Archetypes, not Stereotypes

11 Nov

by Julie Eshbaugh


In my post about the Hero’s Journey (which you can read here,) I mentioned a few characters, specifically the Hero and the Mentor, who fall into the category of archetypes.   Archetypes are a main tenet of the theories contained in Joseph Campbell’s watershed work, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.   Most writers are familiar with the idea of archetypes and many may be interested in finding out how archetypes could function in their own writing.

Yet, doesn’t the term “archetype” bring to mind the term “stereotype?”   How do we define the difference?   How can it be that archetypes are good, while stereotypes are bad?   And most importantly, how can you get all the benefits out of the use of archetypes without falling into the trap of using stereotypes?

One way to see the difference is to imagine an archetype as a base to build upon.   An archetype is a prototype of a character.   On the other hand, a stereotype is an overly simplified concept of a character, with overly simplified opinions or behaviors.   A stereotype is two-dimensional and generally stays that way.

An archetype works best as a pattern upon which an original character can be built.   Take, for example, the archetype of the Mentor.   In the HARRY POTTER series, Professor Dumbledore fits into this category, but so does Glynda the Good Witch in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, and Haymitch in THE HUNGER GAMES.   All of these characters have, at their foundation, the archetype of the Mentor.  Yet no one would ever confuse them for stereotypes of the same character.

According to Christopher Vogler, who took Joseph Campbell’s theories and applied them to the craft of writing in his book THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, and Stuart Voytilla, who expanded on Vogler in MYTH AND THE MOVIES, an archetype can be imagined as a mask a character wears that fits the role that character is playing in the story.   Sometimes a character wears the same mask throughout the story, but not always.   For instance, Obi Wan Kenobi wears the mask of the Mentor through most of STAR WARS, but he must wear the Hero’s mask when he sacrifices himself to Darth Vader to allow Luke and Leia to escape.  Voytilla also uses another film reference to demonstrate the sharing of a mask between several characters.   In CASABLANCA, Voytilla points out, Rick is generally seen as the Hero.  Yet the mask of the Hero is originally worn by Victor Lazlo, then passed to Ilsa, who passes it to Rick.   In many ways, Rick would have been a much less effective hero had he not had the Hero’s mask passed to him through this progression.   (If you’ve never seen CASABLANCA, go add it to your Netflix list right now! You don’t know what you’re missing!)

A list of the most frequently occurring archetypes in fiction, and the roles they play, would include:

1. Hero                                                 “to sacrifice and serve”
2. Mentor                                            “to guide”
3. Threshold Guardian                  “to test”
4. Herald                                             “to warn and challenge”
5. Shapeshifter                                 “to question and deceive”
6. Shadow                                           “to destroy”
7. Trickster                                        “to disrupt”

When deciding how to use these archetypes (or any of the many additional archetypes) in your own writing, or which characters should wear which masks in which scenes, try asking yourself these questions:

• What is this character’s function on the Hero’s Journey?
• What is this character’s goal?
• What means will the character be using to achieve this goal?

Do you use archetypes in your own writing?   Have you ever completed a story and then recognized the presence of archetypes you hadn’t intentionally included?  Do you think archetypes are too limiting to a writer?  Please tell me what you think in the comments!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.  She is also a freelance editor. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.



39 Responses to “Archetypes, not Stereotypes”

  1. Tymcon November 11, 2010 at 3:27 AM #

    I think i’ve always Gaurdain, trickster, shapeshifter and shadow. My main characters too bland to be a hero.
    I really need to get that book:P

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 11:31 AM #

      Hi Tim! I bet you would love these books. The work that started it all was done by Joseph Campbell, and his book laying out his theories about the nature of myth is THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Stuart Voytilla, a screenwriting guru, simplified Campbell’s theories and applied them to screenwriting in his two books: THE WRITER’S JOURNEY and MYTH AND THE MOVIES. I’d recommend Voytilla’s books to fiction writers as well as to screenwriters. The principles work just as well for both. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 12:10 PM #

      Brooke pointed out in the comments below that I made a mistake in the post when I credited THE WRITER’S JOURNEY to Stuart Voytilla. I just edited the post (thanks Brooke!) but I meant to say (really I did!) that THE WRITER’S JOURNEY was written by Christopher Vogler. (I have both of these books, and would recommend them both; I’m so sorry for the mistaken attribution! Mr. Vogler, if you read this, I apologize! ;D)

