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Character Development
May 24, 2022

What Are Archetypes in Film?

If you're stuck for ideas about how to present and create characters in your screenplay, it may be time to look at the different archetypes that exist in fiction. 

So, what exactly are archetypes? What are the different types that exist, and how can you utilize them in your writing? 

Let's dive in. 

What are archetypes? 

Archetypes are a way of understanding the world and how characters relate to each other. Archetypes are different from stereotypes which offer a generalized negative view of characters and personalities, which often aren't true. 

What is the definition of an archetype? Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung first coined the term to discuss how some symbols and characteristics are timeless. 

When archetypes are referred to in screenwriting and storytelling, this term means that a character fulfills a role and adopts a particular set of characteristics that we can all relate to.  

The most famous example is the heroic protagonist of a "bildungsroman" or coming of age movie that features a character that leaves home to embark on a quest into the unknown. The characteristics such as the bravery and the nature of a boy entering the world to become a man stand firm even if we change the timeline or setting.

Many ancient stories revolved around this concept: a young boy ventures into the wilderness alone to accomplish a goal or overcome a battle.

This archetype remains the same even if we update the setting. 

Interstellar involves its protagonist, Cooper, leaving Earth and his daughter heading out into deep space to save the human race: he is "leaving home" to fight a battle of sorts. We have replaced the jungle with outer space, but they still represent the same thing: the unknown. 

Equally, this archetype can be inverted. In the 1999 Disney film Tarzan, the main character, Tarzan, is raised in the jungle. When he comes of age, he considers leaving the jungle for the real world; effectively, Tarzan considers leaving the unknown for the known world. But instead, he decides to stay and convinces his love interest, Jane, to join him.  

Different types of archetypes 

So we've established what an archetype is, but what are the different archetypes that exist? 

Here are some examples of archetypes. Once we understand these, we can take them and flesh them out for our own writing purposes. 

Character archetypes 

There are many familiar character archetypes that we can consider. Remember using an archetype doesn't necessarily mean your work becomes a cliche. Archetypes are symbols at the end of the day. It's up to you to creatively interpret and reinvent these archetypes within your own story. We've listed out a few of the most common character archetypes below, but if you'd like to check out our full list, click here.

The Warrior 

The warrior is physically strong and intends to destroy the enemy through physical force. They are courageous and natural-born leaders. However, their weakness is their ego. They strive to defeat the antagonist and save the day to prove their worth.

Suppose we want to apply the Save the Cat framework to this character archetype. In that case, The Warrior would generally suffer a crisis of confidence after a significant setback during their "dark night of the soul," resulting in a massive dent to their ego. They must be humble and re-build their confidence to eventually win the day. Inner conflict is at the heart of The Warrior's journey.

The Tortured Creator 

This character is often brilliant but fixated on creating a product of immense value to society to fulfill their ego. Generally, they will be an artist. They are very individualistic and struggle to work with others, which considerably affects their personal lives. 

They are often the genius or visionary, and their downfall - especially if they are the protagonist - is working so hard that they alienate others around them who want to help them. Their own "dark night of the soul" usually involves their closest allies abandoning them and a realization that they cannot complete their project without their help. 

Steve Jobs, in the 2015 biopic of the same name, is a perfect example: his genius led to the invention of the iPhone, iPad, and the Mac computer, as well as the savior of Apple as a company. But his relationships are damaged along the way. 

Steve Jobs is the archetypical tortured creator, obsessed with developing the iPhone and Mac computer at any cost.

The Orphan 

Orphans are abandoned as children - maybe literally, or they feel orphaned - and as such, they seek external validation and approval as well as a new family.

In Harry Potter, Harry is orphaned and rescued from his abusive aunt and uncle by Hagrid and finds himself in a world where he is famous. He goes from obscurity to a high status overnight.

But there are issues with Harry's newly found status: namely, an evil wizard, Voldemort, wishes to kill him. In the fifth book, when Harry is a teenager, his fame makes him rebellious and arrogant, an internal struggle he must grapple with. 

Pip in Great Expectations is another example of an orphan archetype who grapples with the same issues when he unexpectedly inherits a fortune. 

Hagrid and Harry stand together in the Forbidden Forest.
The giant Hagrid rescues Harry Potter from his life of obscurity and abuse with the Dursleys.

Using archetypes in your writing 

To use archetypes in your writing, start by thinking about which archetype your character represents: or if you haven't gotten this far, simply pick an archetype. Then, you can begin to flesh out their character and construct a character arc from there.

If they are an orphan, you will already indicate their downfall: their abandonment issues and need for external validation. If they are a creator, then your protagonist's downfall will be their single-mindedness and obsession with crafting and creating at the expense of other areas of their lives. 

Consider how these characteristics will manifest in your character. For example, what could they be creating if they were a creator? You can think outside the box and consider the genre you are writing in. If you are writing science-fiction, maybe your creator character is working on a time machine. In fantasy, perhaps your character is crafting a magical object with mythical powers that can solve the overarching problem of the narrative. 

As an audience, we want stories that connect with the fundamental experience of being human while also offering something original. Considering archetypes is an excellent way of doing this. 

Don't forget once you've decided what archetypes your characters represent, you can use Arc Studio to help you plot your story and your character arcs in detail.

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team!


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What Are Archetypes in Film?
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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