Archetypes of Good and Evil
An archetype is “(in Jungian psychology) a collectively inherited unconscious idea,
pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches” (“Archetype”).
In other words, an archetype is a character, a place, or an event that happens frequently
enough in human society to be the standard of understanding literature or, as the
psychologist Carl Jung believed, human nature.
Examples of archetypes:
These are frequently made use of in film and in literature. I’ve given some examples of
each type from films or novels you may have watched or read.
This one goes along with the devil as an opposing force. Angels are white, have
wings, and usually wear haloes. Angels in films are frequently blonde; they are
also usually handsome or beautiful. A notable exception is Clarence, the angel in
It’s a Wonderful Life, who is endearing but silly –though he does have a heart.
The Brooding Hero
Watch out, ladies. This is the handsome, clean-cut man, usually with a past,
who seems mysterious and sexy because of his mysteriousness. This is still
another sub-archetype of the Knight. The Brooding Hero is present in a lot of
Gothic romances (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights both present brooding heroes:
Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff) and in many non-Gothic romances as well – Rhett
Butler in Gone with the Wind and Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice are
two of this archetype. This archetype usually has a Past, several Flaws, and
sometimes uses violence to get what he wants.
A tough man who usually smokes, rides horses, and doesn’t display emotions
frequently. Often dirty but still handsome (think ruggedly handsome here). The
two most powerful archetypes of the film cowboy are John Wayne and Clint
Eastwood. The cowboy is a modern archetype related to the knight.
Like the professor and the Mad Scientist, detectives are viewed as emotionally
removed, but extremely intelligent and observant. We usually picture Sherlock
Holmes when we think of detectives: a pipe, tweed coat, and a bowler hat.
Devils are scary beings. In classic literature and in paintings, devils are often
black or red, horned beings with fiery eyes. Sometimes the devil is painted with
wings, especially after the publication of Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which Milton
refers to the devil as a fallen angel. In recent films the devil is portrayed as a
handsome man, who can quote the Bible glibly, and is usually dark-haired and
dark-eyed. Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate is a good example of this. (If you
are of tender years or you are like me and can’t stand scary or gory films, don’t
watch this one.)
This archetype happens when the personality of a character splits and the second
personality becomes the opposite of the first. Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde is the most
famous example of the Double.
Oh, yes, there are so many examples in literature and film of this female
archetype. This archetype is based on the Christian Bible, with the story of Eve,
the original temptress. Thanks a lot, girl. Couldn’t you have ignored the snake
and left well enough alone? No, you had to make things difficult for the rest of
us. These ladies are amoral, usually beautiful, and out to get you. Let’s see: the
evil stepmother in Snow White (Fairy tales are chock-full of temptresses), Delilah
from the Bible, Morgan Le Fay in the King Arthur legends, Lucy Steele in Sense
and Sensibility, the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Abigail
Williams in The Crucible, etc. etc. etc. Usually this lady is using her power as a
beautiful/sexual woman to get what she wants, when she even knows what that
is. A lot of the time she’s just using her power to get more power.
Many cultures fear deformity. Many ancient cultures believed that if you were
deformed or disabled, you were cursed by the gods and should be shunned. Our
archetype of the Giant, Monster or Ogre usually includes loneliness (because
they are shunned), uncontrolled rage or strength or violence, and a lot of times
they fall in love with and protect a beautiful woman. Sometimes monsters must
be outwitted by heroes (as in Jack and the Beanstalk or The Princess Bride).
These characters are often very wise (like Gandhi) religious figures or flawed
professors (Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting). They
are usually humble and inspiring. There have been many books and films
produced lately with this particular archetype – Tuesdays with Morrie, and many
good-teacher films like Freedom Writers.
Lassie. Think Lassie. Or Silver, the Lone Ranger’s horse. These are selfless
animals that help human beings for no reason other than that they’re selfless.