  2. Lindsay November 11, 2010 at 7:26 AM #

    Love is all about sacrifice so in a way all of my great characters are heros, including the women. The best are flawed heros who don’t simply overcome their weaknesses but learn to embrace them and work with them.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 11:41 AM #

      Hey Lindsay! Your comment clued me in to the fact that you write romance. (Romance is a major component of all of my writing; I went directly to your blog and became a “follower.”) I agree that both parties in a love story can both be heroes. Your comment reminded me again of CASABLANCA. Rick is a fantastic example of a flawed hero. Thanks for the comment! I’m going to go spend some time checking out your blog. 🙂

  3. authorguy November 11, 2010 at 8:50 AM #

    My two short stories, ‘Chasing His Own Tale’ and ‘Chasing His Own Tale 2: Struck By Inspiration’, are about an author trying to write a story, who has to constantly deal with the character archetypes of that story, who do nothing but complain. Fearless Hero hates his lines, Evil Enchantress hates her character, while Yellow Haired Panther and Second Rate fall in love and have a little sequel of their own. As you may have guessed, they’re comedies.
    In my non-comic writing I’m also well aware of the archetypes, although I bend them a little as I usually do. Tarkas is a ‘Hero’, which in this universe is actually a technical term, like ‘Freshman’. His Mentor is also a Shapeshifter, his bestial partner would be the Herald, I guess, and he has to pass the test of Guardian of the City of the Gods before he is allowed in. Shadow sounds a bit too one-dimensional for most of my villains, and I’m not sure I’ve ever had a trickster. I may not recognize these in my own work, of course.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 11:48 AM #

      Hey Marc! I bet those short stories are hilarious! I remember you’ve mentioned before that you incorporated a lot of Campbell’s ideas in your writing before you were familiar with his work. (Of course, that’s the essence of his theories – that this mythic structure is part of who we are!) Thanks for the comment!! 🙂

  4. Rachel Russell November 11, 2010 at 11:25 AM #

    I don’t think archetypes are at all limiting to a writer. If you accept that an archetype is merely the skeleton of a character to build upon and add flesh to, then you realize just how useful it is to categorize certain characters in this fashion. You have a defining trait on which to move forward from.

    Excellent post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading a more in-depth explanation on the function of an archetype.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 11:54 AM #

      Thanks Rachel! I loved the way you worded your comment – “an archetype is merely the skeleton of a character…” This is a wonderful visual analogy, because two skeletons could be identical, but the fleshed out people carrying them inside might look nothing the same. Thanks for your (very intuitive) comment! 🙂

  5. Rachel Harris November 11, 2010 at 11:26 AM #

    You know, I was just thinking about this very thing. I hate stereotypical characters but using archetypes for a foundation to build off of is very valuable. I don’t know if I quite thought it out as well as you put it here, though, so thanks!

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 11:51 AM #

      That’s so funny that you were just thinking of this; I was just visiting your blog! WEIRD! (By the way, congrats on the word count. You’ve had a terrifically productive week. BRAVO!) Thanks for commenting Rachel! 🙂

  6. Brooke November 11, 2010 at 12:00 PM #

    Not fair Julie! I was totally going to start a blog series on archetypes today! I haven’t read Voytilla, but another screenwriter, Christopher Vogler wrote a similar book: The Writer’s Journey – Mythological Structure for Writers. He also takes Campbell’s work and simplifies it. I don’t know if you’ve ever read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but it’s not the easiest read. I struggled with it myself. Vogler does a good job of reorganizing Campbell’s ideas.
    Now I’m going to have to wait to do my posts! All the same, way to bring it up for those writers that were unaware of the difference between stereotypes and archetypes.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 12:04 PM #

      OMGosh Brooke – More evidence that great minds think alike! But you helped me out here. I was referring to Vogler’s book, THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, but for whatever reason (too lazy to go get it off the shelf?) I mistakenly credited that book to Voytilla. I’m going back into the post and fixing that. THANKS for pointing that out!!!
      And yeah, HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES is pretty dense reading. I think that’s why I prefer Vogler and Voytilla. 😉 Thanks for the comment!!!

      • Brooke November 11, 2010 at 12:14 PM #

        Haha! Glad I could be of assistance! 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 12:15 PM #

      Oh, and Brooke, I also wanted to say… Please go ahead and start your series on archetypes! I’m sure it won’t matter a bit that I posted on archetypes today. In fact, it may be a great way to build momentum for the topic. So don’t change your plans, please. I, for one, would LOVE to read more about archetypes!

      • Brooke Johnson November 11, 2010 at 3:19 PM #

        I’ll start tomorrow then 😀

        • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 3:26 PM #

          Yay! Can’t wait to read!!!

  7. Sammy Bina November 11, 2010 at 2:49 PM #

    Is it sad that I wasn’t even sure what the difference between an archetype and a stereotype was until now? So if my sick brain has learned anything today, it’s all because of you, Julie!

    And now I can go and apply this to my WIP! You’re my hero.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 2:53 PM #

      LOL Sammy, I think A LOT of writers have only a vague idea of the differences. I wasn’t so sure myself; this article was the result of my own research into archetypes. 🙂 So if I get to be your “hero” then you can be my “mentor.” 😉

  8. Lindsay November 11, 2010 at 3:00 PM #

    Thank you for joining Julie! My blog is still new so please stay tuned for some fun updates. I’ve only recently started bloging and was pleasantly surprised when I fell across Let the Words Flow. I’m excited to check back often! I love discussing and dissecting what makes our books work best and what keeps us reading. Also a HUGE fan of Casablanca, so you’ve won me over again!

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 3:12 PM #

      So glad to find another Casablanca fan! Among the “classic” Hollywood love stories, I think it often doesn’t get its due. 🙂

  9. Brenda Agaro November 11, 2010 at 3:32 PM #

    I didn’t know I was using archetypes until I read Joseph Campbell. It got me thinking about all the movies, tv shows, books, etc. I was exposed to during childhood – they all follow the hero’s journey.

    Even people in real life are archetypes (ex: someone creating a business of their own and becoming successful, a celebrity’s reputation being ruined, someone committing a crime and ending up in prison, etc.) It might be weird for some people, but archetypes are everywhere, even when we don’t see it.

    I unconsciously tend to “flip” archetypes when writing, like having the hero be the villain instead (or eventually become one), the mentor be the shapeshifter, or the shadow be the herald. Maybe it’s just a “both sides of the story”/”shades of gray” thing? For some reason, being a hero isn’t enough for a character to me.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 3:50 PM #

      Hey Brenda! What a great comment! I agree with you that archetypes are everywhere, and people do switch from one to another or behave as two at once all the time in life, so you’re really smart to work that into your fiction. It makes me think of HUNGER GAMES – there are definitely characters that play more than one archetype, even though the story is definitely a “hero’s journey.” Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  10. Ella November 11, 2010 at 4:55 PM #

    I have a massive love for trickster/shapeshifter archetypes (they often come together). Give me a amoral, charming, cunning mischief maker who actually has to /think/ his way out of problems over a sword-swinger any day. ❤

    You're definitely right about archetypes being a frame to build on, though. A lot of my favorite authors use the same basic archetypes from work to work, yet every one of their characters is a unique individual in his own right.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 5:02 PM #

      Ah, the charming, cunning mischief maker *swoons* Your comment really made me thing… now I want to revisit earlier works of some of my favorite authors to see if they use the archetypes from work to work! Thanks for the comment, Ella! 🙂

  11. Biljana November 11, 2010 at 5:58 PM #

    I hate to think that people are confusing stereotypes with archetypes. Archetypes are an awesome base to have when you’re just trying to figure out what kind of character to write, and I know a few people that shun them because they think they’re stereotypical. At their core, they are, but they were never meant to be just “hero” or just “mentor”. They’re like a skeleton that you can play around with and mold to what you need.

    Every story has archetypes but not every story has stereotypes, and all that :P.

    Great article :).

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 6:01 PM #

      Thanks Biljana!! I love the way you summed up your comment: “Every story has archetypes but not every story has stereotypes.” So true! 🙂

  12. Chantal November 11, 2010 at 8:01 PM #

    Julie I always love your posts, this was really interesting and useful to think about!

