What is an Archetype? Definition and Examples.


An archetype is a typical example of something, such as a character, theme, or setting, recurring in various works of literature, myths, or folklore. Consider it a universal prototype, like the Hero, the Mentor, or the Trickster, recognizable through various cultures and periods.

The core idea is that archetypes are innate, universal “prototypes” for ideas, and they can manifest in varied forms, influencing human behavior and personality.

The Introduction of Archetypes in Culture and Psychology

According to Carl Jung, an archetype is a universally understood symbol or pattern of behavior, often derived from humankind’s collective unconscious. Archetypes manifest in dreams, literature, art, and mythology, reflecting common recurring themes across cultures and periods.

Jung identified four primary archetypes: the Self, the Shadow, the Anima and Animus, and the Persona, which you can read more about in What are the Jungian Archetypes? Meaning and Examples from Film.

In addition to the four Jungian archetypes, other archetypes, such as the Hero, the Maiden, the Wise Old Man, and the Trickster, frequently appear in myths and stories across different cultures. The exact number of archetypes is not fixed, as they can vary and overlap depending on personal and cultural contexts.

Archetypes in the Broader Culture

The concept of archetypes has found utility in various fields, particularly literature and media studies, where scholars use it to analyze and interpret creative works’ symbolic and thematic elements.

While character archetypes are common in film, archetypes, as a broader concept, are also related to symbols, themes, settings, and plots:

Symbolic Archetypes: Common symbols like the “Tree of Life” or “Water” as a symbol of life and purity appear across different cultures and stories. Water, for instance, often represents birth, life, purification, or renewal. This can be seen in films like The Shape of Water (2017), where water plays a critical role in the story and symbolism of the film.

Theme Archetypes: The battle between good and evil is a prevalent archetype seen in countless stories. This theme is at the heart of many popular films, such as Star Wars (1977), where the conflict between the Sith and the Jedi encapsulates this eternal struggle.

Setting Archetypes: The “Wilderness” often represents danger and the unknown but can also be a place of solitude and self-discovery. Movies like The Revenant (2015) showcase the wilderness as a brutal setting and a crucible for the protagonist’s transformation.

Also, the “Underworld” archetype is common. A good example is Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a dark fairy tale in which the young protagonist, Ofelia, enters an eerie labyrinth that leads her to the underworld. This mythical place represents a trial-filled journey necessary for her personal growth and escape from the harsh realities of her world.

Plot Archetypes: The “Quest,” aka the Hero’s Journey, or Monomyth, articulated by Joseph Campbell, is one archetype that has profoundly influenced our understanding of narrative structures from ancient myths to modern films. This journey typically involves a hero who goes on an adventure, faces a crisis, wins a victory, and returns home transformed.

This is evident in The Lord of the Rings series, where the main plot revolves around the quest to destroy the One Ring.

Archetypes in Marketing and Branding

In marketing and branding, archetypes humanize brands and create deeper connections with target audiences.

Marketers might use the archetype of the ‘Outlaw’ (think Harley-Davidson) or the ‘Jester’ (like Old Spice) to define a brand’s character, making it more relatable and distinct in a crowded marketplace.

Archetypes in Psychology

Moreover, in psychology, understanding archetypes allows therapists to explore the underlying themes and patterns in their patients’ lives and personal stories, aiding treatment by tapping into universal feelings and experiences.

Summing Up

Archetypes are universal symbols that emerge from the collective unconscious, a concept introduced by psychologist Carl Jung. They play a significant role in shaping human behavior and cultural narratives, providing a framework for understanding shared human experiences.

Their function in storytelling and psychology helps us connect with movies or literature we enjoy and each other on a deep, instinctive level as we share this knowledge.

In a broader sense, archetypes can be viewed not just as human traits but also as ways to create and interpret stories, and they can be interpreted, for example, as themes and settings in film.

Up Next: What is subtext in film?


  • 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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