From Hags to Heroes: Archetypes in Fantasy Fiction

When comparing a selection of books in a particular literary genre, it is quite common to discover the same character archetypes present in at least a few of the stories. An archetype represents a recurring idea, symbol, or pattern of thought that (according to Jungian psychology) is inherently and collectively known and understood. In literature, these key characters infuse novels with an added layer of depth and meaning.

Nowhere are archetypes more perfectly (and imaginatively) portrayed than in Fantasy Fiction. If you love reading this genre, it is very likely that you will have come across at least one of the following characters – probably repeatedly – in your literary travels:

old crone fantasy archetypesThe Old Crone:

Usually found sitting at a crossroad, in a tent at a marketplace, or creepily appearing from nowhere just behind your shoulder, this old woman is certainly not all she seems.  If she is on the side of Good, she may give you some sage but seemingly nonsensical advice that will turn out to be the answer you’ve been searching for (you will, of course, realise this far too late), or bestow upon you a protection or other gift. If she is on the side of Evil then you will most likely be cursed. The crone may also be an Evil Queen in disguise, or a Young Maiden who has already been cursed by an evil crone herself.

young maidne fantasy archetypesThe Young Maiden:

Beautiful, innocent and kind, the Young Maiden is often no more than a prop, designed to be rescued and then sit around looking pretty for the Impulsive Hero to fall in love with. She’ll probably also do some very stupid things, getting herself into danger after which she’ll have to be rescued again. However, this gentle exterior can often hide a ruthless warrior. This fiercer, highly intelligent type of Maiden will fight fearlessly and ceaselessly for all that is Good, but will probably still find time to fall in love along the way.

The Dark Lord/ Evil Queen:

The epitome of all that is evil, the Dark Lord usually has a plan to destroy the universe and crush everyone in his path while he does it (or something like that, anyway). He has power but wants more, and stopping him seems an impossible task. Luckily, he is often so distracted with evil ideas that he won’t see the flaw in his plans until it is far too late, allowing the Impulsive Hero – or other protagonist – to defeat him fairly easily. Making her counterpart Dark Lord look like a philanthropist, the Evil Queen knows no mercy. She is bitter, sadistic and vain, and enjoys nothing more than coming up with evil plans to ruin people’s lives. Luckily her vanity can usually be exploited, and she will be defeated nearly as easily as the Dark Lord.

wise teacher fantasy archetypesThe Wise Teacher:

Often known as a wizard or mage, for some reason the wise teacher is usually male (women teachers are oddly rare) and a little infuriating. He seems to enjoy keeping his students in the dark and only giving them snippets of information – just enough to help them through the trials ahead, but not enough that they know what’s actually going on. If the Wise Teacher is killed, don’t worry – he may return unexpectedly later on. If not, his death will inspire his students (one of whom will likely become the Impulsive Hero) to seek revenge on whichever force of evil it was that killed him.

hero fantasy archetypesThe Impulsive Hero:

Goodhearted and courageous, this young man probably would find his heroics a little more effective if he took a moment to stop and think. Facing the Dark Lord armed only with a sword he learned to wield a week ago is usually not the most sensible option. The day is usually saved by sheer dumb luck; or the fact that he is the Chosen One or Lost Heir, and therefore cannot die for the purposes of the story.

NOTE: There are countless fantasy novels that have subverted or avoided these archetypes completely, but even the books that use the most clichéd forms of these characters can be thoroughly enjoyable if they are well written.

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Arielle is a avid reader, writer and music-geek in her final year of a Bachelor of Visual Arts degree. She loves all fiction but can’t seem to stay away from sci-fi and fantasy. She lives in Auckland with too many books and not enough shelves.

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