Exploring Archetypes

In the previous article we looked at the Three Act Structure which governs the overall flow of a story. Within the story there are several character types to be found. These character types are known as archetypes and they all exist to support the development of one particular archetype, the “Hero”. The Hero is the character the audience follows on a journey of change.

Monomyth is the term that describes the formula that a hero follows throughout the story. It is most commonly referred to as The Hero’s Journey, and it gives us solid ground to understand character development, as well as to develop our own characters. There is much to be said about archetypes and the Monomyth. In this post we’ll look at archetypes as a whole, and I’ll focus on the Hero in my next post.

/* If you want to read other posts from GDC 17, or see how this connects to game design, check the GDC 17 index post */


Archetypes represent the different personalities that will assist in developing the Hero’s change, and keep the story flowing. It is possible that not all stories will include all archetypes, and it is possible that archetype roles could be shared by a character; however, all stories will make use of most archetypes.

An important note about archetypes is that together they make up a whole person. In reality the human psyche is a complex mingling of thoughts and ideas that bring about a personality. An archetype is a single aspect of a person. In stories, the characters do not have complete human personalities. They are a single character that embodies one aspect of being human. All archetypes combined make up a whole person.

As we step through the different archetypes, notice that even oneself will occasionally resemble each. Sometimes we’re the good guy, sometimes we’re bad (intentionally or unintentionally). Sometimes we’re funny, and at others depressing. Sometimes we share wisdom, and sometimes one is some crazy concoction of all of these; however, in a story a character will typically only be one. All of the characters come together to create a singular relatable experience for the audience. In a well realized set of archetypes there will be moments when one can identify with every character, even the bad guys.


  • Resolves the Main Conflict.
  • Primary audience identifier.
  • Growth (shows the most change)
  • Person of action.
  • Displays an ability to take risks, has phobias that deter them, and sacrifice the most.
  • EXAMPLE: Luke Skywalker. (this will be expanded on in the next post)


  • Teaching.
  • Gift giving.
  • Motivation source.
  • Conscience.
  • Commonly older in age; has wisdom or knowledge of the situation; demonstrates faith in the hero; not around for the whole story (typically dies).
  • EXAMPLE: Obi Wan Kenobi, and Yoda. Both impart wisdom to the hero. Both believe in the hero. Both die before the Main Conflict is resolved.

Threshold Guardian (Henchmen)

  • Tests the hero.
  • Blocks the path.
  • Supports the conflict.
  • Can be either defeated or turned.
  • EXAMPLE: Darth Vader. Vader is never the source of the Main Conflict. He only supports it. He blocks Luke’s path in multiple way, from physical interaction to emotional (the whole “I am your father” thing). In the end (ROTJ) he was turned.


  • Delivers the information regarding the Main Conflict to the Hero. The Herald is not the conflict, or in support of it. This archetype is simply the messenger.
  • Sometimes offers motivation in addition to the Mentor.
  • Offers the Hero a challenge.
  • EXAMPLE: This droid introduces Luke to the conflict via Obi Wan’s hologram. This instructs Luke that there is something for him to do, and sends him on his journey. The role is later shared between the two droids.

Shape Shifter

  • Plants suspicion or doubt.
  • Keeps the audience guessing at the final outcome.
  • EXAMPLE: Lando Calrisian. He seems friendly, but we’re never quite sure what side he’s on. His loyalties aren’t cemented until Episode VI. Throughout Episode V, Lando keeps us unsure of the stories outcome.


  • Villain.
  • The source of the Main Conflict.
  • Will defend the Main Conflict.
  • AKA, the “Final Boss”.
  • EXAMPLE: In episode IV, this is Tarkin. He is the one calling the shots. Even Vader is taking his lead. This shadow ends with the destruction of the first Death Star. The role of the shadow is then handed to The Emperor in Episode V.


  • Comic relief. Think “Daxter”.
  • EXAMPLE: This role is shared, but it largely seems to revolve around R2D2. Consider that every time the action gets thick, and a lot shots are firing, R2 makes some beeping noise and takes some action that makes the audience chuckle. R2 breaks up the drama to give us moments of relief. This fulfils the comic relief.

Practice On Your Own

Soak in these archetypes and practice spotting them. Star Wars is the easy example, because it is beautifully formulaic; however, practice spotting them in less obvious stories. During the conference, Evan ran an exercise where we had to find these roles in movies such as “Aliens” and the newer “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Whenever you sit down to watch a film, TV show, or (*gasp) read a book. Make it an activity to identify these roles. Not only will it help you better understand storytelling, but you might find it raises your standard of media you choose to consume.

I for one, found that nearly half of my story intake is formulaic fluff. In the past few weeks I’ve found that I can guess outcomes to stories simply by identifying the archetypes early on. I’ve actually reduced my amount of movies and TV shows I’m willing to watch. I feel I’ve entered the realm of “story snob” and I am a better for it.

On that last statement, I should add that your mileage may vary.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned. The next post in this series will dive in the specifics of the Hero archetype and the journey associated with it.

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