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Archetype Examples and Functions in Literature

An archetype is any story element repeatedly appearing in stories from various cultures, symbolizing something universal in the human experience. It can be a type of character, situation, setting or symbolic object. In this article, we explore the various forms of archetypes in fiction and notable works where they occur.

Types of Archetypes in Fiction

There are four sets of archetypes in literature: character, setting, symbols and situation.

Character Archetype: It's quite a challenge for writers to craft unique and intriguing characters, but character archetypes provide them with a good starting point. The hero, the damsel in distress, the dreamer, the evil genius, the outcast, the star-crossed lovers, the temptress, the mentor, and the tyrant are typical character archetypes in narrative fiction.

Situation Archetypes: "There are only a few types of stories to be told" is a notion held by many writers, which may not be a far cry from the truth. These plotlines feature specific elements, twists, and an inevitable ending, all of which determine the story's conflict and theme. Rags to riches, riches to rags, the quest, the battle of good and evil, and the hero's journey are typical situation archetypes in narrative fiction.

Setting Archetypes: Even settings are nothing new in fiction, and every story requires its own type of setting. You can't read a horror or mystery novel with many day settings. The night has something spooky about it, holds secrets, and can reinforce the theme, mood, and foreshadowing. A garden represents love, forests speak of danger and adventure, a tower is a place of worship or power, and an island evokes isolation.

Symbol Archetypes: Every king has a sword, every magician has a wand, most heroes wear white, and villains are very stylish in black. Colors and objects have always been used to symbolize the same things in fiction. Light means hope, darkness means doom, water means life, clouds mean mystery, a circle means perfection, and a heart means love.

Effects of Archetypes in Literature

With archetypes, writers can create characters that readers can easily relate to and see themselves exhibiting similar qualities. This makes readers invested in your narrative and they will consider aspects of your character that mirror them in ways they've never thought, or appreciate identical traits in people around them. 

Archetypes in fictional narratives mirror recurring situations in society and allow us to reevaluate our beliefs, laws, and customs. Common archetypes employ an element of realism to storytelling or other fiction that helps a narrative leap off the page and into your readers' hearts. Society can become more aware of its positive and negative facets, with storytellers boldly using archetypical elements to portray the truth vividly and undeniably. 

Examples of Archetypes in Fiction

Based on the four forms of archetypes, here are some notable instances of archetypes in famous works of fiction:

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597). This is the most famous instance of star-crossed lovers; even the prologue says so. Despite their love for each other, we see Romeo and Juliet meet an inevitable tragic fate, typical of their character archetype. 

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954). This is a perfect example of situation archetypes. Tolkien employs the Hero's Journey in narrating the endeavor of Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring to destroy the ring. And since destroying the ring meant destroying evil, we also see the use of the Battle of Good and Evil archetype at play.

William Goldman, Lord of the Flies (1954). This story makes good use of setting archetypes. Here, the boys are isolated on an island and find danger in the forest and safety by the lagoon. Even the night brought a foreboding of danger and death, and different locations on the island created different moods.

Thomas Malory, Le Morte D' Arthur (15th-century). Here, King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, is a symbolic archetype. It reinforces the strength and valor of the king and his knights. And it never left King Arthur's side from the day he pulled it from the stone until the hour of his death.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen