What is an Archetype in Literature

The concept of psychological archetype was first applied to literature by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. He identified that there were innate, universal patterns in all stories regardless of culture or historical period. He used this concept to theorize that there is a collective unconscious shared by all members of the human species. The term archetype literally means ‘the original from which copies are made.’

Here, let’s see a more descriptive explanation about archetype in literature, supported by examples.

What is an Archetype in Literature

Literary archetype or archetype in literature is a recurring symbol or motif in literature that represents universal patterns of human nature. A literary archetype can be a character, action, theme, plot pattern, symbol, image or a situation that represent common human nature.

According to Carl Jung’s theory of ‘collective unconscious,’ all human beings have a set of expectations and preferences about stories. The use of archetypes in literature helps the writer to fulfill these expectations.  Archetypes also help the readers to easily identify and relate to characters and situations in the story. They can also bring in a sense of realism to a story.

What is an Archetype in Literature - 2

Sherlock Holmes is the hero & Dr. Watson is his sidekick.

Examples of Archetypes


The characters of heroes and villains are good examples of archetypes. Many stories have a hero and a villain. The hero is the champion of the good and fights against evil whereas villain is the main enemy of the hero.  Let’s look at some examples of heroes and villains from different stories.

Hero: Harry Potter, Superman, Hercules, Frodo, Sherlock Holmes, Katniss Everdeen, etc.

Villain: Voldemort (in Harry Potter) Professor Moriarty (in Sherlock Holmes), Captain Hook (in Peter Pan), Cruella de Vil (in The Hundred and One Dalmatians) , Shere Khan (in Jungle Books), etc.

All these heroes and villains have different qualities and characteristics; they belong to different cultures, time periods and are of different ages. But they all have predominant qualities that mark them as heroes and villains.

Heroes can be further classified into different roles based on their behavior. For example,

Hero as a warrior
Hero as a lover
Transcendent Hero (hero with a tragic flaw)

There are also other archetype characters in literature such as mentor, sidekick, doppelganger, healer, rebel, etc. For example, Gandalf in Lord of the Ring and Dumbledore in Harry Potter play the archetype of mentor, who helps the hero in his journey

What is an Archetype in Literature

Gandalf is an archetypal mentor.


Archetypes situations or actions often include physical or emotional journey. For example, a quest for identity, quest for vengeance, search for love, and a warriors’ journey to save/help people are archetypical journeys seen in most stories.

Some common patterns can be also seen in the journey itself.  Given below are some examples of such archetypical moments.

The hero makes a loyal group of friends.
The hero makes a moving speech.
The hero has help from supernatural or divine powers.
The hero is innocent, inexperienced at the beginning of the journey.


  • Archetype is a recurring symbol or motif in literature that represents universal patterns of human nature.
  • An archetype can be  a character, action, theme, symbol, plot pattern or image.

Image Courtesy: 

 By Nidoart – Norberak egina  via

About the Author: Hasa

Hasa has a BA degree in English, French and Translation studies. She is currently reading for a Masters degree in English. Her areas of interests include literature, language, linguistics and also food.

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