Understanding Archetypes I

We know that creating engaging and effective characters involves observation, maturity, and imagination on the part of the writer. Well-written characters feel real; they radiate naturalness and spontaneity through their thoughts, emotions, and actions — they resonate with verisimilitude. But there is another layer to character creation that has less to do with serving character, and more to do with character serving the story — character as a function of the story argument.

In The Writer’s Journey, Chrisopher Vogler, who built on the work of American mythologist Joseph Campbell, offers a theory of storytelling based on the structure of myth and archetype. Carl G. Jung first used the term, archetype, to refer to the shared ancient patterns that find their way in our dreams and stories. Exploring this further, Vogler argues that myth examines the basic materials of the human psyche through the medium of storytelling. He sees stories as journeys undertaken by the Hero to achieve a goal with physical, spiritual, and emotional dimensions. In this sense, each narrative element has a function to perform — to help create and sustain the story across a myriad of layers. And so too with Character, which draws on the notion of archetype to broaden its universal appeal.

Vogler offers eight character types, or archetypes, that, collectively, fulfill the story argument: Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shape Shifter, Shadow, Ally, and Trickster. Although these names may sound somewhat arcane, we’ve met them before under different appellations — Hero/Protagonist, Ally/Sidekick, Shadow/Antagonist. Each of these characters acts according to his or her type, presenting one side of the argument while propelling the story forward towards its ultimate conclusion. In this post we look at some of the main characteristics of two archetypes: Hero and Mentor.


One of the earliest renditions of the Hero was Perseus — the monster slayer — who encapsulated the Greek ideal of heroism. At a psychological level, the Hero archetype represents the ego’s search for completion and identity. As a dramatic device, however, the Hero offers the reader or audience a specific perspective, someone to identify with, drawing us deeper into the story. Typically, Heroes grow and learn rough hardships encountered in pursuit of the goal (although some Heroes may remain static, causing others to change around them, instead). They are doers — they initiate and sustain action. Often, Heroes are asked to sacrifice loved ones and/or themselves in pursuit of the goal. Additionally, Heroes are often flawed and may be willing or unwilling pursuers of the goal. Although Heroes may be leaders, captaining armies or groups into battle, they may also be loners, attempting to solve the world’s problems on their own.


A Mentor is closely allied to the Hero, training and guiding him or her during the pursuit of the goal. Vogler reminds us that psychologically, Mentors represent the higher Self — the wiser, nobler, more god-like aspect of us. The dramatic function of the Mentor is to teach and train the Hero, preparing him for the challenges ahead. This is often a two-way process, with the Mentor learning from the Hero as much as the Hero learns from the Mentor. Mentors typically provide the Hero with gifts, be it weapons, medicine, or food, again, intended to aid in the attainment of the goal. Gifts, however, should be earned, either through self-sacrifice, or commitment. Like Heroes, Mentors may be willing or unwilling participants in the task. Occasionally, a flawed Mentor may instruct through counter example — by showing the Hero the dangers of taking a wrong path though enacting it in his own life. Sometimes, a Mentor can mislead the Hero, typically in Thrillers such as Goodfellas or The Public Enemy, which invert heroic values in the telling the tale. Finally, a Mentor, who may either show up early in the story, or towards the end, when he is most needed, provides the Hero with inspiration, guidance, and motivation, granting her gifts to aid her in the task at hand.

In Summary

Archetypes are shared character types, found in myths and dreams, that reoccur across all cultures. Archetypes form the universal language of storytelling, and, as such, are an indispensable part of a writer’s craft.


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Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

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