Like few other genres, archetypes in fantasy make or break a story.
An archetype is a character that fulfils a role or symbolises some aspect of story telling. Most of our oldest surviving stories are myths and legends, which qualify as epic fantasy in my view. Greek epic poems and dramas include heroes, heroines, villains, guides and mentors, helpers, fantastical creatures and quests.
From Gilgamesh to the Iliad, the Odessey, the Grail Quest to Beowolf and beyond, you’ll see all these archetypes in fantasy.
Formalised as the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, they persist in modern stories. The archetypes are as much a framework of story as the plot. The presence or absence of an archetype powers or halts the narrative drive of the story. Without a number of these archetypes, you have no conflict and no plot. Others support the protagonist in their mythic quest.
The typical archetypes include:
The Hero/Heroine (usually the protagonist)
- Often an orphan or survivor of a difficult child hood
- Frequently forced and/or coached into the role
- Often reluctant to assume the role
- Possessed of moral courage, moral fibr or a moral compass
- Embarks on a quest, overcoming obstacles by using the skills and knowledge they gain along the way
- A force for good
The Villain (usually the antagonist)
- Opposes the hero’s goals, morals, ethics or worldview
- A force for evil
- Sometimes unexpectedly revealed in the role, emerging from hiding
- Usually has ambitions to tear down the existing order to establish a new order – with themselves at the centre
The Mentor or Helper, the Wise Man/Woman
- Someone who aids the hero in gaining knowledge and training, guiding them through their quest
- Sets the hero on the road and frequently disappears or dies so they have to complete the quest alone
- Someone who tempts the hero, diverting them from the quest
- The hero is often blind to the danger of their charms.
The Damsel in Distress, ‘The Dream Girl’ or Handsome Prince
- Someone who inspires the hero to great deeds, rescues, battles and the completion of the quest
- Traditionally a passive character, frequently objectified as a ‘prize’ for the hero’s success.
- They are also often unattainable for reasons of rank, status, or other commitments. Only by completing the quest does the hero prove worthy of them.
There are other archetypes such as the Companion or ‘plucky side-kick’, the Jester or Fool, and the Shape-Shifter who initially appears as a helper but later switches sides or reveals their own agenda.
Consider the many forms these archetypes may take and you realise they are common for other genres. They translate directly into the classic Western for example. Action/Adventure, Espionage, even some Romances make use of archetypes.
Pride and Prejudice has Lizzie the Heroine, Darcy as her Prince, Mr Bennett as a mentor, Lady Catherine as the antagonist, Wickham as a combined Enchanter/Shape-shifter, Charlotte Lucas as a sometime side-kick and Mr Collins as the Fool.
If you encounter a story and can’t work out a character’s role, refer back to the archetypes and consider how it contributes to the progress in that story.