7 Archetypes in Stories: Examples + Ideas for Unique Tales

Posted on Jul 27, 2023

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Written by Bella Rose Pope

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Archetypes in stories take a lot of the guesswork out of figuring out how to write a compelling novel. Knowing what readers already love can help you craft a book that’s well-received and loved.

But you can’t solely rely on story archetypes to write your novel. Sure, readers want the tried-and-true stories, but they want those stories to include something different, something they haven’t seen done before.

So to fulfill that need, we’re going to teach you both things: the most popular story archetypes and how to create them, but also tips and tricks for making them your own.

What are archetypes in stories?

You can think of archetypes as models of how to tell a story. They follow a specific formula to accomplish the goals of the story.

Now, these are just as I said: models. They’re not rules you have to follow or you won’t have a good story. The key to making archetypes work is to understand why readers like them and using that information to craft your own unique story.

7 Archetypes in Stories with Examples + Ideas for Making Them Unique

It should be noted that these archetypes in stories are not an exhaustive list. There are tons of archetypes and you can find a lot of them online. These just so happen to be the 7 most beloved archetypes in stories that are reliable in that if you use them well, your story will catch the attention of readers.

1. The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey, popularized by Joseph Campbell, is perhaps the most well-known plot archetype. It follows the protagonist through a transformative adventure, complete with various stages like the Call to Adventure, Trials, and the Return with the Elixir.

One of the most popular examples of this archetype is George Lucas’s Star Wars saga, with Luke Skywalker’s epic journey from a humble farm boy to a legendary Jedi Knight.

They key with a hero’s journey is this idea of someone ordinary completing a quest or journey of some kind. A character archetype this is paired with most often is the chosen one, as is evidenced by Harry Potter, Star Wars, Jake Sully in Avatar, and more. The reason this character archetype works so well is because of the idea that while this character is ordinary, there is an exception that makes them special.

Harry is the prophesied child to defeat the dark lord.

Luke Skywalker can use the force.

Jake Sully is accepted by the indigenous people of Pandora.

You don’t have to use the chosen one in order to use the hero’s journey, though. It can be made even more interesting by using a character archetype that seems ill-fitted for the role, like The Professor or even The Outsider. But more on that and making it your own below.

Here are a few things the hero’s journey archetype needs:

  1. The average life: the ordinary day-to-day life of the main character, often extremely average, unexciting, and leaves them wanting more from life.
  2. The call: the main character is offered an opportunity, or whisked along, to go forward on this hero’s journey.
  3. The refusal: When the character is called upon to act in a heroic way, they will refuse at first. Say they have to go on a quest of some kind and only they will be able to accomplish it, but they say no because leaving their small farm town unattended just won’t do. This is also the case when Luke Skywalker is invited to fight against the Empire, but refuses to do so. It’s the main character saying no because of many reasons (that should become the stakes of the story, actually).
  4. The mentor: Dumbledore. Obi-Wan. Gandalf. Every hero’s journey has a mentor of some sort. They help guide the main character on their adventure to be a hero, teaching them the ropes and preparing them for what’s to come.
  5. The trials: The teachings of the mentor are put to the test, but it’s not the ultimate test. At the end of each school year, Voldemort rears his shriveled, ugly head and Harry is forced to face him. These are his trials. When writing these, your hero will win some and lose some, losing the biggest right before the climax.
  6. The showdown: The climax, the big head-to-head. If you’re writing a standalone, this will be the climax of the story. If writing a series, this will be the ultimate showdown at the end of it, with each book’s climax before it actually being big trials (like with Harry Potter). It has to encompass all their teachings, and will likely be a response to their loss at the last trial.

There are a lot of different names for these stages, but I’ve found it easiest to summarize them into those parts.

How to make it your own:

Now if you want to use the hero’s journey story archetype in your own way, you use the core of the archetype but mix it with something different and unique. Subvert tropes and create the unexpected—just do it in a way that still fulfills the reasons this archetype works.

  • use a unique character archetype
  • combined it with another plot style, like a heist, a treasure hunt, or the like
  • use multiple perspectives and tell a different archetype for the other point of view to balance it
  • flip the archetype to be a villain’s story the reader thinks is a hero’s journey, but is actually a villain’s descent into madness

The hero’s journey is incredibly popular, with some of the best stories crafted after it, which is why we’ve spent so much time on it. Other archetypes in stories can also use the hero’s journey within it and it’s often combined with various other story structures.

2. Overcoming the Monster

In the Overcoming the Monster plot archetype, the protagonist faces a fearsome antagonist or a seemingly insurmountable force. The focus lies on the struggle and triumph of good over evil. An excellent illustration of this archetype can be found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Victor Frankenstein confronts the monstrous creation he brought to life.

This is separate from the hero’s journey, but often includes it. Overcoming the monster can also mean facing something non-physical, like an ideology or society as a whole. The idea is a clear delineation between good and evil, right and wrong. In the end, the right way wins.

It includes many of the same steps as a hero’s journey, but can include characters that aren’t heroes at all, but a rag-tag team of people, an organization, or the like. Archetypes in stories like this can also be seen in revolution type stories where a rebellion has formed.

How to make it your own:

This archetypes leaves a ton of wiggle room for adding in other tropes, character archetypes, and meshing it with other archetypes in stories here. You can flip it on its head by having the main character work to destroy an evil, only to realize that they were working for the wrong side. Think of ways to challenge what your readers will expect.

