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How to Design Characters from Archetypes

Updated: Jan 14

Characters would struggle to exist without also being archetypes. Characters are at the heart of a story so having a clear vision of their character archetype is the key to leaving an impression. If you're not getting into character(s), you're getting left out, so here's everything you need to know how to design characters from archetypes.

The relationship between Characters and Archetypes

This is one of those topics that, I don't know how we haven't covered yet. Designing characters based off of archetypes is all we do as content creators and artists, even if some us are more aware of it than others. The word "archetype" comes from Greek, meaning "original pattern" which we can infer relates to character and human patterns of behavior.

What makes a character intriguing?

What makes a character memorable is their motivation how we relate to their experience. A character without motivation is just a design. A character whose motivation is clear and connected to a larger purpose is what makes it an archetype and piques interest.

There are 12 literary archetypes, originating from Psychologist Carl Jung that are used in character design across industries:

1. Hero

The Hero must overcome obstacles and great odds, showing courage and resilience.

2. Creator

3. Explorer

The Explorer cares most about freedom and is motivated by a sense of adventure and by the desire to discover new horizons. There is an underlying desire for enlightenment and self-fulfilment.

4. Outlaw

The Outlaw lives on the fringes of society and is a notorious rule-breaker. Rebellious against the system but not without a personal code of ethics. Often full of surprises.

5. Jester

6. Lover

7. Caregiver

8. Everyman

9. Innocent

10. Ruler

11. Sage

12. Magician

Now let's look at the difference between a Character and a Character Archetype:

Example of a Character:

Mrs. Jansen, a substitute teacher.

With a simple character, all we've got to go on is a name and a job title, which isn't much. We need an archetype to give us some context. Let's see if you can guess which Character Archetype was chosen for the example below.

Example of a Character Archetype:

Mrs. Jansen, a charming substitute teacher and ex-convict whose unconventional methods win over the children but concern the authorities when a former enemy swears to get revenge.

Whether you need to write lines for Mrs. Jansen, play the character, or dress her for the role, knowing what archetype you're dealing with makes it easier because it's given us context. This helps us understand what traits or eccentricities may come with such a personality and create accordingly.

Did you guess which archetype was applied? If you answered, #4 The Outlaw, you are CORRECT!

In reality, whether you can identify the archetype name or not is actually unimportant because unconsciously you actually already know them. They connect to a psychological framework that is often referred to as collective or universal experience that as humans is universally understood or recognized.

Archetypes and psychology.

In addition to the 12 literary archetypes, there are an additional fixed, 4 major Jungian archetypes that believe it or not, are figured into a lot more marketing strategies and Netflix shows than you think!

Psychologist and Philosopher Carl Jung, was Sigmund Freud's successor and developed a more complex approach that moved away from Freud's Oedipal teachings and instead looked at the human psyche as having innate and inherited "dominants of the collective unconscious," . In 1919 , in an essay titled Instinct and the Unconscious.’, Jung began referring to these "dominants" as "archetypes". Jung's 4 archetypes are: The Persona, The Shadow, The Anima/Animus, and the Self.

Writers, Directors, and Marketers may apply Jung's Cardinal Orientations (motivations): Ego, Order, Social, and Freedom over the 12 literary archetypes using a psychological approach to creating complex characters and brand identities that resonate with a particular audience.

Here's a visual example of Jung's 4 Cardinal Orientations placed over the 12 literary archetypes to demonstrate the motivations they have in common or to which they may be opposed.

A chart of Jung's Cardinal Orientations according to Jung's 12 archetypes
Jung's Cardinal Orientations

Some classic archetypes?

If you're looking for more examples of common archetypes, you don't have to look any further than Disney or classic Looney Toons cartoons by Warner Bros. Our old pal Bugs Bunny is a classic Trickster or Jester Character, recognizable by his mischievous nature and how his character often reveals a lesson. Disney on the other hand is a world of magic and brings us many versions of The Magician, The Hero, and The Innocent. Can you think of any Disney characters that might be easy to archetype?

Make-believe as adults may look a little different but the archetypes remain the same. Film legends are made from strong characters with epic missions, while in Fashion, the best designers and Maisons have created entire dimensions around a solid archetype that sometimes changes completely when a new creative director steps in or out, much like when Alessandro Michele stepped down as Creative Director at Gucci.

Gucci's archetypes over a hand-drawn imaginary forest
Gucci & archetypes

Character relationships

Archetypes matter, first because it will affect the relationship the character has with other characters in the story, and second because of how we, as the audience, relate to the narrative and in a larger sense, to our ourselves. The best creative work comes from a place of honesty, bravery and experience. Digging into a characters motivation, as predictable as some archetypes can be, can also be messy and full of surprises which may take courage to confront. Having command of archetypes is not only empowering, it's an essential step in creating compelling stories and connecting others to your vision.

Save this article for future reference and refer to these archetypes from time to time or whenever your work needs to leave an impression.

Psychology and Character Archetypes according to Carl Jung
Psychology and Character Archetypes


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