There are heroes everywhere. A great Hero's Journey can take place in any genre. But did you know there are eight hero's journey archetypes that work especially well for a universal protagonist?
Your reader will unconsciously expect your story to have certain characters. If you want your next heroic story to be a success, you'd be wise to plan the entire journey around these key characters. Or at the very least, with them.
Without these hero's journey archetypes, you might have a story that fails to “work,” and this will leave the reader dissatisfied and confused.
To avoid this, let's go over who these character archetypes are, and why they will push your hero on their journey.
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. To be properly utilized, a hero's journey archetype must fulfill its set purpose while exhibiting new, innovative traits.
In a hero's journey, there are specific hero's journey archetypes that your protagonist will cross along the way.
Hero's Journey Archetypes Saved My Life
At first, the idea of resuing age-old stock characters may not be too appealing to you. If you're anything like me (at least college-aged me), this reeks of selling out and not being original.
Yet turning one's nose up to the Hero's Journey can be a fateful error in the writer's journey. It was for me. In 2004, I wrote a play in the vein of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and considered it a work of genius. Yet due to its complete and utter lack of character development, major turning points, and any semblence of the stages of the hero that audiences have come to expect, it was a miserable failure.
I revisited the story ten years later, rewriting the play as a novel in 2014. And this time around, I added the kinds of hero's journey archetypes and story elements (based on Joseph Campbell's monomyth) that readers love. It's a story that I'm now proud to have written.
Your Reader Expects the Monomyth
The whole theory of the Hero's Journey, also known as the “monomyth,” was first explained by Joseph Campbell in his groundbreaking book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. 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.
Campell's work has been interpreted by famous storytellers and psychologists, like Christopher Vogler and Carl Jung, and the concensus is clear:
Readers expect these character archetypes in stories.
Since they are core to the human experience, these are the hero's journey archetypes that have to appear in your story in one form or another.
Why Do These Character Archetypes Matter So Much?
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 Hollywood storytellers like Pixar and Marvel Studios. (I go over the twelve steps in clear detail in this post.)
Second, it's wise to build your story around a hero that fulfills a common archetype in the genre you're planning to write it.
To quickly review, you need to choose two things when you start your hero's journey:
- A protagonist who fits a hero's journey archetype (more on that later)
- A familiar genre
Now, you might be wondering, “What is an archetypal hero?”
Answer: An archetypal hero is a protagonist who serves a classic heroic role that appears in literature from multiple genres and time periods.
For example, there isn't just one kind of hero. There's a Warrior, like King Leonidas of 300, who boldly leads his people into battle; there's the Orphan, a hero who comes from nothing, like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker; there's the Caregiver, a hero who makes the wellbeing of another his/her goal, like Sheriff Woody in Toy Story; and so many more!
You may also be wondering, “Who decided that these character archetypes are required? Can't I just write what I want?”
Answer: Everyone decided. The hero's journey is embedded in the collective consciousness of human existence. And while you can't completely write what you want, you'll find that there is plenty of room to innovate within each hero's journey archetype.
If you asked either of these questions, 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; they're a recognized phenomenon 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.
Choose Your Hero Archetype
Before you write the first words of your story, you need to know what kind of story you are telling. This is tied to your book's core value, or moral change. What is at stake? Good vs. Evil? Honesty vs. Lies? True Love vs. Forced Intimacy? Personal Freedom vs. Government Control?
Obviously these values are also tied to your story's genre, which we'll get to in a minute. But first, you need to ask yourself what kind of story you want to tell.
You have to figure out what kind of story you want to tell. This is essential to selecting the right hero archetype for your protagonist.
That's what's different about this post and all my others on the Hero's Journey: I won't bombard you with every conceivable archetype out there. It's simply too overwhelming.
Imagine you wanted to remodel your bathroom.
In theory, there are a thousand tools, types of tile, bath and shower layouts, vanities, mirrors, paint colors, and so on that you could choose from. If I walked you up and down the aisles of the big box store and showed you every imaginable tool and option possible, your head would explode. It's just too much to process.
But what if I showed you five pictures of possible designs. From those designs, I asked, “Which of these is most appealing? Which of them gets you excited?”
By limiting your options, I'd actually be more helpful. I'd allow your brain to process the big picture long before we get into the detailed nitty-gritty.
So that's what you need to do: Choose the hero archetype that gets you excited to write.
Here are some archetypes I recommend:
Type #1: The Warrior
This is exactly what it says. It's every Jason Bourne or John Wick movie, not to mention most of Tom Cruise's work in the last two decades. It's the guy (or girl, hence Salt or Black Widow) who gets knocked down but keeps getting up because America/freedom/Sparta/save the victim, etc.
What can make the Warrior truly interesting, though, is how you innovate within the genre.
