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The 16 Character Archetypes

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Since I have been mainly writing fiction since I was a kid, I know a thing or two about character archetypes.

Mount Olympus, home of the greek gods.

Mount Olympus, home of the greek gods.

The 16 Character Archetypes in Literature

While I was in college, I took a course in character design. During that time, I was unable to get the book that was assigned for the class. I graduated over a year ago and still have not acquired this book. Fortunately, I still managed to pass the class with an A.

During that time, I tried to supplement the missing information by searching online. I found absolutely nothing that actually had anything meaningful to say about archetypes. There are many ramblings but no clear definitions of the archetypes. Hopefully, if someone else is in a similar situation, this page will help. The book 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt was helpful in writing this article.

NameArchetype

Zeus

King and Tyrant

Hera

Wife and Scorned Woman

Apollo

Businessman and Traitor

Artemis

Amazon and Gorgon

Poseidon

Artist and Abuser

Hestia

Artist and Abuser

Ares

Protector and Gladiator

Athena

Father's Daughter and Strategist

Hades

Recluse and Warlock

Persephone

Maiden and Rebellious Daughter

Hermes

Wanderer and Fool

Demeter

Loving Mother and Overbearing Parent

Dionysus

Ladies Man and Seducer

Aphrodite

Seductress and Femme Fatale

Osiris

Messiah and Punisher

Isis

Messiah and Destroyer

Artistic representation of the Statue of Zeus in Olympia.

Artistic representation of the Statue of Zeus in Olympia.

Zeus: King and Tyrant

As the king of the gods, Zeus has a responsibility to maintain order. As long as order is maintained, he wants to go out and play. His position allows him the freedom to dabble in the affairs of every single god, making him a jack of all trades with authority. He has a natural disposition that inspires others to follow him and is clever enough to manipulate those who won't.

As a tyrant, his rule is absolute, and he will destroy any who resist. His every effort goes into augmenting his power to maintain authority. In this mode, his subjects are tools that exist solely to accomplish his goals. He has allowed himself the right to enjoy any vices to feed his appetites.

In both dualities, the Zeus figure is beyond reproach. After all, he is the judge and answers only to himself.

Wedding of Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida.

Wedding of Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida.

Hera: Wife and Scorned Woman

Hera was the goddess of marriage and the ultimate wife. Despite her husband's many dalliances, she remained faithful and took him back every time. Each year she would bathe in a magic spring to make her as young as the day she married Zeus and woo him to her. Despite his obvious shortcomings, he was perfect in her eyes solely because he was her husband. If she were to reprimand him, it would be in private so as not to sully his public image.

Once scorned, she would became an unstoppable force to obliterate the source of the blight. We see the best examples of Hera's wrath in the story of Hercules, whom she tormented throughout every stage of his life. She only accepted him after Zeus made him a god. Her contempt and lust for vengeance are so severe it overshadows her better qualities.

Regardless of her role, she is a wife and queen first. The only thing that may distract her from her husband is her children. She will not tolerate anything that disturbs the order of her family.

Apollo refuses to relinquish control.

Apollo refuses to relinquish control.

Apollo: Businessman and Traitor

Apollo is the image of the prince who is in training to become king. He is quick and sharp in his reasoning. As a master of the bow, Apollo is accustomed to having a powerful influence over a long distance and has eyes like a hawk. His every movement is precise. He is the embodiment of the sun and thus must have a clean shining look to him that is fit to impress. He is the bringer of the light of truth and seeks to know all pertinent information.

When the opportunity to move forward presents itself, words like loyalty and betrayal don't exist. There is simply the reality of what should be done to assure overall success regardless of who suffers. There is nothing malicious in being a traitor; it is simply what must be done. Remember, when Judas betrayed Christ, he thought he was starting a revolution to put the Messiah on the throne. What we call the ultimate act of betrayal was ultimately just a business decision.

An overall theme of this character is the ability to quickly distinguish between gain and loss. All reasoning is based on this decision.

Artemis always has been and will forever be an independent women.

Artemis always has been and will forever be an independent women.

Artemis: Amazon and Gorgon

Most people think that amazon refers to anti-men, but it doesn't. The amazons like men just fine if they are worthy enough to be considered a "partner."

To test this, they naturally compete with every man to prove they are better. They also have an intense desire to protect their "sisters" and develop strong bonds with other women. While as quick to act as her brother Apollo, Artemis is more motivated by passion and duty than cold calculation. She is the symbol of an independent woman who will never be tamed.

When angered, her reaction is dangerous. She will lash out in every direction and can stop a man cold with just a stare. It is not in her nature to run unless to gain more favorable ground. She is vicious in her assault and will strike at every weak point she can see simultaneously. Like Medusa, she provides an image that drives fear and dread into the hearts of men. This is the female berserker and can be likened to the gladiator side of Ares.

