Character Archetypes in Film. What They Are and How to Use Them

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Character archetypes are typical versions of characters that pop up often in stories, like the Hero, the Mentor, or the Villain. They’re useful because they provide a shortcut to understanding the character, helping the audience quickly grasp their role in the story. For screenwriters and directors, using archetypes can help create conflict, shape the narrative, and guide character development.

The 12 most common character archetypes found in movies

Below is a list of the 12 most common character archetypes in movies, a description of each, and examples from popular movies.

Of course, there are many more types of characters, but I find it helpful to simplify them into more manageable groups.

ArchetypeDescriptionExamples
The HeroThe protagonist who rises to meet a challenge and saves the day.Harry Potter (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 2001), Luke Skywalker (Star Wars, 1977), Ellen Ripley (Alien, 1979)
The MentorAn experienced advisor and teacher to heroes.Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars, 1977), Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001), Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid, 1984)
The EverymanThe relatable average Joe, often embodying simple virtues.Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump, 1994), Peter Parker (Spider-Man, 2002), Arthur Dent (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 2005)
The InnocentA naive or inexperienced character who confronts reality.Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz, 1939), Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991), Charlie Bucket (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005)
The CaregiverA nurturing, supportive, and compassionate archetype, often a parental figure.Mrs. Gump (Forrest Gump, 1994), Maria (The Sound of Music, 1965), Marmee March (Little Women, 1994)
The RebelChallenges the status quo, fighting for a personal or collective cause.Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games, 2012), John McClane (Die Hard, 1988), William Wallace (Braveheart, 1995)
The ExplorerA seeker, adventurer, always looking for something new.Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981), Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean, 2003), Lara Croft (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, 2001)
The RulerA figure of authority, status, and responsibility.Mufasa (The Lion King, 1994), President Snow (The Hunger Games, 2012), King Leonidas (300, 2006)
The MagicianUses knowledge of the universe to make dreams come true.Yoda (Star Wars, 1980), Prospero (The Tempest, 2010), Doctor Strange (Doctor Strange, 2016)
The SeductressUses charm and sensuality to manipulate and gain power.Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct, 1992), Jessica Rabbit (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1988), Mata Hari (Mata Hari, 1931)
The JesterUses humor to display insights or critique society.Ferris Bueller (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986), Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean, 2003), Genie (Aladdin, 1992)
The OutcastA character banished from a social group for some real or imagined crime.Edward Scissorhands (Edward Scissorhands, 1990), Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter, 1995), John Wick (John Wick, 2014)
Table 1: The 12 common archetypes of film.

Okay, so now you have an idea of what character archetypes are in movies. The next question then is, how you can use them.

Allies and Foes of the 12 Common Archetypes in Film. Driving Conflict.

If you’re familiar with Greimas’s Actantial Model, you know that the subject (our protagonist) usually has one or more helpers (allies) and also one or more opponents (foes). The latter tries to prevent the subject from getting the object (what they want and need), driving the conflict. This is somewhat similar to Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth and the idea of the Hero’s Journey.

You can combine archetypes with this line of thinking by employing allies and foes to your protagonist.

Remember that your protagonist doesn’t always have to be the hero. Whatever archetype you use as your protagonist will have different helpers and opponents.

Likewise, you can use Table 2 below to create subplots for supporting characters who have their own character arcs and their own sets of allies and foes.

CharacterAlliesMovie Examples (Allies)FoesMovie Examples (Foes)
The Hero – Luke Skywalker from Star Wars (1977)The Mentor (provides guidance), The Caregiver (offers support and healing)Obi-Wan Kenobi (The Mentor), Leia Organa (The Caregiver)The Outcast (as a challenger), The Ruler (when corrupt)Darth Vader (The Ruler)
The Mentor – Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings (2001)The Hero (to impart wisdom to), The Caregiver (support in nurturing the hero)Frodo Baggins (The Hero), Samwise Gamgee (The Caregiver)The Magician (as a rival in knowledge), The Seductress (as a distraction to the hero)Saruman (The Magician)
The Everyman – Forrest Gump from Forrest Gump (1994)The Innocent (shared values), The Jester (brings joy)Jenny Curran (The Innocent), Bubba (The Jester)The Ruler (oppression), The Rebel (disruption of peace)Lieutenant Dan (The Rebel)
The Innocent – Baymax from Big Hero 6 (2014)The Caregiver (protection), The Everyman (shared simplicity)Hiro Hamada (The Everyman), Cass Hamada (The Caregiver)The Seductress (corruption), The Magician (deception)Yokai (The Magician)
The Caregiver – Morpheus from The Matrix (1999)The Innocent (to protect), The Hero (to heal and support)Neo (The Hero), Trinity (The Innocent)The Outcast (potential threat), The Rebel (brings chaos)Agent Smith (The Rebel)
The Rebel – Mad Max from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)The Explorer (shared love for freedom), The Outcast (common ground in defiance)Furiosa (The Explorer), Nux (The Outcast)The Ruler (authority figure), The Everyman (disruption of normality)Immortan Joe (The Ruler)
The Explorer – Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)The Rebel (shared disdain for convention), The Magician (seeking knowledge)Sallah (The Rebel), Marcus Brody (The Magician)The Ruler (restrictions), The Caregiver (concerns about safety)Rene Belloq (The Ruler)
The Ruler – The Emperor from Mulan (1998)The Magician (wisdom and counsel), The Caregiver (support and loyalty)Chi Fu (The Magician), Fa Zhou (The Caregiver)The Rebel (challenge to authority), The Outcast (threat to order)Shan Yu (The Rebel)
The Magician – Merlin from Excalibur (1981)The Ruler (providing counsel), The Explorer (shared quest for knowledge)King Arthur (The Ruler), Perceval (The Explorer)The Hero (challenge in quests), The Innocent (manipulation)Mordred (The Hero)
The Seductress – Mystique from X-Men (2000)The Magician (manipulation), The Outcast (common use of cunning)Magneto (The Magician), Sabretooth (The Outcast)The Innocent (corruption target), The Caregiver (protection of the vulnerable)Professor X (The Caregiver)
The Jester
Olaf from Frozen (2013)
The Everyman (shared humor), The Innocent (joy and simplicity)Anna (The Everyman), Elsa (The Innocent)The Ruler (mockery of authority), The Rebel (competing for disruption)Prince Hans (The Ruler)
The Outcast
Han Solo from Star Wars (1977)
The Rebel (shared disdain for norms), The Seductress (ally in schemes)Princess Leia (The Rebel), Chewbacca (The Rebel)The Hero (moral opposition), The Ruler (representing the system they oppose)Darth Vader (The Ruler)
Table 2: The allies and foes of the 12 common archetypes in film.

Closing Thoughts

Archetypes help us quickly understand and relate to film characters, leveraging common human experiences and cultural expectations to craft compelling narratives. They’re also great building blocks for screenwriters to know and use, as they can flesh out characters, create conflict, and drive the plot.

Up Next: Save The Cat! Beat Sheet Explained. What It Is, And How To Use It.

Author

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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