How might their Ordinary World be rife with evil that strength and violence alone cannot solve? How might the inmost cave, or “dark night of the soul,” rob him/her of that strength and force another trait to rise up?
(These are steps in the Hero's Journey twelve steps.)
When picking The Warrior, consider writing one of these types of stories:
Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Thriller, Sci-fi, Western
Type #2: The Innocent Orphan / Child
Perhaps the most common heroic archetype is the innocent child, rising from ignorance and naivety into a painful awareness of the world and its evils.
Harry Potter before he arrives at Hogwarts, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Luke Skywalker in George Lucas's Star Wars, Oliver Twist, and even Frodo in The Lord of the Rings all fit into this rather broad category—where the hero isn't a warrior, but a vessel of morality and courage.
Each of these heroes (and hundreds more that I don't have space to mention) find themselves in a world of physical danger without commensurate physical weapons. Instead, they have to rely on their friend-making, problem-solving, and moral grit to make it through. Orphans frequently populate this category, adding to their sense of vulnerability in the story.
The Innocent Orphan/Child are commonly found in these types of stories:
Action, Adventure, Thriller, Political Thriller, Sci-fi, Fantasy, Western
Type #3: The Caregiver
This hero lives to serve, and sometimes dies to serve, too. Woody from Toy Story, John Creasy (Denzel Washington) in Man on Fire, and Joy from Inside Out.
Yet, in their unlimited zeal to serve another, they often shortchange themselves or fall prey to obsession, exposing their weaknesses.
Such heroes often double as a sidekick, assisting a Warrior or Innocent Child/Orphan on a grander quest. They make for great foils, as well, highlighting the pros and cons of devoted service in the face of difficult crises.
Try one of these plot types if you pick The Caregiver as your hero:
Adventure, Political Thriller, Sci-fi, Fantasy, Western
Type #4: The Creative
The Creative hero exists solely to explore the unknown and discover new ways to enjoy life. They are often resisted by the status quo, the “old way” of doing things that stands to lose by the discovery of any new world and the riches that inhabit it. Think of Remy in Ratatouille, Dr. Frankenstein in the eponymous novel, and Ed Wood in the severely unrated Tim Burton dramedy, Ed Wood.
Creatives are often haunted by self-doubt, obsession over their craft (that leads to neglect of family or self-health), and the inability to know when enough is enough. They are often snatched up by perfectionism and ambition, leading down a dark path. One could argue that many villains are the result of an unhinged creative hero. Voldemort, a dark wizard who wanted to invent new forms of dark magic leading to immortality, could be considered such a tragic example.
Plot types that do well with Creative heroes include:
Adventure, Sci-fi, Fantasy, Political Thriller
Type #5: The Romantic
To the Lover, or the Romantic, there is no greater purpose in life than to find love and celebrate it. Such is the passion of Rhett Butler (Gone With the Wind), Noah Calhoun (The Notebook), and Romeo Montague, who somehow got that Capulet girl twitterpated enough to fake her own death.
While romance is often the stuff of fairy tales and such, it is perhaps the most lucrative literary genre in the business right now. The more you can explore this archetype and innovate within it, the better your chances of winning readers.
With that in mind, just because your hero falls in love does not mean they are a Romantic. For your hero to primarily exist as a Romantic, love must be their main goal.
Indiana Jones may fall in love during Raiders of the Lost Ark, but love was never the main goal; stopping the Nazis from getting the Ark of the Covenant was. Rather, Romeo and Juliet live (and die) for the sake of their love; all other goals are subservient to this throughout the whole play.
Use a Romantic hero in one of these plot types:
Romance, Adventure, Action, Sci-fi, Fantasy
Type #6: The Rebel
Some heroes exist to stick it to The Man. That's why The Rebel lives within our collective consciousness as the hero we all wish we could be when the government needs to be set straight.
While Katniss Everdeen is an obvious choice from The Hunger Games, Pixar's WALL-E meets the standard, as does Braveheart's William Wallace and the five teenagers from The Breakfast Club. All of these heroes are out to find their oppressor and put an end to their oppressive ways, whether they come from a cruel Capitol, a soulless artificial intelligence, a murderous king, or a power-hungry principal.
Oh, and don't forget that Luke Skywalker guy. While he's more an Innocent Orphan, just trying to do the right thing as he learns about The Force from Obi-Wan Kenobi, he's also a Rebel. Star Wars is all about rebellion, particularly the kind that stands up to evil fascist dictatorships and blow up anything called a “Death Star.”
Find Rebel hero archetypes in one of these plot types:
Action, Adventure, Political Thriller, Sci-fi, Fantasy, Western
Type #7: The Researcher
Much like the Innocent Child and Orphan, the Researcher rarely succeeds with their fists. More often, they win with the mind. This hero is constantly digging into ancient texts, new technology, and their keen wits to survive and overcome the bad guys.
