Storytellers have used hero’s journey archetypes in the greatest stories, novels modern films. Learn what they are.
You may not think you know anything about the hero’s journey archetypes – but you’re actually way more familiar with these character types than you think! Hero’s journey archetypes permeate literary and popular culture and have done for time out of mind. They appear, in different forms, in cultures from around the world, and without them, the scaffolding behind the narrative structures of works from Indiana Jones to King Lear would likely collapse.
But who exactly, then, are these hero’s journey archetypes? Come along with us on a deep dive into these enigmatic, charismatic figures, their role, and why they’re so important – plus, we’ll give you some getting-started tips on how to use them in your own stories.
- What’s an Archetype?
- The Hero’s Journey Explained
- The Hero’s Journey Archetypes
- Choosing Your Own Hero’s Journey Archetype
What’s an Archetype?
In the early 1900s, the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung started writing about archetypes. He termed them ancient personality patterns that are the shared heritage of humanity. Archetypes have characteristics that mark them as a typical example of a certain person (or thing). The word comes from the ancient Greek verb ‘archein’, which translates as ‘to begin’ or ‘to rule.’
The Hero’s Journey Explained
The hero’s journey story involves the hero setting off on an adventure, often leaving their familiar world behind. This stage is typically described as The Departure. During the next stage, the Initiation, the character learns a lesson and usually wins some form of victory due to this new knowledge.
Next comes The Return, in which the hero returns to his/her familiar world, transformed. In this guide, we also explain how the hero’s journey works, but for context, let’s put some flesh on those conceptual monomyth bones, shall we?
Harry Potter is a classic hero archetype (more on the different versions of the hero archetype in a bit). In the first film and book, Potter sets off to Hogwarts, leaving the world of the muggles behind to begin an exciting new adventure (The Departure). Among the various trials inherent in settling into an enchanted boarding school, Potter and his friends discover the hidden location of the Philosopher’s Stone and triumph over many obstacles to recover it.
Along the way, they learn the true meaning of courage and friendship. Quirrell, who has been harboring Voldemort, then attempts to kill the boy wizard – unsuccessfully (The Initiation). Finally, after recovering in the school’s infirmary, Potter returns to the muggles’ world for the summer vacation, happy with the knowledge that his wizarding journey has just begun (The Return).
This pattern can be discerned in many stories, from The Lord of the Rings to The Wizard of Oz – and now you know about it, you’ll be spotting it in the most unlikely of places! The renowned scholar and professor of literature Joseph Campbell broke down the stages of the hero’s journey even further in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Story doctor Christopher Vogler has also written extensively about this topic.
The Hero’s Journey Archetypes
So, now we’ve established the hero’s journey trope and how to recognize it, let’s move on to the archetypal characters we’ll meet in these stories. Whether you’re watching a TV series or a movie that follows the hero’s journey, these are the archetypes that you’ll come across.
Probably the archetype that most people would most easily identify as ‘heroic’ is The Warrior. Think Jason Bourne, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. These characters, as part of their journey, might find themselves confronted by a ‘dark night of the soul’ moment: the point right before the storm, the very edge of the precipice, beyond which is chaos and mayhem.
For Clark Kent/Superman, this is the bit in the movie when he knows he’s got to face an adversary who has kryptonite – or when he’s building up to telling Lois Lane his secret. For other Warrior hero archetypes, it could be the moment they discover the villain’s abducted someone they care about or that the baddie has got hold of a world-obliterating weapon.
The character archetypes offer room for flex, which can add interest or tension to the story. For example, how might The Warrior fare in a world or situation where his skills have become redundant?
One of the most common archetypes of the hero’s journey, this character, often a child and/or an orphan, finds themselves thrust into a dangerous world they’d previously not imagined existed. This is Dorothy finding herself a long way from Kansas, or Luke Skywalker suddenly whisked from his ordinary life on a moisture farm in Tatooine to become a key part in the fight to disarm Darth Vader’s Death Star. It’s Frodo Baggins swept away on that treacherous road to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Innocent often has an optimistic outlook and is loyal, honest, and sincere. They’re able to see the good in others and may be prone to be tricked by characters with fewer scruples.
Fundamentally, The Innocent archetype discovers a strength, resolve, tenacity, or skill they didn’t know they had. Dorothy realizes she can navigate the world independently. Luke learns how to use the Force, while Frodo, a hobbit from the Shire, finds he has the courage to journey to Mordor. For more examples, read our guide to movies that follow the hero’s journey.
Usually plagued by self-doubt, on the verge of obsession, and caught in an unconscious spiral of self-neglect. Characters in the mold of The Creative Archetype aren’t usually the most relaxed of folk.
This archetype often faces staunch resistance from the status quo, who reject or are fearful of their innovations, inventions, or new ways of thinking, which could herald the start of a new world. They have great powers of flair, imagination, and innovation but also tend towards perfectionism and even neuroticism.
