In literary sciences, an archetype is a character, symbol, event, setting or motif that repeatedly appears in mythological and fictional works. It's an abstract model that despite being open to variations maintains its core meaning throughout dozens of different pieces. The main characteristics of this tool are sustainability and generalization.
The term "archetype" can be translated as "the original image" and derives from two Greek components: "arche," which can be defined as "beginning," and "typos," which means "type" or "image." Carl Jung first introduced this term in the first half of the 20th century. The famous psychologist used archetypal images to explain his collective unconscious theory. He stated that such images are reflections of various universal truths and can be found in works of art, culture, religion, etc.
This literary tool must be distinguished from cliché. While both devices deal with images and events that are expected by the reader, the latter is a sign of poor writing technique. The use of clichés in a work makes it more predictable, without providing any benefits. An archetype, on the other hand, gets the reader more involved in the story and makes it seem more realistic.
Another term that is commonly confused with archetype is trope. The difference between them is that a trope is an artificially created model that is typical for a specific genre or writing style, and it doesn't possess the universal nature of an archetype.
One of the primary functions of this device in literary pieces is that it makes them appealing to readers all around the world. Due to the relatable nature of such images, characters or story patterns that are built based on archetypes are more understandable to members of different cultures. Thanks to this function, the works of such authors as William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Dante, and Honore de Balzac are enjoyed globally and aren't limited only to their respective countries.
Up until the 20th century, archetypes were mostly used unconsciously. However, as authors realized the power behind such images, this tool was deliberately added to emphasize or develop a character or to set better and to make a literary piece easier to follow.
On the other hand, an overreliance on archetypes can make the literary piece too repetitive and predictable for the reader. While talented writers use this tool in their works, they always add something new to them, adapting the selected image to their specific story.
As mentioned above, archetypical images can represent characters, settings, motifs, and symbols.
A character archetype is usually embodied by an individual that possesses the traits and flaws associated with a specific role they play in a story. Over the centuries, authors have developed dozens of archetypical characters with the most popular types including "Hero," "Mother," "Loyal Friend," "Innocent Child," "Love Interest," etc. These images have been shaped for centuries and are now perceived in a special way. For example, the common perception of a "Mother" is as a gentle, caring, self-sacrificing woman.
There are also cases when certain characters become famous worldwide and are recognized as universally relevant by readers, thus turning into archetypes themselves. For example, protagonists like Hamlet, Don Juan, and Don Quixote have outgrown their respective works and became prototypes, after which future writers have modeled their own characters.
Before the second half of the 19th century, most characters were merely an embodiment of a single archetype. However, as literature continued to evolve, authors understood that they needed to add more complexity to their characters and make them seem more realistic. As a result, they began to create protagonists that were a conglomeration of several archetypes and adapted them to the specific time period and social structure depicted in the piece.
Another type of an archetypical image is setting. Authors use seasons and locations to convey the tone of a piece and to awaken feelings associated with them. After the reader has built up certain expectations towards a scene, the writer either confirms those expectations or creates an unpredictable turn of events. For example, the "wilderness" archetype represents a location where traditional rules don't apply, but it may also be described as a place of peace and harmony.
Archetypical symbols have been used in literary works for thousands of years, and the most poignant ones have traveled through various movements and genres, slightly transforming their form, but always maintaining their core meaning. Popular archetype symbols include "red rose", "sea", "darkness", "light", etc.
Motifs also play a crucial part in the creation of a literary piece. This kind of archetypes includes situations, themes, or plot developments that represent universal patterns of human behavior.
An example of the "Journey" motif can be found in "The Odyssey." This archetype is also the basis for "The Lord of The Rings" and most other fantasy stories. The archetypical theme of self-sacrifice can be found in "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen, where the protagonist exchanges her voice for legs in hope to marry her "Love Interest."
Lewis Carroll's Alice is an example of both "The Hero" and "The Innocent Girl" character archetypes. The first image is based on the fact that Alice is the main heroine of the story and sets out on a "Journey," while the latter is reinforced by unexpected events that transpire around her and catch her by surprise.