The orphan who becomes a hero. The wizened elder who imparts wisdom. The ruler of a realm under siege. The innocent making their way through an unfamiliar and often wicked world. The good-looking rebel who lives by their own rules.
All these likely sound familiar because each is a familiar character from fiction. Some version of each has been used for centuries in storytelling, from tales of the ancient Greeks to “The Matrix.” They often appear in stores that follow the hero’s journey, a storytelling framework that takes writers from Point A to Point Z, hitting all the right stops along the way.
The following provides a list of character archetypes in fiction. Understanding these steps and archetypal characters is something students learn in detail in a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Screenwriting program.
Common Characters in the Hero’s Journey
Many stories incorporate the 12 steps of the hero’s journey. It involves a reluctant hero leaving their ordinary world, making a great journey with many adventures, and eventually not only saving their world but emerging as a better person.
Some of the biggest book series and film franchises ever created follow these steps fairly closely, including “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” The author Neil Gaiman offers insight into some of the biggest character archetypes. They include the following, using characters from those three films as examples.
The protagonist of the story. Often an orphan, they must defeat their own inner demons as well as external obstacles to reach their goal. Examples: Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Rey Skywalker
A morally pure character who often travels through a wicked world. These characters are often children or child-like (think Buddy the Elf or Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”). Other examples: R2D2 in the original “Star Wars,” Samwise Gamgee, Luna Lovegood.
The magician is typically an older figure who has mastered the mystical elements of their world to become powerful and achieve their goals, whether for good or evil. Examples: Gandalf, Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, Sauron, Saruman, Witch King of Angmar.
A wise person who provides the hero the guidance they need at just the right time. They often die in the story or are otherwise unavailable for help during the crucial battles. Examples: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Gandalf, Albus Dumbledore, most of the teaching staff at Hogwarts.
A comic character who keeps the audience laughing but also may impart important insight into the story. Examples: R2D2 and C3PO, Merry and Pippin, Fred and George Weasley.
A romantic who makes decisions based on what is in their heart. Many of the heroes also are lovers, or they have a lover as part of their team. Samwise Gamgee and Princess Leia can fall into his category, but perhaps the best example from these three films is Eowyn from “The Lord of the Rings.”.
A character who may be a criminal, but is at least someone who lives outside the law and by their own rules. In a twist that has maintained the character’s popularity for a century, Batman is an outlaw who also is the hero. Examples: Han Solo, Aragorn, Severus Snape.
A character who provides support and comfort, usually to the hero, and often at great sacrifice to themselves. Examples: Uncle Ben and Aunt Veru, Shmi Skywalker, Arthur and Molly Weasley.
A leader who directs the actions of others, either with legal or emotional authority. Examples: Padme Amidala, Princess Leia, King Elrond.