As a result, they are often depicted as having a hard time navigating relationships and forming connections. Examples of The Creative hero archetype include Viktor Frankenstein, and Ed Wood, in the Tim Burton-directed movie of the same name. Being a Creative type usually comes at a great cost.
An essential part of The Creative’s story arc is the struggle to bring their vision to physical reality. In the course of the story, they’ll usually succeed, but things don’t pan out, often with disastrous consequences. Interestingly, many of fiction’s greatest villains start on the path of The Creative archetype: Voldemort and Professor Moriarty are just a few examples.
This archetype is prepared to live and die in the service of others; while they’re often cast as the main character, they also frequently appear as a sidekick or foil, adding balance to the narrative and a little comic relief.
Empathy, compassion, and the ability to nurture are traits typically found in The Carer. The drive to protect or heal is often the motivating force behind their actions, and they’re prepared to sublimate their own needs to accomplish these things. These characters often possess a strong sense of intuition – even a sixth sense that tells them when others are in need.
Sandra Bullock’s Leigh Anne Tuohy in Blindside and Denzel Washington’s character in The Equalizer are both caregiver hero archetypes. Woody from the movie Toy Story also falls into this category: his role is to take care of Andy’s toys, arranging their activities in such a way as to bring benefits to the whole group.
However, the Caregiver archetype needs to be wary of their shadow side. Many stories in which they appear as a hero find them confronting this darker reflection. Caring for someone may easily segue into becoming overbearing, even controlling.
Alternatively, they could have trouble finding their path if specific caring duties are no longer required. If you’re interested in using The Caregiver archetype in your own story, introducing these elements is a great way to ratchet up narrative tension and drive the plot.
It’s not enough for a hero to fall in love for his or her character to be categorized as a Romantic archetype. After all, James Bond might fall in love (multiple times) during the course of a movie, but finding love isn’t ever his main goal, so he doesn’t count as one of The Romantic archetypes.
This archetype often appears in literature and film as a Byronic hero. These characters have a set of traits codified by the English Romantic poet Lord Byron: a little aloof, even sullen, but with a rich inner life beneath that prickly surface.
The Romantic hero often also crosses into the neighboring territory of the Tragic Hero, a sub-category of hero archetypes. These characters labor under a single fatal flaw or make one catastrophic error in judgment in the course of the story that ultimately dooms them. As the audience, we can only watch their sad downfall, knowing all too well what will happen.
Romeo Montague is, of course, the epitome of this hero archetype – all his other goals and motivations are secondary to his pursuit of romantic love. The inimitable Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is also a great example of a romantic, Byronic hero.
Whereas The Warrior may overcome his/her enemies with physical strength, skill, and tenacity, The Researcher relies on his wits and his superior mind to succeed.
Character traits of this archetype include persistence, dependability, and curiosity. You can rely on them to come up with the goods. Their minds can make connections that others simply can’t, and a moment of insight is likely to lead to victory.
The Researcher often likes to spend time alone and isn’t afraid to move outside of social ‘norms’ – they’re more concerned with their work and ideas than fitting in. They’re self-sufficient, and this hero archetype may have problems (initially) working with others.
This archetype often manifests as a detective in stories and movies, most notably, Sherlock Holmes and in the tales of the many cases solved by Hercule Poirot. Indiana Jones is another example, using his intellect and exceptional research chops to overcome his adversaries.
A Mentor Figure
Many hero’s journey books and stories include a mentor figure of some description. For example, Obi-Wan Kenobi forms this archetype in Star Wars. At first, he’s reluctant to train Luke in the ways of the force. Later, we discover he’s been looking out for and protecting Luke for years.
He becomes a type of mentor to Luke until his untimely death. He assists Luke in crossing over from an ordinary world into a special world: that of a Jedi Knight! In the subsequent films, Yoda fills this trope.
This hero archetype regularly appears in stories from fairy tales (Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk) to contemporary movies. All five main characters from The Breakfast Club belong to The Rebel class for different reasons. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games falls in this category, as does Prometheus from ancient Greek mythology, who did some serious sneaking about in a bid to give fire to humanity. For more, read our guide to popular hero’s journey books.
The Rebel figure connects with audiences as this character is usually an underdog: a small cog in a huge machine, apparently powerless to make a difference. Everyone knows the frustration of wanting but feeling unable to change things – of not being heard and seen.
Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell’s 1984, is The Rebel hero archetype. In a world where one’s every move and thought is watched and controlled by the state, he still finds a way to express personal freedom. To learn more, read our guide to the best dystopian novels.
What motivates The Rebel character is to seek out their oppressor, or the root cause of their oppression, and overthrow him/her/them/it. In a nutshell, this archetype wants nothing more than to stick it to The Man – and as an audience, we’re usually right there behind them.
