Mythical Archetype List
The following glossary defines only some of the mythical archetypes commonly found in literature, especially folkloric literature such as children's fairytales. Note that while there are subtleties that might deviate from these definitions in any given case, there are also trends that often are designed to go directly against these types of archetypes, therefore actually fulfilling them. In other words, the turnaround or reversal only works because the author is counting on the audience's familiarity with the original archetype.
The Anthropomorphic Animal: Commonly seen in children's tales, specifically fairytales and Aesop's Fables, the humanlike animal is used to explain and demonstrate human weaknesses and strengths. Specific animals are often chosen for their humanlike qualities, whether real or imagined. Therefore, owls are wise, foxes are wily, chickens are fearful, wolves are ravenous. Keep in mind that animal symbolisms change from culture to culture and from era to era so an animal that might possess a positive trait in one culture may be seen as negative in another. (Aesop's Fables, wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs).
The Child: This common iconographic figure, whether literally adolescent or not, is a naif who will either be victim to his or her na´vetÚ or will, in the process of the story, become a wiser and therefore more mature person. Commonly used in fairy and folk tales, the child often represents innocence and vulnerability, especially when applied to female children, as well as ingenuity and unexpected cleverness in male children. ( Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel)
The Comedic Hero: This usually male character is often young and na´ve, often handsome and likable, and despite high odds against him, will persevere against a foe to achieve an unrealistic, albeit pleasing victory. This is derived from the traditional Greek comedy, in which a person against whom the odds are stacked perseveres in spite of theose odds.
The Clown or Fool: This usually male character is an embodiment of all human foibles, and while he may be placed in the story for comedic effect, is also often placed in a plot to represent the weaker aspects of humankind.
The Damsel in Distress: This female character is usually young and attractive and is placed in a situation of peril from which she must be rescued. Often the motif seems to center on the female as the protagonist, but the rescue is almost universally from a nameless male character, often a prince, who will have to overcome some obstacle... a tower, a Dragon etc., in order to rescue the damsel. (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood).
The Devil: A live manifestation of evil, this character often tempts the protagonist with common desires such as riches, fame or special knowledge in exchange for the character's soul. (Satan, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, The Walking Dude/Randall Flagg, Old Scratch).
The Earth Mother: While not always portrayed with a corpulent body, this almost exclusively female character embodies the nurturing aspects often associated with motherhood, offering emotional and spiritual support to any with whom she will come in contact. If symbolizing fertility and other more literal aspects of motherhood, will often be seen as a large woman. (Mother Nature, Alma Mater, Mother Earth).
The Fall: This is a common plot device in which a character falls or descends from a higher to lower state, such as spiritual failure or the loss of innocence. Sometimes this can include banishment from the paradise as a penalty for some transgression. (Adam and Eve story from the Bible,Paradise Lost, Where are You Going, Where Have You Been, King Midas).
The Fairy Godmother: This female character, usually portrayed as old and pleasant looking, has magical powers that are often benevolently bestowed on a protagonist, although the character does not seem to have enough power to directly grant all the protagonist's wishes. Fairy godmothers mostly appear to and aid young, abandoned female protagonists. (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Glinda in The Wizard of Oz).
The Good Witch: This female character, often portrayed as either old and pleasant looking (see fairy godmother) or young and beautiful, has magical powers that are often benevolently bestowed on the protagonist. Note that very often the good witch seems to have less power than a bad witch. (Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, The Blue Fairy in Pinocchio).
The Hero: Perhaps the most examined of the archetypes, the hero comes in many guises. The most standard version of the hero is a character, usually male, who is either of low status from birth or low status because a higher birthright was taken from the character, who has to overcome adversity in order to be rightly placed in a position of power. The term hero often is synonymous with protagonist in many analyses, although many protagonists are not necessarily heroic. Early adversity in life might be tragic loss of parentage (orphan); rejection by parents (Oedipus, Moses); or suspicious, mysterious or magical parentage (virgin birth/demi-god). The character will go through several adventures in which he must prove himself, and in doing so will gain knowledge and experience in order to face the final quest, which usually will involve acquisition of a prize and the destruction of a great evil. (See also tragic hero) (See also comedic hero).