In both examples, she lives for her sisters and competition. While she admires the character of others, she is her own person and makes her own rules moment to moment. Her independence is everything and to be locked into a confining role is torture for her. She needs the outdoors to feel like herself.

Posiden is closely related to his famous trident.

Posiden is closely related to his famous trident.

Poseidon: Artist and Abuser

When Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon were dividing up the mortal realm, Poseidon chose a wasteland of nothing. In this empty space beneath the surface of our vision, he created a whole world for himself.

Poseidon is committed to creating his own reality. The affairs of the rest of the world don't matter unless it disturbs his. His depth is as deep and dark as the ocean itself. He feels things very intensely and expresses them through his art. None can know his world, but he can cover ours if he so chooses.

The dark side of Poseidon is that of the abuser. This applies to himself as well as others. His depth of emotion makes him a likely candidate for addiction. His inability to express himself usually causes him to lash out at others and delight in their anguish. When put on the offensive, Poseidon likes to smother and crush his foes like a great wave. Once slighted, he will not stop until he feels vindicated. Odysseus can attest to this firsthand.

In both cases, Poseidon is the lord of his own world. Those fortunate enough to be allowed within it should be grateful and offer proper respect.

Hestia casting in Pushkin museum.

Hestia casting in Pushkin museum.

Hestia: Artist and Abuser

If you have no idea who she is, you are not alone. When Cronus devoured his children, she was the first consumed and the last spat out. This makes her both the oldest and the youngest simultaneously.

There is very little written about Hestia because to do so might change her nature, and Hestia is eternally unchanging. She was the goddess of the hearth and home. Though there is little mention of her in the myths, she was widely recognized in every home. She is mysterious, wise, and shockingly humble, given her elder rank. She is like an old woman and young girl all in one. Regardless of what form she takes, she possesses aspects of the other. When Hephaestus was nominated for the pantheon, she willingly stepped down to make room for him.

Her hidden wisdom makes her a dangerous adversary when she feels wronged. She can manipulate things behind the scenes to get what she wants. She is so subtle it is sometimes difficult to tell if she has done anything at all. When confronted, she feigns innocence and adjusts her strategy accordingly. Her influence is omnipresent and invisible.

Whether she is the old medicine woman or the creepy child with otherworldly insight, Hestia is always Hestia. Like Poseidon and Hades, she lives in her own world. She is the spirit of acceptance and peace, the goddess of your most contented moments at home.

Ares: Protector and Gladiator

Though not seen in his own myths, Ares is the template for the champion figure who lives for conquest. As a protector, he is fearless and never backs down. He will place himself in harm's way to protect the innocent without a second thought. He exists to fulfill his duty and will not be weighed down with details. When not called to service, he doesn't know what to do with himself.

As the gladiator, he lives for combat. There is no sense of duty, just the drive for physical enjoyment. He is the embodiment of a man who lives completely in his body rather than the heart or mind. When not engaged in combat, he can be found wallowing in alcohol and women. Since might makes right, he is entitled to whatever he can take by force. Fore-site is not in his nature, so he is prone to excess.

What drives the Ares archetype is raw masculine impulse. In either scenario, he is the stereotypical "man." Thinking doesn't suit this figure unless it pertains to strategy; even then, his focus is on victory and conquest. His focus is always pointed straight ahead, unlike Apollo, who perceives all as he journeys his course.

Athena is a warrior at heart.

Athena is a warrior at heart.

Athena: Father's Daughter and Strategist

Athena was born by springing from Zeus' skull. As a result, she had no mother and formed no maternal connections. Instead, she prefers to see herself as one of the guys. She is not better, as Artemis tries to prove, and she is not submissive, as Aphrodite pretends; instead, she is equal and will stand shoulder to shoulder with any man. Like Ares, she was a war deity. Instead of offensive tactics, she focused on solid defense and control over the situation.

She was also the goddess of wisdom. Her pursuit of pure knowledge was so genuine that she swore to never lie with a man or allow herself to become distracted by such things. Still, she spent her time in the company of men, mostly philosophers and inventors, not as a lover but as colleagues.

There is little distinction became the two sides of her nature. Like Apollo, Athena simply follows the logical, profitable course. In the story of Medusa, Athena punishes her own priestess for being raped by Poseidon in her own temple. Poseidon is the guilty party in this situation, but he is also a man. It is for this reason that the victim is punished, and Poseidon escapes reproach. So we see that Athena will not give a second thought to betraying a follower to maintain her standing.

Athena only resorts to playing the feminine role as a last resort; even then, it is only part of some larger strategy. After which, she will reassert herself and her masculinity. She will do whatever is needed to maintain her position.