3. Rags to Riches

The “Rags to Riches” plot archetype narrates the protagonist’s ascent from a position of poverty or obscurity to one of wealth, power, or prominence. Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations embodies this archetype, with the journey of Pip, a young orphan who rises from humble beginnings to a life of privilege, as is the case with Cinderella, Aladdin, and technically, Harry Potter.

This is one of the most straightforward of the story archetypes in that these stories always involves four things:

  1. A main character that lacks something very specific and important (money, love, prestige, respect, etc.)
  2. They then get that thing through various means
  3. Then they lose it due to their flaws and weaknesses
  4. Then they win it back again by the end of the story, by facing their flaws and weaknesses

The important thing about this archetype is that the reason they lose it has to do with character weaknesses and flaws. By using those to lose them what they want most, you force their character to grow in order to achieve it, which helps fulfil their character arc.

How to make it your own:

  • flip the script and make a wealthy person lose everything, only to realize the lack of is what they truly wanted all along
  • create a scenario where your what main character lacks and wants to become “rich” in is in direct conflict with something else they do have and value
  • subvert the ending by having your character win what they want, but realize it wasn’t worth all they had to do in the first place

4. The Quest

The Quest archetype revolves around a journey undertaken by the protagonist to search for a significant object or accomplish a crucial task. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a quintessential example, with Bilbo Baggins embarking on a quest to reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor and its treasure guarded by the fearsome dragon, Smaug.

Many fantasy novels follow this story archetype because it’s a great way to show off worldbuilding in a way that’s interesting and engaging.

Here are the components of a quest:

  1. Someone initiates the quest
  2. A specific location to reach
  3. A compelling reason to go there
  4. Various challenges that get in their way to reaching the destination
  5. Lessons for the character to learn about themselves

This is among the easiest of the archetypes in stories to actually plot, because it’s very simple. The above steps can be used to literally create the opening of your story (steps 1-3), the middle of your story (step 4 repeated at various difficulties), and the ending (step 4+5 at the same time = the climax).

How to make it your own:

Quests are often physical locations, but you can alter this to make it a psychological one as well. By doing this, you’d end up making it more of a character-driven story that focuses on a certain experience the character needs to have in order to learn about themselves. You can also go a little further into the fantasy genre and utilize mental or magical realms for the locations.

As with any of these archetypes in stories, use unexpected character types or mix it with other story archetypes to create a unique and compelling combination. For example, what would a quest archetype look like with a rebel character archetype who is also on a hero’s journey?

5. Voyage and Return

The Voyage and Return archetype transports the protagonist to a different world or unfamiliar territory, where they encounter strange challenges and experiences before returning home transformed. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland epitomizes this archetype, with Alice’s surreal journey through a whimsical wonderland.

Any portal fantasy story ever fits into this category. There aren’t a lot of requirements to this either. So long as the main character ventures into a place different than their own before returning home, it fits this archetype. They key is that they always return home and they’re always changed in some way.

How to make it your own:

Easily enough, you can mix and match various other archetypes in stories and character types into this mold. A character can easily go on a voyage and return after having slaughtered the evil darkness plaguing the other land (Overcoming the Monster) and they can also have all of their hopes and dreams destroyed when they’re in that other land (Tragedy). It all depends on where you want to take the story.

Obviously, this includes a fair amount of worldbuilding and what you create for this other place will depend on the other type of story you want to tell. A setting for a comedy may be very different than a setting for a tragedy, for example. Stranger Things is a good example of using this type of story along with a tragic setting.

6. Comedy

The Comedy archetype focuses on humorous situations, misunderstandings, and light-hearted events, often leading to a happy resolution or reconciliation. Shakespeare’s romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream skillfully weaves together the hilarious entanglements of various characters amidst the mystical forest, but there are a ton of examples of comedies out there.

One mistake a lot of writers make when they think they’re writing a comedy is just include jokes, assuming that means their story is a comedy. Unfortunately, even tragedies can include jokes. What makes a story a comedy is the overarching subversion of expectations in humorous ways. The plot at large has to be one big joke.

But within this are plot points that usually end in funny ways. The character makes a mistake that creates a scenario that’s awkward and funny. They say something at the wrong time that’s hilarious, but causes major issues in the story itself.

How to make it your own:

Comedy is a very personal thing. Your humor is unique to you, and you first have to understand that not everybody will like it or think it’s funny. That’s kind of the point. Write something that is genuinely humorous to you and it will be unique on its own.

7. Tragedy

Tragedy revolves around the downfall of the protagonist, usually due to their fatal flaw or circumstances beyond their control. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is an iconic tragedy, depicting the ill-fated love between the young titular characters from feuding families.

Rule #1 of tragedy: there are no happy endings.

That’s really the main point of a tragedy. In fact, it’s important to build up the character and the hope that they will have a happy ending, only for it to not work out and therefore, it’s tragic.

How to make it your own:

This one is perfect to combined with another one of the archetypes in stories to upend expectations and make the main character lose in the end. Rags to Riches, for example, and be used to create a Rags to Riches to Rags story, in which the main character actually wins nothing in the end and is forced to suffer a meager existence. In fact, maybe they lose more than what they had in the beginning.

The art of storytelling relies on the power of these timeless plot archetypes that resonate with the deepest parts of human experience. Whether it’s the Hero’s Journey, the Quest, or the Tragedy, these narratives continue to captivate and inspire audiences worldwide, demonstrating that the essence of a compelling story remains eternally relevant.

As writers, embracing these archetypes can provide a strong foundation for crafting unforgettable tales that stand the test of time, but don’t forget to twist the archetypes to create a story that’s new and fresh.

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