing about this archetype is that their loss of the familiar world has to be important in the context of the larger story rather than simply important on a personal scale.
An Orphan you might know well is Harry Potter. If his parents had lived, we’d lose a lot of the lore and story set up in the first and last books. Tony Stark also fits into this trope - the loss of his parents as a young adult shoves him into the limelight too early, and he overindulges in fame and ego until the wind (and his heart, nearly) gets knocked out of him, forcing him to become Iron Man. Lots of Disney princesses fall into this category as well - if Snow White or Cinderella’s mothers were still alive, the girls definitely wouldn’t have been forced into servitude and escaped to their princes.
If the Everyman is supposed to be our audience insert, then the Outsider is supposed to be the character we know for a fact is nothing like us. This character is weird for some reason; maybe they have a big personality or a dangerous one. Maybe they come from a place that’s so wildly different from our world that their morality is nearly unrecognizable to us.
The purpose of an Outsider is twofold. First, they’re there to add a layer of mystery and intrigue to the story - who are they? Where did they come from? Why are they here? What is their world like? Can we even trust them? Second, they serve as a method for driving home the depth and distance other characters have to travel during their journey, whether that’s literal or metaphorical. Back home, the others wouldn’t meet someone like this.
Luna Lovegood is both an amazing Outsider and one of the best characters in the Harry Potter franchise, in my humble opinion. Her strange and floaty worldview is a refreshing change of pace from the serious and dangerous realities of Hogwarts and the wizarding world, making her capture and danger in book seven all the more meaningful and devastating. Johanna Mason in The Hunger Games is another Outsider we can respect - she’s dangerous, crude, untrustworthy, and willing to do anything and everything to get what she wants, highlighting Katniss’s moral stances as all the more concrete.
The Rebel is a relatively simple to explain archetype; it’s a character who goes completely against the grain of normal society. They’re unpredictable, untameable characters who don’t live by anyone’s rules but their own. They defy the status quo, and strive to forge their own paths in the world, no matter how much it costs them. Hollywood loves this as a hero archetype.
This archetype is usually paired up with at least one more in a sort of hybrid archetype. Favorable combos include Rebel Heroes (common in dystopian settings), Rebel Orphans (hello, superhero stories), and Rebel Outsiders (yep, fighting society will usually mean you live outside of it). It’s also a great archetype to give your villain; if you go completely against a moral society’s values, you’re definitely going to be causing some problems.
The most classic Rebel example I can give you is Robin Hood. Robin is a social pariah, and the reasons vary depending on who’s telling the story. Sometimes he’s a spurned noble, sometimes he’s a poor boy growing in fame, and sometimes there’s no explanation at all. Whatever the cause is, his lifestyle is the epitome of rebellion - he’s a thief and an outlaw, living in the woods with his band of thieves and criminals, happily defying the local sheriff and the law whenever he can to benefit himself, his followers, and the poor.
In Star Wars, Han Solo would fit into this category.
Despite the name, magic isn’t required. These characters have an inquisitive nature and seek to know more about the universe around them. Knowledge is power, and they want to get as much power as they can, and wield it as efficiently as possible. They may seek to bend the world to their will, and have bad things happen due to their hubris.
Morpheus - The Matrix
Raistlin Majere - Dragonlance
Grand Admiral Thrawn - Star Wars
Archetypes are around for a reason - they tell stories that resonate with people. We’ve assembled these ideas from the literary canon of eons, from people all over the world in every station of society and every generation, from scrolls and tablets and leaflets and play scripts and books and movies and videogames. They’re not just arbitrary rules that your English teacher made up to torture you, they’re the foundations of excellent storytelling, brought to you by the stories you already know and love.
The next time you need some help putting together your story, look at character archetypes. Pick a few that speak to you - they don’t have to come from the same setup! Mix and match until you find a situation you like and then tweak it until it becomes yours. The whole point of archetypes is customization, so let this work as a guide.
Go forth and create awesome stories.