For thousands of years, narrative artforms have featured archetypes—characters built on a set of traits that are specific and identifiable. The heroes and villains of today’s books and films may be based on the same heroic and villainous archetypes found in the novels of Charles Dickens, the poetry of John Milton, and the theater of the ancient Greeks.
Some archetypal characters are well known—the hero, for instance, or the lover—while others, such as the sage, are less discussed outside of literary circles.
History of Archetypes
Although character archetypes transcend many centuries and cultures, the academic study of them is a more recent development.
The modern concept of identifying archetypes is generally thought to have begun with the 1890 publishing of The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion by Sir James George Frazer of Cambridge University. In this text, Frazer traces commonalities among religions from many eras and geographic regions. In doing so, he alerted his 19th century contemporaries to the ancient origins of their own beliefs and customs.
The book touched on taboo subjects. For instance, Frazer observed the similarities between the Jesus Christ crucifixion narrative and the sacrificial rites of pagan cultures. While he didn’t use the word “archetype,” he nonetheless noted a universal commonality among these seemingly disparate rituals. This dry, analytical look at the Christian origin story won Frazer enemies in the clergy and general public, but it also heightened awareness of his work.
Carl Jung and Archetypes
Frazer’s treatise influenced many prominent 20th century writers, including Robert Graves, T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, H.P. Lovecraft, and James Joyce. But perhaps most notable was its impact on the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. Jung, whose methods and observations are still utilized by today’s psychologists, shared Frazer’s interest in the commonalities among disparate world religions, mythology, and culture. And while Frazer did not use the word “archetype” in his writings, Jung did, appropriating it from the field of anthropology.
Jung presented the theory of the collective unconscious, whereby members of the same species share a communal understanding of the world they mutually occupy. As humans, Jung observed, we share common experiences such as having parents or falling in love. He therefore postulated that humans share unconscious beliefs about certain universal truths.
For instance, Jung proposed that human experience could enable us to all understand the archetype of the “wise old man.” No matter what culture you were raised in, you can probably envision what a wise old man is like, which means you are drawing upon a collectively understood archetype. Jung also believed that certain archetypes were understood a priori—essentially via instinct. Humans don’t need to be taught the concept of “mother” and “father.” We inherently understand them from Day One on this earth.
In addition to archetypal characters, Jung believed in archetypal events—such as birth and death—and archetypal motifs—such as creation or apocalypse. Once again, shared human experience enables us to understand what “creation” should look like; it doesn’t need to be explained. Literary stories that draw upon these archetypal motifs can resonate with audiences, because they speak to universal truths.
However Jung considered most archetypes to be ineffable: they are difficult to adequately represent with just a description. Archetypes are best understood when they are embodied, whether that’s by a god in a particular religion or a by a character in a book or play.
Joseph Campbell and Archetypes
Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College who specialized in comparative mythology and comparative religion. He was well versed in the writings of both Frazer and Jung, and he subscribed to the latter’s theory of archetypes. Although Campbell was an academic, his writing was engaging and cogent, and he reached a larger public with books such as The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), which articulated the concept of “the hero’s journey,” which Carl Jung might have called an archetypal motif. The book resonated with Hollywood filmmakers, and George Lucas was particularly vocal about crafting the arc of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker around the story beats of Campbell’s hero’s journey. This made Luke more of a “classical” character, since Campbell’s theory came out of extensive study of classical literature and theater.
Archetypes, Stereotypes, Stock Characters, and Clich©s
Although there is overlap among archetypes, stereotypes, stock characters, and clich©s, the words are not synonyms.
As a general rule, stereotypes and clich©s are negative—the product of bad writing or shallow thinking. A stereotype is an oversimplified notion or characterization. Some stereotypes are negative (“the dumb jock”), others are positive (“the innocent child”), but all are considered reductive and undesirable in literature. A clich© is something that’s so repeatedly used that it’s predictable and even boring—such as the TV firefighter haunted by the memory of the one distressed damsel he couldn’t save.
An archetype, by contrast, does not imply predictability or intellectual laziness. Most of the time, it suggests that a character or situation will speak to a universal truth, much as Jung described. Archetypes will by definition be familiar, but they aren’t so predictable that we already know what will happen in their story.
Somewhere between an archetype and a stereotype is a stock character, someone who fits a narrow, predictable description, but often for intentional reasons. A well-selected stock character can make a great supporting role, particularly in comedy, but they aren’t compelling as protagonists. Stock characters are borne out of the classic European tradition of commedia dell’arte where actors would wear masks and perform over-the-top versions of stock characters like a foolish old man or a puffed-up military officer.