Heroes’ archetypal qualities have changed over time to produce many different
sub-archetypes. In the ancient world, a hero was someone like Gilgamesh or
Odysseus (Ulysses), who survived dangerous situations and through whose
mistakes we could learn. In medieval Europe, heroes were knights, who fought
for honor and truth and protected women at all costs. In today’s world, heroes
are wealthy, powerful, or noble, and greatly depend on qualities that individual
people admire. Usually modern-day heroes defy the odds or instigate positive
change; and while in ancient times heroes were usually men, now they can be
men or women. Modern-day heroes might include Martin Luther King, Jr.;
Tiger Woods; Mother Teresa; Princess Diana; Indiana Jones, Aragorn from The
Lord of the Rings; Oskar Schindler, who saved a thousand people from the Nazi
gas chambers, or Paul Rusesabagina, who saved more than a thousand people
from the genocide in Rwanda in the early 1990s.
This archetype refers to anyone who cannot protect him or herself. Usually the
Innocent are children (Red Riding Hood), women, or elderly people. The
Innocent are also naïve and easily fooled, so they usually need someone to come
rescue them. They do not recognize evil when it is in front of them. Melanie
Wilkes in Gone With the Wind is an example of the Innocent. She has no idea
what Scarlett O’Hara really thinks of her, and probably wouldn’t believe it even
if Scarlett told her.
This is a more modern archetype. Kevin Kline in French Kiss is a great example
– a person who is debonair, cheeky, and breaks the law to get what he wants, but
who also has some goodness in him somewhere which will catch up with him
sooner or later.
This medieval archetype of the armored man riding on the white horse has been
recycled into many other archetypal characters. In modern literature, the knight
is present in the Brooding Love Interest – think Rochester in Jane Eyre and
Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. He comes along and rescues Our Heroine from the
dire situation in which she finds herself. Interesting story twists happen when
the knight himself is rescued by the lady. Lancelot in the King Arthur legends is
the quintessential knight.
Victor Frankenstein is the quintessential Mad Scientist – someone conducting
experiments without morals. As Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park says
(paraphrased), the Mad Scientist is frequently so preoccupied with whether or
not he can do something that he doesn’t stop to figure out if he should.
American author Nathaniel Hawthorne liked to write about these guys – he
thought they were evil because they had lost the balance between the mind and
heart and had become all mind. Two of his short stories depict the downfall of
mad scientists – “The Birth-mark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”
These archetypes are based on very ancient ideas about the Earth and its ability
to sustain human beings. Because mothers do the same thing for their children,
they were likened to Mother Earth and revered for those qualities of sustaining.
In literature, mother figures are frequently chubby and good-natured, except
when everything goes wrong and, as in the case of the stepmother, the natural
relationship between mother and child is interrupted.
Fairy godmother – Recognizes the good in the heroine and rewards it.
Reverses seemingly permanent states of evil and unhappiness with gifts and
support. The most obvious one is the fairy godmother in Cinderella.
Earth Mother – More frequent in mythology than in literature, though Diane
Lane’s character in Under the Tuscan Sun takes on a lot of qualities of the Earth
Mother. She feeds her guests, supports everyone in their lives before she
supports herself, and lives connected to the land.
Stepmother – Usually a reversal of the mother figure – the opposite of true
mother, stepmothers in many fairy tales are attempting to undermine their
stepchildren to ensure the biological and financial success of their own children.
Again, Cinderella is the perfect example of this.
The Nurse – If you’ve read David Copperfield, Peggotty is the perfect example of
the nurse. This is usually someone who takes the place of the mother figure, for
whatever reason (in David’s case it’s because his mother dies).
This particular archetype has two sub-archetypes: one is the very intelligent,
emotionally cold, uncaring professor who dislikes displays of emotion and
prefers to discuss logic only. Examples: Dennis Quaid in Smart People, Mr.
Spock from Star Trek. The other sub-archetype is the Nutty/Absentminded
Professor, who is so caught up in his experiment that he doesn’t realize there
will be consequences – and who is removed from the world and common sense,
but who escapes being a cold fish because of his sense of playfulness and
willingness to experiment with absolutely anything.
Sigmund Freud is the most obvious archetype here. The highly intellectual,
analytical man in tweed with a pipe who asks embarrassing questions and makes
assumptions about character based on theories. The character of Frasier Crane
pokes fun at this archetype, because although Frasier embodies most of these
qualities, they work against him and he is unsuccessful in his quest for
This is a very modern archetype, only dating from about the 1950s. The robot
has immense logical abilities but limited emotional intelligence (“Archetype”).