Hades never wanted to stop growing his kingdom.

Hades never wanted to stop growing his kingdom.

Hades: Recluse and Warlock

Hades has at his disposal all the knowledge that ever was since all things eventually wind up in his kingdom. He is also the only god whose realm is constantly expanding.

In Greek society, his name was seldom uttered for fear of calling death to you. Like Hestia, he was rarely mentioned but always on people's minds, though for opposite reasons. There are few cases of him emerging from his cavernous kingdom. In one such case, it was to kidnap Persephone. His own isolation fed directly into his dark side.

When moved to vengeance, he uses all the knowledge at his disposal to plot an act of careful revenge. When angered, it is not obvious since he will take every bit of information into account before deciding his course of action. By manipulating information, his powers of assault seem almost magical. He is not upfront but instead employs subterfuge and stealth.

Hades is another god that lives in his own world. His is based on facts and knowledge. He is the mad scientist and the sage. Research and knowledge are his primary concern, occasionally interrupted by intense loneliness.

Persephone: Maiden and Rebellious Daughter

Persephone is the perpetual damsel in distress. She represents the young woman who has yet to come into her own. She is the little sister who may still grow to become any one of the other female archetypes. Her hallmark action is indecision, as she needs instruction or aid to get anything done. Her fate is always in the hands of others.

As the rebellious daughter, she always finds ways of getting herself into trouble. When she decides that being doted over has gotten to be too much, she lashes out at herself. It may be drugs, sex, or just following the advice of a wolf in the woods. Regardless, she will put herself in a situation she needs to be saved from.

This character is usually the easiest to spot. All one needs to do is look for the youngest female with the most ignorant look on her face, and that's usually her. As the goddess of spring, she is usually associated with flowers.

Notice the wings on Hermes' ankles.

Notice the wings on Hermes' ankles.

Hermes: Wanderer and Fool

Hermes was the god of travelers, commerce, thieves, and messenger to the other gods. The reason for his many titles and tasks may have been solely to keep him out of trouble. When not carrying out the tasks of the other gods, he is usually engaged in some mischievousness.

He was called the guardian of Dionysus, an indication that points to his ability to always have a good time. If Athena has wisdom and Hades has knowledge, then Hermes is the god of wit. He is a wanderer with eclectic taste and knowledge of worldly things. One thing that drives Hermes mad is being in any one place for too long. Due to this, he is horrible at making plans and is often times unreliable. This archetype relates wonderfully to children since he himself refuses to grow up.

In his darker moments, Hermes gives in to his lackadaisical side and becomes the fool. This is not to suggest that he has any less wit; he just hides it very effectively behind a foolish mask. He may outwardly jest while plotting the entire time. The greatest asset at his disposal is being underrated. He lacks the ambition of the other gods since it implies responsibility though he is curious as to their affairs. This provides him leverage should he need it.

Hermes is a master of wit and disguise. Often when Zeus would disguise himself as a mortal, Hermes would accompany him. Hermes is associated with the element mercury; this indicates how malleable Hermes' disposition is. He knows what is going on and how to go with the flow.

The mother goddess and goddess of agriculture, Demeter, in Pompeii.

The mother goddess and goddess of agriculture, Demeter, in Pompeii.

Demeter: Loving Mother and Overbearing Parent

Demeter is the embodiment of Mother Nature herself. As Hades was the god of death, she was the goddess that gave the people life. The only thing that would distract from her duties to ensure the harvest was the love she bestowed on her own daughter. She is the provider, and her maternal role is what defines her. If no child is present to nurture, she will adopt the closest resemblance possible.

When anything threatens her offspring, she becomes heartlessly cruel out of love. When Hades took her child, she froze the land, refusing to allow crops to grow until Persephone was returned. After Demeter and Hades struck a compromise, she still brings winter whenever her daughter is away. In terms of the child, she will lock her up in chains if it means keeping her safe. Nothing comes before the well-being of her offspring, not even their love.

Demeter is always the mother and is the symbol of fertility.

Beardless Dionysos with a long torch sitting on a throne with Helios, Aphrodite, and other gods.

Beardless Dionysos with a long torch sitting on a throne with Helios, Aphrodite, and other gods.

Dionysus: Ladies Man and Seducer

When Dionysus was born, his mother burst into flames, and he rose from the pyre. He prefers the company of women. Although he'll never admit it, he's been looking for a surrogate mother his whole life.

Due to his feminine qualities, people often think he is gay if he has not been mistaken for a girl. He prefers to live on the outskirts of society and is a wild god of intoxication. Despite this fact, he is very refined and delivers hangovers to those who do not exercise self-control. Despite being amongst the youngest of the gods, he is often depicted at the center of his own entourage.