The Initiation: This plot device occurs in a story in which a novice, usually a younger person and traditionally male, will go through some kind of test in order to be granted admission into a higher society, whether it be knighthood for the Squire, Wizardhood for the acolyte, or acceptance into some kind of unique club. (Arthur taking Excalibur, Pinocchio becoming a boy)
The Journey: This standard plot motif involves traveling, often on a quest, often on some either noble or tragic cause and it is the journey itself which is the focus of the plot. Often these journeys mirror or mimic the life of the character involved.( A Worn Path, Easy Rider, Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
The Outcast: This character lives outside the norms of a particular society or group. The outcast may be played as an antihero (Peter Parker in Spiderman) or may be, in more traditional material, representation of one who is unwilling or unable to follow society's rules (Dexter, Batman).
The Quest: Similar to the journey, the quest has the added element at the end of the journey will require an often difficult acquisition of particular item, whether it be a talisman, the rescue of a princess, or the defeat of some kind of foe (Lord of the Rings, The Dark Tower .
The Scapegoat: This character is chosen by a society to be sacrificed for the good of society. The scapegoat is based on old Semitic tradition of annually placing, symbolically, the sins and woes of society on a goat and sending that goat out into the desert, thereby cleansing the town for another year. Scapegoats in more modern material tend to be people unjustly accused or blamed for some crime or a malady and are often minority gender, religious, legal or ethnic status.
The Seer/Oracle: This character is, for lack of a better term, a fortune teller. The Oracle is traditional in Greek literature, but the same character shows up in other guises depending on the culture from which the story is derived. In any case, the Oracle foretells the future, often of the protagonist, but often the message is so elliptical and so symbolic that the true nature of the future of the character is not revealed until the story itself has been played out.
The (Evil) Stepmother: This female character (almost as ubiquitous as the Wicked Witch) traditionally is a replacement for a deceased, often revered mother, often with disastrous results for the usually female protagonist child. Invariably, this character will attempt to get rid of the children of her husband in order to either gain riches for herself or to have more attention and or wealth for her own children. ( Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White).
The Talisman: An object with magical or at least mystical powers that will offer the bearer...or a specific, deserving person who has it...untold power and position. (Ring in Lord of the Rings, Excalibur, The Holy Grail)
The Task: This plot element is often part of a journey or quest, in which the protagonist must perform some sort of deed in order to pass by a particular point in his or her journey, or must complete this particular assignment in order to gain the object of a quest. (Killing a dragon or ogre, removing a sword from the stone for King Arthur, the seven labors of Hercules).
The Temptress: This female character, often portrayed as magical, has a powerful, often sexual allure to the male protagonist(s) and is often used as a distraction from a quest or during a journey. Often succumbing to the temptress will result in death or imprisonment. (Sirens in The Odyssey, the town girls in Easy Rider).
The Tragic Hero: This heroic figure, often male, is the protagonist of a tale in which a person of great standing and great potential is brought down, despite the odds against such a thing happening, often by one fatal flaw, which is usually hubris, an overreaching pride in oneself. Traditionally, Greeks used the tragic hero to demonstrate the limitations of mankind in cautionary tales. (Hamlet, Macbeth, Oedipus Rex).
The Unfaithful (Wife): This usually female character is a strong symbol of betrayal and is often used as part of the downfall of a tragic hero, especially in Greek or Shakespearean tragedies.(Lady Macbeth, Hamlet's mother Gertrude).
The Wicked Witch: Perhaps the most powerful character in fairy tales, this is an older female of great power, always evil, whose main goal is to terrorize and/or kill a young attractive girl, often out of jealousy (Snow White) or spite (Rapunzel). This character may hoard riches (The Tinderbox), change guises (Snow White), cast spells (Sleeping Beauty), and even enchant with great beauty (Sleeping Beauty) or attract children with lures (Hansel and Gretel). Few tales with this character will end without her demise.
The Wise Man: This sage occurs often in Greek tragedies, but is often in the guise of someone of very low standing and is often also handicapped... similar to the seer or Oracle, this character may foretell the future to a disbelieving tragic protagonist or may be used as wise counsel for a protagonist whose fortunes will turn out far better.
Melendez, Mildred. Archetype List . Sinclair Community College, 2002.
Saltman, Judith. "Trade and Plumbcake Forever". The Riverside Anthology of Children's Literature, 6th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
© T. T. Eiland, January 2002
Last modified: January 06, 2017