What is an Archetype?

Archetype Definition:

a common character, image, symbol, or situation that occurs in literature and in life, and considered to be universal across most cultures

Examples of archetypes are found in the world around us every day: in our speech, our beliefs, media, sports, video games, psychology, art, and even our dreams. Archetypes are universal; that is, they occur across all cultures, religions, and parts of history. Psychotherapist Carl Jung theorized that many of these ideas persist innately and come from our “collective unconscious”, culled from early human experiences that have followed our species since our beginnings. Jung’s hypothesis is similar to Plato’s Theory of Forms, which posits that Forms, or Ideas, are present in our souls, and we create things in life to copy the Forms that already exist in our immortal souls.

Dr. Carol S. Pearson has written several books on discovering our own personal archetypes, and has created a guide for finding our own inner archetypes. Students might be interested in finding their inner archetypes on her website, and then comparing their descriptions to some well-known fictional characters.

A short breakdown of Pearson’s research that can be used to help describe or categorize different literary characters and their archetypes can be found through the University Interscholastic League.

Author Jill Williamson also has compiled a comprehensive list of character archetypes on her website, along with short descriptions of movie, TV, or literary characters that exemplify the archetype.

In literature, archetypes often appear in the form of

  • Symbols or motifs
  • Situations or plot forms
  • Themes
  • Animals
  • Settings or places
  • Characters

An example of an archetypal situation or plot form can be found in The Heroic Journey. In The Odyssey, Odysseus faces many dangers on a quest to return to Ithaca, the theme of longing to return home that resonates universally.

Common Archetypes in Literature

Archetype Analysis Activity

Many classic works of literature make use of common character, situational, and symbolic archetypes. A great way to keep track and analyze some of these popular archetypes is with a storyboard! As students read, have them keep track of the different character, situational, and symbolic archetypes that appear throughout the work. The activity below is designed for use with The Scarlet Letter, but utilize the template to adapt it to any work of literature you are studying with your students!

Example Rubric

Image Attributions
  • Rings • Elsie esq. • License Attribution (
  • Rubble • pasa47 • License Attribution (
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