Sound like Indiana Jones? Because that's exactly who we're talking about.
Yes, Indy does battle with Nazis. But does he win? Actually, no. It's only through cleverness and ingenuity that he succeeds. While he has some of the scars of a Warrior, he's truly a Researcher, or an Intellectual, using knowledge and discovery to win the day.
Another common trope of this hero archetype is the detective, in which a shrewd and attentive gumshoe tries to track down the villain. Sherlock Holmes comes to mind, as do the doomed duo in Se7en, William Sumerset and David Mills.
Plot types that work well with The Researcher for the hero could be:
Action, Adventure, Thriller, Political Thriller, Sci-fi, Fantasy, Western
Type #8: The King/Queen
The last hero archetype you might consider is that of the Ruler or the King/Queen. These stories follow a figure of royalty and the challenges one faces in those situations. They usually encounter threats to their power from without (betrayal of one's daughters, as in King Lear) or within (the inability to deliver a crucial radio address, as in The King's Speech).
More than any other, this hero archetype veers toward tragedy, given the elevated status of the hero at the start of the story. Many stories follow a leader who either is ruler at the start, or very close, and then follow their descent for the rest of the story. The crime/mafia sub-genre loves to do this, as in Scarface and The Godfather: Part II.
Look for The King/Queen hero archetypes in these plot types:
Action, Thriller, Political Thriller, Western, Sci-Fi, Fantasy (all with a possible tragic twist)
What to Do With Your Hero
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 cause 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 from the Star Wars universe.
Our hero is a masked bounty hunter—hardly a character with whom the audience can easily build a connection.
But the storytellers wisely gave this hero the chance to make a definitive choice at the end of the first episode, and later in the third: defend the helpless “Baby Yoda” child he was tasked with bringing in, or abandon him. The selfless choice “Mando” makes captures audiences, and the show has been received with near-universal praise.
As you plan your story, consider the three traits of a hero. This will build a protagonist with whom your reader will easily relate.
Can I Combine Hero Archetypes?
You bet. In fact, some of the most famous heroes are hybrids.
As mentioned, Luke Skywalker is an Innocent Orphan and a Rebel.
Katniss Everdeen is a Rebel and a Romantic (though she denies it, making her endlessly intriguing!).
Indiana Jones is an Intellectual and a Warrior, though not a very good one.
Hybrids are where you can begin your innovation. Just like Chef Remy in Ratatouille, combining flavors often creates something new and unexpected that will thrill your eaters—I mean, readers!
Again, character archetypes aren't about limiting your creativity. Rather, they guide your creativity so it goes in the direction that thrills your readers.
What About Other Character Archetypes?
Now that we've identified the eight main types of hero archetypes, you may be wondering: What about villains? What about sidekicks and heralds and shapeshifters and tricksters?
(Dear reader, you know a lot of character archetypes!)
These are absolutely necessary, too. But if we were to go in depth on them now, we'd be missing the point of starting your hero's journey.
Remember the metaphor about remodeling your bathroom? I'm not going to walk you down every aisle of Big Box Store, overwhelming you.
The truth is, there are a TON of character archetypes you may want to include. But for now, it's best to focus on your protagonist and the genre they align with.
I Lied: The One Additional Character to Plan Now
Okay, I sort of lied.
There is one other character archetype you should think about right now: The 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.
Remember when we saw how the Creative Hero can become a villain? This is true of ALL hero archetypes.
Most villains are heroes who went too far; while their pursuit of a goal was once moral, it has become destructive and immoral. For them, the ends always justify the means.
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.
Get Started Here
The goal of this series is to help you write a complete synopsis of your own hero's journey story. To do that, we need to start by crafting an archetypal hero in a genre that readers love (and pay lots of money to buy).
Here's what to do.
Fulfill, then innovate.
The key to successfully implementing a character archetype is two-fold. To truly satisfy your reader, you must:
First, Fulfill Your Reader's Expecatations. 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 The 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.
Innovate the Character 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.
The Power of Hero's Journey 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 hero 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. Go for it!
Which of your favorite characters fit any of these archetypes? Let us know in the comments.
What kind of story do you want to tell? Do you want to thrill readers with a Warrior-centric action story? Or perhaps you want to keep readers on edge with a Romantic-Rebel blend, in which your hero longs for love but also craves societal justice?
For fifteen minutes, sketch basic details about the hero you want to write about. Don't worry about the genre yet, or even the archetype. Just create.
Bring a hero to life in your mind and on paper, dreaming about the kind of heroic story you want to write and will be eager to work on for the next few months (or years).
Then reread your creation and consider what hero archetypes and genres it seems to connect to. Write a reflection on the kind of hero/genre combination you might be working with, so you can plan appropriately moving forward.
Share your Practice in the Pro Practice Workshop here. Then be sure to leave a constructive critique on someone else's post, too!
You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.