Data from Star Trek is a good example of this – at least he is until he gets his
This is someone who dies for the benefit of humanity or to save others. In films,
the sacrificial Redeemer is usually the center of a heart-rending (or vomitous)
scene in which he/she gives up her/his life for someone else. A vomitous
example of this would be the death scene in Titanic, where Jack Ryan is giving
up his life so that Rose can live. (A much, much better scene of this type with
Leonardo DiCaprio in it, BTW, is the death scene in Blood Diamond, which I
would highly recommend to anyone and everyone.) Another example is in The
Last of the Mohicans (film version with Daniel Day-Lewis), where Uncas dies to
save Alice – but is unsuccessful because she kills herself after his death.
No, by this I do not mean Tom Cruise. I mean the real samurai, who were
charged with the protection of Japan for centuries. But, like the knight
archetype, they are trained in war, show little emotion, and must protect the
weak, elderly, and women.
The Jewish people are the most famous example of scapegoats in Western
history. Not just because of the Holocaust, either – they have been persecuted
long before WWII. The scapegoat is an archetype referring to the stereotypes
we frequently make about other groups of people – those groups are usually
blamed for our problems and made to pay in various ways. During the Civil
Rights movement in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X
were both scapegoats of those who favored segregation. In the Balkan wars of
the early 1990s, the different sides of that war blamed the other sides for the
violence and genocide occurring in the former Yugoslavia. In Rwanda in 1994,
there were groups who blamed the Tutsi tribe for the problems of the country
and for the Rwandan president’s assassination – and this, like the Holocaust,
resulted in mass genocide.
Bond James Bond. Need I say more? Very handsome, educated, takes enormous
personal risks, has a Way With Women, etc. Rolls his car in the ditch without
scratching his face or messing up his hair. Another example of an archetype
related to the Knight.
Serpent – this one goes back far into time, beyond the story from Genesis about
the serpent and the tree. With the notable exception of the Celts, most cultures
have some archetype about snakes that is negative. Even the Celt-descended
British feared something called a “fire serpent” or dragon. In recent years, there
has been some research about Snake as representing the old pagan mythology
about the Earth Mother, and the patriarchal cultures giving Snake a bad name
because of those beliefs. Sir Hiss in Disney’s Robin Hood is a comical portrayal of
this archetype – he works for the evil Prince John.
For this one, the archetype is usually that of an older person speaking or reading
to younger people. Authors of literature like to play around with this archetype
by making the storyteller untrustworthy in some way (Edgar Allan Poe was
fond of making the storyteller crazy, and only letting us know about it halfway
through the story). In films, the storyteller often acts as a narrator – the
grandfather in The Princess Bride, for example, is a storyteller. Another common
way to portray storytellers is to have the adult version of a character tell the
story about when they were younger – Jim Carrey’s character in Simon Birch is a
good example of that.
American Indian mythology is replete with trickster types, but other mythology
has the trickster too. Sometimes this character, who is usually very cunning and
takes advantage of the Innocent, is a temptress; but sometimes it’s an animal
figure that’s threatening, like the serpent in Genesis or the Big Bad Wolf in the
Three Little Pigs. The trickster is, unlike the temptress, usually only tricking
people for his own amusement. Sometimes the trickster gets played on himself,
and he ends up feeling foolish, but this doesn’t stop him continuing to play
around with people’s lives. (Coyote in American Indian myth is one of these.)
Related to the temptress/enchantress, witches have been reviled for centuries.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, witch hunts were held in Europe and in the
Americas to find and kill suspected witches. Often a woman simply had to be a
widow, and if a widow knew anything about herb lore, that was one of the signs
she was a witch. There was a treatise published by the Catholic Church called
the Malleus Malificarum, or The Witches’ Hammer, which was essentially an
instruction booklet on how to identify, torture, and kill witches. An archetypal
witch is a crone, a hag, a really ugly woman who has magic powers and who uses
them for her own purposes, usually evil ones. Some theories about why witches
are considered so evil go back to the church’s efforts to stamp out paganism, that
all women were considered evil because they were descended from Eve, and that
the world was divided into people who were good and people who were evil
Some prototypical witches are the Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, the
witches in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, and the White Witch in The Lion, the
Witch, and the Wardrobe. Some atypical portrayals of witches include Glinda the
Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, the Owens sisters in the film Practical Magic,
and Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon.