There are heroes everywhere. A great Hero’s Journey can take place in any genre. That’s what’s so special about it: it’s universal.
Yet there are characters that your reader will unconsciously expect your story to have, no matter the genre. If you want your next heroic story to be a success, you’d be wise to plan the entire journey around these key characters. Otherwise, you might have a story that fails to “work,” leaving the reader dissatisfied and confused.
Luckily, the Hero’s Journey describes not only the events your hero will experience, but also the charaters — or to be exact, the character archetypes — they’ll meet along the way.
Let’s get into character!
Character Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey
You’ve certainly heard of characters, but the term “archetypes” might be new to you. Here’s what it means:
A character archetype is a character type that serves a specific role in a story and tends to reoccur in myths, legends, and stories across genres, cultures, and time periods.
In other words, character archetypes are universally understood personalities who serve specific storytelling purposes in their stories. In order to be properly utilized, a character archetype must fulfill its set purpose while exhibiting new, innovative traits.
Know What Your Reader Expects
The whole theory of the “monomyth,” or Hero’s Journey, was first explained by Joseph Campbell. It’s the idea that all stories include the same fundamental characters, situations, and symbols. While certain cultures and genres will take these archetypes and use them in unique ways, the basic function of each is the same no matter what story in which it appears.
First, it’s handy to know about the structure of the Hero’s Journey, a twelve-step process that is the bread and butter of storytellers like Pixar and Marvel Studios.
Second, it’s wise to build your story around the five essential characters that every heroic story uses.
You might be wondering, “Why are these characters essential? Did someone decide that they are required?”
If you asked this or something like it, I don’t blame you. After years of schooling and learning about “great” literature, it can feel heavy-handed to be told that you “have to” tell a story a certain way.
But archetypes aren’t about rules. Archetypes are recognized phenomena in psychology.
In other words, these characters are “required” because your reader says so, at least in his or her subconscious. There’s something about these characters that everyone “gets,” and if they’re missing, something will feel wrong about your story.
And that’s not what you want.
The 5 Essential Character Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey
How do you satisfy your reader? Let’s explore the five essential characters you want to put in your next heroic story, regardless of genre!
1. The Hero
Every story has a hero. They are the protagonist with a clear physical goal.
And your story will have a hero, no matter the genre.
Composing a romantic comedy? Your primary love-seeker is your hero.
Penning an epic horror-survival slasher? Your hero is the one trying to escape with their life.
The key to nailing the hero is three-fold. You need to give them the following:
- A physical goal (external want)
- A nonphysical need (internal need)
- Relateable character traits that gain the reader’s empathy
For your heroic story to work, there must be conflict between what the hero wants and what they actually need. This usually comes about when the hero is able to achieve their goal, but at the expense of another character’s safety, or the compromise of the hero’s values.
Also, it’s wise to give your hero one or two character traits that are innately likeable. This usually (and most effectively) manifests itself as SELFLESSNESS. This is perhaps the most emblematic virtue of a hero.
Think of the newest sensation on streaming television, The Mandalorian. Our hero is a masked bounty hunter — hardly a character with whom the audience can easily build a connection.
But the storytellers wisely gave our hero the chance to make a definitive choice at the end of the first episode, and later in the third: to defend the helpless “Baby Yoda” child he was tasked with bringing in. This selfless choice endured “Mando” to audiences and the show is being met with near-universal praise.
So as you plan your story, consider these three traits of a hero and how to build a protagonist with whom your reader will easily relate.
2. The Shadow
Opposite the hero must be a worthy and fearsome Shadow.
The Shadow is an archetypal “villain” — but they are not simply “evil” or monstrous. There’s actually another archetype for the “pure evil” character, the Devil Figure, and not all stories include one.
The Shadow, on the other hand, is a dark version of the Hero. They usually embody the trait of SELFISHNESS, or at least “indifference,” to the needs of others. They usually profess a Darwinist outlook on the world: cold, violent, and willing to believe that the ends always justify the means.
It’s important to remember that the Shadow believes themselves to be a hero. The Shadow’s background or beliefs are often similar to the hero’s, providing an opportunity to write archetypal scenes of “temptation” where the Hero must consider the allure of the Shadow’s way of doing things.
There are certainly other ways to typify your Shadow, but almost every negative character trait is a child of SELFISHNESS. Think about how your Shadow can live for themselves, but in a new and relevant way.
3. The Loyal Retainer
No Hero endures the journey completely alone. There’s always a companion: a Loyal Retainer. And that’s for good reason.
From a pure storytelling point of view, it’s difficult to write scenes with only one character. Advancing the plot becomes a pile of exposition and “telling” that readers instinctively dislike.
But from a thematic point of view, the Loyal Retainer is essential. They function as a “foil” to the Hero, often asking tough questions, suggesting alternative paths, and forcing, by nature of being another human being, the Hero to think selflessly.
Contrast this with the Shadow, who rarely has a Loyal Retainer of their own.
The best kind of Loyal Retainer is one who isn’t afraid to push back against the Hero’s worst tendencies. The Hero isn’t perfect; they will be tempted to cut corners and betray their values in pursuit of the goal. That’s where the Loyal Retainer comes in: they are the perfect character to resist those impulses — or indulge them, forcing the Hero to save them both!
4. The Mentor
One of the crucial steps of the Hero’s Journey is the Refusal of the Call, a moment when the hero rejects, despairs, or botches the Call to Adventure. It shows the reader that heroes are human, too, and that they experience the same doubts as everyday people.
Then the Mentor enters.
The Mentor is frequently an older, wiser presence. They are the hero of a previous generation, no longer able to carry the mantle of responsibility due to age, injury, or failure. Now it is the Mentor’s duty to pass on the skills and knowledge to the new generation of Hero.
There are, of course, exceptions to some of these traits (not all Mentors are old, for example), but the principle is the same: The Hero needs help, and help tends to come from elders and experts.
A great example is Cinna from The Hunger Games. A young, resistance-minded fashion designer in the Capitol, Cinna creates outfits that make Katniss a celebrity despite her off-putting personality. And like so many other Mentors, Cinna dies for passing on what he knows.
Regardless of your chosen genre, your Hero must have a Mentor of some kind. Even in the Romance genre, the protagonist will seek advice from a parent, relative, or older person in his or her community.
Remember, these archetypes exist not because someone cooked up a list of rules, but because they reflect timeless truths and natural human behavior. When we need help, we ask for it. And when we appear in need of help, mentors come to our aid. It’s just how the world works, and your stories should reflect this.
5. Threshold Guardians
Finally, every heroic journey faces setbacks. All sorts of obstacles appear to check the hero’s progress and force them to prove their worth.
These setbacks can take many natural or inanimate forms. Perhaps the Hero must outwit a beast; maybe they must climb an imposing cliff face.
But the best obstacles take human form, and these are known as Threshold Guardians.
Threshold Guardians can take nearly limitless forms. Often they appear as “henchmen” or cannon fodder.
But they are best deployed as characters who stand between the Hero and the next step toward their goal.
Example Threshold Guardians
Imagine: In a teenage comedy, Chris needs a good report card to pursue his goal of a weekend of fun with his friends (and possibly hanging out with the beautiful girl he’s had an eye on).
But one teacher, Mr. Stuckymud, refuses to budge on a missing assignment. In order to continue pursuing his goal, Chris must figure out how to earn a good grade from Mr. Stuckymud. Does he jump through the hoops of make-up work? Does he cheat and copy other people’s work? Does he stay after school and help Mr. Stuckymud clean up the classroom?
Clearly Mr. Stuckymud is an obstacle to Chris’s progress. But Mr. Stuckymud is hardly worthy of being called the Shadow. He is guards the threshold separating Chris from his goal, and must be outwitted.
Threshold Guardians of Back to the Future
Another great example of Threshold Guardians is in Back to the Future. Just as Marty learns about time travel, Libyan terrorists show up to get their stolen plutonium. Marty jumps into the time machine to evade them, and inadvertently hits 88 miles per hour, sending him back to 1955 — and across a space-time threshold.
While the Libyans didn’t realize they were “guarding” a threshold, they function as Threshold Guardians by blocking Marty’s journey toward heroic time travel.
Yet the obstacles don’t stop there. Marty crashes into a barn only to be discovered by Farmer Peabody, whose family believes Marty is a space alien. Peabody starts shooting and Marty has to escape yet again, accidentally running over one of Peabody’s pine trees (and foreshadowing all the timeline changes that are to come).
Peabody, too, is a Threshold Guardian, standing in the way of Marty’s safe progress. Like the Libyans, he doesn’t know he’s guarding anything. He’s just functioning as an obstacle to Marty.
This is the best way to deploy Threshold Guardians. As much as you can help it, don’t resort simply to “henchmen” or “cannon fodder.” As much as possible, make each character a unique and intriguing obstacle for your Hero.
This, in fact, is one of the best ways to world-build. By showing your Hero overcoming the challenges of the world, you establish it as a living, breathing place in your reader’s mind. This is far better than telling, through endless narration, that your world is filled with unique and cool creatures.
Let your reader discover this as the Hero encounters all sorts of Threshold Guardians.
Fulfill, Then Innovate
The key to successfully using a character archetype is two-fold. To truly satisfy your reader, you must:
1. Fulfill Expectations
First, Fulfill Your Reader’s Expectations. An archetype is an archetype for a reason — the reader knows what to expect.
Think of the beginning of Star Wars. When Darth Vader first enters, there is absolutely no question what archetype he fulfills. Dressed in a long, black cloak; breathing through a raspy mask; underscored with John Wililams’s bombastic brass, Darth Vader is clearly a Shadow.