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 8:20 PM #

      Aw, thanks Chantal! Your comment made me so happy!!! I usually post on the things I think I need to be paying attention to the most, so I guess we’re on the same wavelength! 🙂

  13. Rowenna November 11, 2010 at 9:13 PM #

    Great post–sometimes thinking about archetypes can help us from keeping our characters from being stereotypes, I think–it makes us think about the roles they fulfill in the story.

    And I LOVE Casablanca–one of my favorite movies. Amazing story. Incredible characters. Awesome cinematography and acting skills (and isn’t Ingrid Bergman the most beautiful woman ever?). Plus so historically significant.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 9:49 PM #

      Thanks for the comment Rowenna! I’m glad you liked the post. 🙂 Now – down to business.. Casablanca! Story, characters, cinematography… it’s all there! And the historical context is really the icing on the cake. (But yeah, Ingrid Bergman IS the cake ;D)

  14. Chele November 11, 2010 at 9:29 PM #

    Oh wow, I read this article and realized I’ve got all seven archetypes you listed up there in my NaNo novel (…yeah, the one that’s waaay behind on wordcount ;P)! They’re a little mixed, like the masks you mentioned, but they’re there. ;D

    I’ve never read Campbell or any of the other books, so I’m incredibly pleased with myself right now hahah.

    (-sneaks off to add Casablanca to must-see movie list-)

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 11, 2010 at 9:54 PM #

      Hey Chele! Isn’t it cool how you find the archetypes in your writing without consciously putting them there? That’s what Campbell’s theories are all about – that the myths are a part of who we are. And don’t beat yourself up about your word count. Just keep going!!! Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  15. Meagan Spooner November 12, 2010 at 1:39 AM #

    What a great post! I love Campbell’s theories, though I’ve never read Vogler’s book. I’ll have to check it out.

    This is one of those things that I never think about in the first draft at all, not even a fleeting thought. That said, once I finish that first draft, I often identify character archetypes within my story. It helps me to focus their arcs across the novel, figure out what scenes are most important (and need to be kept rather than cut) and how they should interact with my protagonist.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 12, 2010 at 10:03 AM #

      Hey Meagan, thanks! I love Campbell’s theories, as well. I find it interesting that you don’t think about any of these archetypes while you’re writing that first draft. Campbell would argue that your subconscious puts them in there for you. 🙂 My current WIP is the first where I thought about these roles ahead of time. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  16. DL (Unread Author) November 15, 2010 at 1:53 PM #

    I think I’m going to have to pick these up and give them a read. I’m writing a short novel right now that does actually have a Hero archetype, even though for the first quarter of the book I’d been thinking that he hadn’t been introduced yet.

    I don’t know where the rest of my characters fit in terms of archetypes though so it’ll be interesting to see how the story progresses.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 15, 2010 at 2:13 PM #

      Hey DL!
      I just checked out your blog. I’m doing NaNo, too!
      Thanks for the comment. You really made me curious with what you said about the Hero in your book! I really do recommend checking out the books I mention above. I think you will be stunned to see how many archetypes you have in your book. Campbell would argue that it’s because they are all in our heads all the time!

  17. Peter yan March 21, 2012 at 7:13 PM #

    The Hunger Games PLOT archetypes, in addition to the ones mentioned here, make the story even more intriguing. The primitive (hunters) and the technological (hovercrafts) world is created by the clever mishmash of 4 or more archetyes: Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, The Most Dangerous Game, Theseus and the MInotaur, Robin Hood, the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet, the Big Brother of 1984, and the Star Wars like Rebel vs Evil Empire forces.

  18. Reliquiaen August 18, 2012 at 9:07 PM #

    That’s actually a really helpful post, Julie, thanks. I like to run through my characters and try to classify them based on archetypes before I even start (I find it helps keep them pretty consistent). But right now I’m doing a research piece on archetypes and stereotypes in the video games industry and how they’re really boring and don’t ‘break the mold’ so to speak. This definition separating the two has helped a lot. It’s interesting to think that deep down we all know what an archetype is, we just can’t put it into words. 🙂
    So thanks again for this, I’ll definitely keep an eye out for other posts.

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