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Using Archetypes as Narrative Devices

This guest article on archetypes is by Aaron Ryyle. I feel it fits a very nice, typical mould… – Punmaster John

“One cannot afford to be naive in dealing with dreams. They originate in a spirit that is not quite human, but is rather a breath of nature–a spirit of the beautiful and generous as well as of the cruel goddess.” – Carl G. Jung, “The Importance of Dreams”

In the psychological theory of Carl Jung, a psychological archetype is an inherited idea that is derived from the collective experience of the human race. Archetypal ideas and images arise from the unconscious of the individual, but they are rooted in kind of species-memory: the collective unconscious. When archetypes appear in mythology or fiction, they tap into an audience’s unconscious ideas at a deep level, and they provoke characteristic emotional responses that fit certain molds. Archetypes can be powerful tools in your storytelling kit.


Archetypes are like moulds that define the general characteristics of characters and stories.

Archetype as Pattern and Symbol

An archetype is a a typical character, action, or situation that represents universal patterns of human nature. Characters, themes, objects, settings, or symbols can all reflect an archetype:  the Hero, the Mentor, the Quest, the Magic Weapon, the Moon, the villain in a Mask… all follow certain universal patterns.

Every culture has heroic legends or trickster stories, yet the particular forms those stories take are colored by history, culture, and context.  Archetypes crystallize around experiences and ideas that are common to human beings as human, yet they are capable of infinite local variations. This means that they can become powerful symbols that can speak to people from a broad range of backgrounds in new ways while still striking common cords.

Archetype as Device

Archetypes work on two levels.  First, because they contain echoes of all the other instances the audience members are familiar with.  Second, and more importantly, because they trigger recognition in the unconscious–even evoking images from dreams.  In fact, Jung documented numerous instances of separate patients dreaming in strikingly similar imagery, then recognizing their dreams images in myth and legend.

Of course, using archetypes means making them your own–your Mentor should not just be Gandalf with the serial numbers filed off. But you can use archetypal characters or places in new ways, always keeping mind that there is nothing new under the sun. After all, the trope of the old man with the beard in the wilderness is so common precisely because, when well-deployed, it can efficiently communicate a whole range of ideas and emotions.

Working with Archetypes

Archetypes can be great idea-generators. (Use your favorite search engine…) Examples of Jungian archetypes that are perfect for role-playing games include:

Remember that an archetype is something that crystallizes around an existential concern or a common experience. Ask yourself: what sort of experiences, ideas, fears, or desires do different archetypes play with? Then look for ways to connect those themes or experiences with your player characters. By playing off your players’ creativity you can create something that really is new, because it comes from your unique group and its unique personality.

For example…

The journey in search of knowledge speaks to a sense of need and a fear of the unknown… Why might your characters need a piece of knowledge so bad they would face untold danger to obtain it? What dangers could you dangle over their heads to make them sweat while they get it?

The shadow represents something one or more characters fears or hates about themselves… What shameful things have they done? What might they do given opportunity and temptation? Create an adversary who revels in the hated thing–make the adversary symbolize it–but always keep the adversary in shadow.


Everyone wants to run a game that feels epic and meaningful. Tapping into archetypal images at the table is a great way to help that happen. Using archetypal images and themes with awareness can evoke deep and wide-ranging associations, reaching even into myth, legend, and dreams themselves. They layer the game with a sense of portent. Of course it is crucial to use archetypes with intent, as tools. Judicious intent is what lets you use archetypes as narrative devices rather than unintentionally slipping into clichés or stereotypes.

What archetype would your character fit into? How would you classify your BBEG’s archetype?


4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Using Archetypes as Narrative Devices"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On April 22, 2016 @ 10:37 am

Interesting article, thanks.

I suspect that I wouldn’t try to slot my PC into a role as a player–in part because roleplaying’s collaboration encourages you to accept the quest of the week, rather than setting circumstances. That said, I always loved Wraith for its Shadow–the same Shadow as your article, made explicit and vocalized by another player at the table!

Archetypes seem perfect for a character’s first impression–but as you mention, they need to be localized to feel like people, rather than “generic” NPCs. What’s a character (or NPC) from your campaign that you applied this technique to and really liked the result?

#2 Comment By Aaron Ryyle On April 22, 2016 @ 9:24 pm

One of my favorite antagonists was actually a group: a coven of seven witches in a modern setting.

Witches just invite you to think in archetypal imagery. Images and legends of malicious, old women who cast hexes in secret are cross-cultural… and they are often associated with draining life or youth. Motifs surrounding witches tend to include lots of dark, shadowy woods and abandoned farms.

Anyway, the players came to learn that a group of elderly local ladies – not suspected by anyone but the PCs, mind you – was using magic to take over the bodies of young girls, prolonging their unnatural lives. And they had done this three times before.

Players being players, stopping the witches somehow involved a running gun battle in the streets.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On April 25, 2016 @ 11:30 am

Missed an archetype there.

The Dentist.

aka “Archetoothis”

#4 Comment By Jo-Herman Haugholt On April 26, 2016 @ 1:17 am

“TV Tropes” ( [1]) is an excellent resource detailing tropes and archetypes, beyond just the Jungian ones. Being aware of tropes and using them effectively is a great way of communicating a character or situation to players.