When his romantic conquests seem to be failing, he employs his powers of seduction. In this capacity, he becomes the template for the vampire. His appetites consume him, and he transforms into a beast. He will violate any code to possess the object of his desire. He has the power to intoxicate his quarry with his personality alone. When he is denied love, he will attempt to take it.

Dionysus' rapport comes from how non-threatening he appears to be. Despite his slender frame, he has a strong resolve to resist the status quo. His parties were often attended by other gods who would disguise themselves as mortals to attend.

Aphrodite at Rotunda of Altes Museum

Aphrodite at Rotunda of Altes Museum

Aphrodite: Seductress and Femme Fatale

Unlike the seducer role used by Dionysus, there is no malice in Aphrodite's seduction. Hers stems from a form of naivety that may be real or pretend. When not in the presence of a lesser female role, such as the maiden, she appears as innocently as she can.

When in the maiden's presence, she will adopt the big sister role and may even try to lead her down the seductress path. She is accustomed to having men at her disposal to meet her every desire. Keeping men around makes her feel safe. When anything distracts from her, she becomes angry and sullen.

As the femme fatale, she uses her alluring power to manipulate others to accomplish her goals. She is the master of feigning innocence. Once cornered, she will cry and try to seduce her way out of it. One thing that enrages her more than any other is being ignored. She needs all eyes to be on her, or else she will have a fit. She is shameless in flaunting her body to get what she wants and oozes sexuality at all times. Her wrath is terrible, as seen in the story of Cupid and Psyche, one of the few examples of her ugly side.

Although considered a purely sexual figure, she was capable of much more depth. She was a wife, mother, and sister though her role as a sexually liberated woman takes precedence in peoples' minds. Her very nature is that of love of all kinds.

Osiris, chief of the Gods of Tuat, the World of Death.

Osiris, chief of the Gods of Tuat, the World of Death.

Osiris: Messiah and Punisher

The messiah archetype almost deserves to be a sub-archetype. Any of the others can provide the framework for the messiah archetype to grow.

The key aspects to look for are the Messiah's ability to bring out the best in others and the pursuit of some higher purpose. Every aspect of life other than their divine role is secondary. Anyone who does not have something to do with their higher purpose is seldom worth recognizing.

The dark side of the Messiah is the punisher. He does not engage in physical combat if it can be avoided. He would prefer to preach and use his words to tear the system down. His primary weapon is the hearts of the people.

Io (on the left, with horns) is welcomed in Egypt by Isis (sitting, holding a snake and with a crocodile at her feet).

Io (on the left, with horns) is welcomed in Egypt by Isis (sitting, holding a snake and with a crocodile at her feet).

Isis: Messiah and Destroyer

The female messiah is similar to the male, except that she is more aggressive in her mission. In contrast, the male messiah punishes using his words, and the female messiah destroys. She will form an army and stand at the front to lead the charge against tyranny. She is the holy warrior, like Joan of Arc.

Why Are There Only 16 Archetypes?

16 seems like a tiny number to lump the myriad of human behaviors into. Even less when you point out that eight are male and eight are female. But, these are generalizations based on the ancient Greek Parthenon.

Within Greek mythology itself, you'll see parallels between characters. Hercules is an Ares archetype, and Hephaestus is a Poseidon archetype, just to give a couple of examples. These are main character archetypes as well; there are others that work as titles and function within a story, like mentors and rivals. For this article, I focused on the main archetypes.

Why Greek Mythology?

Due to the influential power of Greece and Rome, the Greek figures are better known than the pantheons of other cultures. However, the templates used to define their characteristics can be recognized across cultures.

Ares, Ra, and Thor all share very similar personalities, though how they are received depends on the culture that observes them. However, two of the character archetypes, the Messiahs, are based on Egyptian mythology. These two are relatively new to the character archetype lineup and are usually blended with one of the others.

Many people like to point to any popular character and claim it as an archetype; as a writer, this is like making a copy of a copy. It will never be as clearly defined as it would if it was based on the original.

Future Analysis

This is the list with the briefest definitions I could think up. I hope this will be useful to someone other than myself. In the future, I may do an in-depth analysis of each one. I just felt there needed to be a more reliable source online for any others who might be looking for it.

Sources

Comments

rosalia on July 16, 2019:

thanks for sharing. my learning with the archetype is, as human being that you will have emotions and the different characteristics. sometimes, you might be as a fool in this way, sometimes you play a role as a strategist. Or maybe we can be a villain type in tricks, and the lover type when having relationships.

Ingrid on May 09, 2018:

Thank you for these clear summaries - very helpful ...

Guest on April 13, 2014:

This was an excellent article. Thank you for posting it.

ghintz on January 24, 2013:

Great book, I'm working out of it right now. Nice summaries of the types.