Film 101: Archetypes

Hollywood has been increasingly bashed as of late for its failure to come up with anything remotely original (or if they do it’s executed badly or simply stupid). At the same time, it’s also true that there are only so many ways to tell a story. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing Hollywood’s obsession with sequels or reboots in the slightest, I know perfectly well they could come up with more original films if they really put their brains to work. I’m just saying that all stories are based on a limited number of elements. If you make enough stories (or movies, in this case) similarities are going to be inevitable.

In terms of characters, the common types seen in every film are known as archetypes, or what you get when you boil a film down to its basic elements. For instance, at their core, most films are a fight between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ (but that’s a discussion for another day). For characters, there are multiple archetypes to choose from (I would like to note that this is not an exhaustive list, I’m just covering the basics):

  1. The (usually naive) hero/heroine: Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Bilbo Baggins (in the Hobbit trilogy), Aladdin, Elsa, Belle, I could go on for a while. One of the most common archetypes is of the young hero/heroine who must go on a journey of some kind and come into their destiny, whatever that may be. 99% of the time the hero archetype is also the protagonist (unless they flip the script and use a plot twist to make the ‘hero’ the villain).
  2. The wise old mentor: Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Spock Prime (in the rebooted Star Trek series), Grandmother Willow, and so on. Another common archetype is the wise old mentor who usually appears just as the hero/heroine needs advice and/or a guide for the journey that leads to their destiny.
  3. The (all-powerful, usually scary) villain: Literally every bad guy in every film! But to name a few: Darth Vader, Sauron, The Horned King, Jafar, Scar, Ursula, Smaug, Gaston, Maleficent (animated version), and so on. If you look at the villains of a story, they all have some traits in common: traditionally they wear some shade of black; they’re either disfigured in some way, creepy OR handsome to a fault (if they’re human). They can also possess black magic or invoke dark forces on some level and with the exception of Darth Vader are generally irredeemable. It is the villain that the young hero/heroine must eventually confront/defeat in some way for their destiny to be achieved.
  4. The sidekick/minion: What is a hero/villain without his sidekick/minion? Or multiple sidekicks as the case may be? Aladdin had Abu, Pocahontas had Meeko and Flit, Ratcliffe had Percy; Gaston/Le Fou, Mulan/Mushu, etc.
  5. The romantic love interest/damsel in distress: I hate to say it, but 9 times out of 10 the romantic love interest is also (at some point) the damsel in distress. Look at classic Hollywood cinema if you don’t believe me (the original King Kong is a great example).

These five archetypes cover a large number of characters!! This idea has been rattling around in my head for a while, so this might be the start of a new series where I talk about different parts of film, like genre, and talking about what a McGuffin is.

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2 thoughts on “Film 101: Archetypes

  1. Pingback: Film 101: The MacGuffin | Film Music Central

  2. Pingback: Film 101: Deus ex machina | Film Music Central

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