Character Archetypes

Nancy J. Cohen

Archetypes are recurrent themes found in works of literature and film. Recently I attended a talk by a nautical archaeologist ( While this professional is concerned with preserving underwater shipwrecks and their associated artifacts, treasure hunters seek to plunder these watery grave sites. Now pit two of these opposing people together as hero and heroine, and you have instant conflict.

Or take the Star Lord and the green-skinned girl in Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s a cocky womanizer. She’s a feminist warrior. Don’t you love the sparks that fly between them until they realize how much they care for each other? Here’s a list of other familiar archetypes.


AMNESIA: Is he/she married, a parent, a missing bride/groom, presumed dead? Did he kill someone? Did someone try to kill him? Is she a witness to a violent crime? Is he an undercover agent who got hurt by the bad guys? American Dreamer, The Bourne Identity

BRIDES: Marriage of convenience, fake fiancés, mail order bride, runaway bride/groom, green‑card, royal, shot-gun wedding, jilted, terms of the will, Vegas spur-of-the-moment wedding. Runaway Bride, Father of the Bride, Wedding Crashers, Sleepless in Seattle, What Happens in Vegas

CHILDREN: Abandoned, lost, adopted, biological, inherited, stolen, secret baby, true identity unknown, switched‑at‑birth, kids playing matchmaker for single parents. Home Alone

DISGUISE: Hidden or unknown identity, switching places: True Lies, The Prince and the Pauper, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Freaky Friday, The Princess Diaries, Arrow

FISH OUT OF WATER: Enchanted, City Slickers, Kate and Leopold, Outlander

MAKEOVER: The Princess Diaries, My Fair Lady

MISMATCHED COUPLES: Bad boy/Good girl, Cowboy/Lady, Pirate/Princess, Real Estate Developer/Preservationist, Wanderer/Homemaker, May/December, Womanizer/Feminist, Duke/Governess, Mentor/Protegé, Boss/Employee. Romeo & Juliet, Beauty and the Beast, Six Days Seven Nights, Guardians of the Galaxy

RAGS TO RICHES: Cinderella, Pretty Woman, Ever After

REUNION: Former lovers, estranged spouses, lost love, thwarted romance, divorced but still in love. Sweet Home Alabama

SECRET POWER: Harry Potter series, Superheroes like Superman and Spiderman

 harry potter

SINGLE PARENTS: Struggling unwed mothers, clueless divorced dads, inexperienced surrogate. Three Men and a Baby, Baby Boom

TWINS: Switched identities, mistaken identities, trading places to fool people and having the tables turned on them instead. Parent Trap, New York Minute

Now wouldn’t it be interesting to pick one of these for your suspense/thriller novel? That’s what I did for Warrior Lord, my latest action-packed romance with scifi/fantasy elements. Drift Lord warrior Magnor of the Tsuran must recover the fabled Book of Odin. Hidden in its text is information on a weapon to defeat his enemy. Magnor has received a tip that a clue to the whereabouts of this book can be found at the Viking Vegas Resort.

As soon as he steps inside the casino, he’s drawn to a woman playing blackjack. When he hears her mutter how she can use the cash from a contest for engaged couples as announced over the loudspeaker, he suggests they enter the competition even though they’ve just met. Before you can blink, they win and are married on live TV. Marriage of Convenience meets Lord of the Rings plus Star Wars. It was fun tossing this trope into my paranormal universe.


Think about the books on your shelves at home. Do you repeatedly buy the same types of stories? Does this tell you something about the plot devices that appeal to you? What other movies can you fit into the categories above?

10 thoughts on “Character Archetypes

  1. It’s a helpful list, Nancy. Shows that there is, truly, nothing really new in plotting. The trick for all of us, I think, is to find new twists on old themes and ways to make archetypes feel fresh.

  2. If I may…

    Star Wars:
    Twins/ Reunion: Luke & Leia Skywalker
    Children (& parent) – the whole disfunctional Skywalker family;
    Mismatched couple: Leia & Han Solo
    Magic power: the Force
    Perhaps that’s why it’s such a durable series…?

    What about the “Buddy” or “Partners” archetype: good cop/bad cop; rookie/veteran; him-n-her;:
    Star Wars (again)- C3PO & R2D2; Han Solo & Chewbacca;
    Dumb and Dumber
    Blazing Saddles
    48 Hours
    Anything with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor
    Thelma and Louise

    Obviously I could go on, but lunch minute’s about over & I really should get back to work…


    • Oh yes, the buddy/partner archetype is another one. I’ll add that to my list. And you are right on with Star Wars. That story endures also because it follows the hero’s mythic structure as described by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey.

  3. In re: Children. Disney always said the orphan’s story is the most powerful in children’s literature, the primal fear children have of not being taken care of. From Snow White to Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, it’s a powerful foundation for a story. And it works the same way in the other direction, in an adult story. A parent who has lost a child has gone through a terribly transformative experience. In a thriller, a mother or father whose child is threatened becomes a powerful adversary, no matter how many resource the antagonist has at his disposal.

  4. Nancy, thanks for a great list. As P J Parish said above, there’s nothing new… But since our creativity is built on possibilities we we are aware of, we need to constantly feed our awareness of options. You have given us a rich list of ideas to stir into the mix.

  5. Great analysis, Nancy! Any of these possibilities, even if they have been done before, would make for an appealing story when given a fresh location and twist. Thanks for this list.

    • That’s it, Jodie. Take one of these tried and true archetypes and stick your characters in a new setting. Or not. They still work fine as intended. Just see Guardians of the Galaxy for the most recent fun examples.

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