The Ruler archetype frequently takes the form of a king or queen. Throughout the story, they need to negotiate threats to their power. Often, the story begins with this archetype at the peak of their powers and then follows their decline. Needless to say, these tales usually take the form of a tragedy. Mafia or crime stories like Scarface tend to feature these character types and follow this overarching structure. And King Lear follows a similar template, too.
This archetype’s key traits include responsibility and extremely strong leadership skills. They’re usually organized and analytical and are driven by success, prosperity, and the importance of safeguarding their community. The Ruler usually fears a loss of control or influence and chaos.
As a hero archetype, The Ruler is motivated by a desire to provide stability and direction, especially during difficult times. These characters are good at looking at the big picture, aren’t afraid to make tough decisions, and are great at handling stress.
King Theoden, leader of the Rohan people in The Lord of the Rings, is a great example of The Ruler archetype. He is fearless in mounting a defense of his kingdom and committed to protecting all citizens under his care.
The Shadow: The Hero’s Dark Reflection
The Shadow is one of the most common versions of the villain archetype. This archetype is the hero’s reflection.
The Shadow character isn’t ‘pure evil’. They often believe that they’re the piece’s hero. And while their background is similar to that of the hero, they tend to foster a selfish, indifferent attitude toward others. They may take the form of the trickster: such as The Riddler in Batman or Puck-type figures in folklore.
George Lucas understood this: Anakin and Luke Skywalker’s early stories are similar, and both are inspired, ultimately, to hope and believe in the power of good eventually – even if it takes one of them much longer to get there than the other.
The connections don’t end there; the characters share many of the same associations, and Darth Sidious attempts to recruit both Luke (unsuccessfully) and Anakin (successfully). When it comes to The Shadow, the reader always gets the impression that this incarnation could easily have been the hero’s own destiny but for a twist or two of fate.
Typically, The Shadow will have started out pursuing a moral goal or design to create a better new world, but they end up pushing too far or going too fast and losing sight of their original noble vision. For The Shadow archetype, whatever the ends, they always justify the means, no matter the destruction that will result. And it’s this that most fundamentally differentiates them from the hero.
Choosing Your Own Hero’s Journey Archetype
If you’d like to write your own story and are wondering which of the hero archetypes to choose for your main character, think about the kind of tale you’re telling. Genre is an important consideration.
For example, The Creative will likely work well in a political thriller, while The Warrior will fit neatly into an action-adventure story. If you’ve narrowed it down but are struggling to make a decision, then pick the hero archetype that you’d feel most excited to write about – or how about creating an archetype hybrid?
So now what? The next stage of planning your story is giving your hero a mission or a reason for them to go on a quest. Ideally, this takes the form of a physical goal (taking the ring to Mordor) and a nonphysical imperative (a wistful longing to experience life beyond The Shire). As well as this, you’ll need to ensure you give your hero certain key character traits that will allow your readers or audience to relate to him or her. Inspiring empathy is crucial.
Developing Your Hero’s Journey Archetype’s Character
A consistent element of the hero’s journey is the fact that, at some point in the story, what they need isn’t necessarily the same as what they want, and there’ll be a conflict. For example, the hero may have an opportunity to achieve their goals…but at the expense of their values. Think about how you could incorporate this into your own story and how it will drive your narrative. It can make for neat dichotomies and the chance to get stuck into psychological drama.
Combining Hero Archetypes
Want to create a hybrid hero archetype? Go for it! In the film of the same title, Erin Brockovich is both The Researcher and The Rebel, while Simba, in The Lion King, is simultaneously The Innocent and The King. Consider different fusions of archetypes and how each would affect the tone and direction of the story you want to tell.
Finally, to captivate your readers and engage them thoroughly with your story, you need your hero archetype to fulfill audience expectations. They might not know why or even realize it’s happening, but folk love a recognizable archetype.
So if you’ve gone with The Creative hero archetype, be sure to show your readers clearly just how obsessed this character is with their invention or their concept that they’re convinced is going to improve…whatever it is. Let us see them still awake in the early hours, scribbling notes about tweaks they need to make to their plans or knocking on the door of patent offices and getting consistently turned away.
And once you’ve fulfilled your readers’ expectations? Now it’s time to innovate. Don’t be afraid to throw a literary cat in amongst the pigeons. Reimagine the archetype, keeping his/her key tropes intact but adding a large dollop of your own imagination. Your Creative hero? How about having him as someone in their eighties who’s lived a normal life until this point, when he suddenly woke up this morning with the tech idea of the century that could herald the dawn of a whole new world?
Combining fulfillment and innovation makes for the perfect blend, allowing you to create a fresh version of a hero archetype that’ll have your audience rooting for them throughout.