So first and foremost, make sure your character fulfills their archetype in a way that will be immediately recognizable. Don’t make the reader guess.
2. Innovate the Archetype
But don’t wait too long to Innovate the Archetype. If you simply recycle every other story’s characters, you’ll be accused of laziness, or worse — plagiarism!
The good news is that an archetype is like the frame of a house. All the infrastructure is there, but the walls, floors, and fixtures are up to you.
As you design your characters, be cognizant of other popular characters in your genre. Then make deliberate choices to avoid the innovative decisions of other storytellers.
This is even evident in the way Disney is making new Star Wars movies.
Star Wars: Innovation of an Archetype
For all the flack it’s taken for being too unoriginal, The Force Awakens deliberately innovates its archetypes. Perhaps the best example of this is how the movie uses Han Solo.
In A New Hope, the film critics accuse The Force Awakens of copying, Luke Skywalker is mentored by an old, wise Jedi master, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan teaches Luke about the nature of the Force and then sacrifices himself so that the heroes can escape the Death Star.
Conversely, in The Force Awakens, Rey is mentored by Han Solo, the “swashbuckler” of the original trilogy. Han says very little of the Force and instead focuses more on validating Rey’s need for a father figure.
Yet the nature of Han’s sacrifice is very different from Obi-Wan Kenobi’s. While Obi-Wan goes out as a pacifist, sacrificing himself so that Luke and the others can get away, Han dies for a much more painful reason.
His hope is incredibly focused: to redeem his son, Ben, who has fallen to the Dark Side of the Force. For a moment, it seems as though the father might be able to save the son. But darkness wins out, and Ben “Kylo Ren” Solo murders his father to the horror of an on-looking Rey.
Structurally the movies walk a similar path. But The Force Awakens wisely side-steps the specific choices of the past in order to forge a new, if similar, path forward for the Star Wars universe.
5 More Characters You’ll Want to Use
The list of character archetypes goes on. And depending on your genre and story, you may want to incorporate these archetypes into your story as well:
1. The Creature of Nightmare
Many stories pit their heroes against legendary beasts. Jurassic Park and Jaws are two of them. Consider designing a nightmarish creature — either the pet/creation of the Shadow, or a mystical resident of the wild — that your Hero must either hunt or escape.
2. The Damsel in Distress
Though clearly a product of sexist cultural norms, the Damsel in Distress is still a frequently used storytelling trope (think Super Mario Brothers).
Yet there are fun ways to innovate this archetype. What if the “damsel” is a man? What if the “damsel” doesn’t need rescuing, but is actually plotting their own heroic journey?
3. The Devil Figure
Sometimes a character is flat-out evil. While Darth Vader might be turned to the Light side of the Force, Emperor Palpatine never will. He’s just “the devil” of the Star Wars universe. To provide an absolute idea of evil, consider crafting a Devil Figure for your story.
4. The Friendly Beast
Because of their nobility, the Hero is often able to tame even the wildest creature, riding it into battle. This is where the Friendly Beast becomes a beloved aspect of your story.
Remember how Harry Potter was able to ride Buckbeak the hippogryph? That’s this archetype.
Also, if your Hero is not a human, ask yourself: what are the “beasts” to my protagonist? This explains why Remy the rat (in Ratatouille) was able to “tame” and then ride his own “beast,” Linguini.
5. The Trickster
Some stories need comic relief. That’s where the Trickster can come in. The purpose of the Trickster is simple and timeless (it was a favorite of Shakespeare’s): to amuse other characters and the audience.
Rarely does this character hold heavy stakes. Rather, he or she exists to provide relief from the tension the Hero feels.
Yet this isn’t a rule, of course. Sometimes the Trickster can convert into a Loyal Retainer, as in Megan (Melissa McCarthy) in Bridesmaids, and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.
The Power of Character Archetypes
For thousands of years, audiences have responded positively to familiar-yet-innovative heroic archetypes. Readers love when a familiar idea (like a “hero” or a “mentor”) appears in their stories in new, refreshing ways. They just don’t consciously know it.
If you want to be a storyteller that is remembered for your incredible writing, design your next story with archetypes. Study them and consider how you can serve your readers with these awesome narrative tools.
Maybe you’ll join the ranks of humanity’s best-remembered writers!
Think of your favorite characters in stories you love. Do they fit any of these archetypes? Let us know in the comments.
Think of the Hero’s Journey story you’ve been planning throughout this series. How can the five essential character archetypes shape the story you want to tell?
Journal for fifteen minutes about how each of these characters appears in your world. If you haven’t created a character for one or more of these archetypes yet, start brainstorming a new character. Take about three minutes per character, focusing on the basics.
Then share your journal in the comments below. Be sure to leave a constructive critique on someone else’s post, too!