5 Common Archetypes in The Age of Digital Storytelling

From films and games to books and plays, people can’t get enough of stories. But as a trip to your local cinema will clearly demonstrate, not all of them are created equal. So what is it that makes some cause us to lose all track of time and others glaze over and scroll Twitter?

This phenomenon was first seriously explored by the famous psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Jung noticed that certain stories appear again and again throughout history — across art, dreams, myths, and religions — leading him to draw the conclusion that they must be manifestations of intrinsic elements of the collective unconscious.

From this theory, Jung developed 12 character archetypes around which these stories revolve. No matter if it’s a Disney movie or ancient fireside tale, these characters pop up everywhere and are used to trigger the emotional responses storytellers live for. When and in what form they appear, however, is very much shaped by the social and political environment, the culture, and the personal context. From this, you can see that at any given time certain characters will appear more so in popular culture than others.

And that leads us to our post. We’re going to explore five of Jung’s character archetypes that are showing up in force in the digital age of storytelling. Whether it’s the desire for destruction or the impulse to save the world, they all say something about people today, and are, therefore, invaluable tools for reaching an audience and engaging them in your brand’s story.

#1. The Hero

The hero is by far the most commonly found archetypical character in contemporary storytelling. Just look at the biggest films of the past few decades: Star Wars, The Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, Rocky, Fight Club. They all follow a morally-good protagonist that receives a call to action, overcomes immense obstacles, and returns home with the prize.

For millennia the hero’s journey has played an integral role in society, whether it’s through the story of Jesus being crucified and resurrected from the dead or Buddha giving up his throne and renouncing all worldly desires. Today, no doubt due to the direction and meaning many people feel they lack in life, the idea of going off to fight your demons and save the world is speaking very loudly to young men and women the world over.

The key to crafting a powerful hero’s journey is in conveying a compelling hero’s journey is, as shown by Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, for the character to retain their moral dignity and stay true to themselves despite the trials and tribulations they may face. This integrity is what makes them heroic.

#2. The Mentor

No hero is complete without their mentor. And so a just as common archetype in literature and film is the usually old and always very wise mentor figure.

The mentor helps the hero along their journey in the way that’s not only best for their success in achieving their outcome but in becoming a stronger and more independent person. Gandalf helps Frodo by showing him how he can best help himself. Hagrid reminds Harry of the right thing to do by revealing himself as an imperfect human and providing a voice of reason.

In this way, the mentor takes a rough and ready, no BS approach to giving advice. For this, and the fact they were once in their shoes, the hero knows they can always rely on them — no matter where they are or how drunk they may be.

#3. The Everyperson

The everyperson, also known as the orphan or the common man, is often depicted as the average Joe who, for some reason or other, suddenly finds themselves thrown into the middle of a difficult situation and having to face extraordinary circumstances.

On the surface, it may appear they’re similar to the hero archetype. But there’s a striking difference: the everyperson doesn’t feel the aching moral obligation to overcome some challenge for the common good. Ron Weasley in Harry Potter is mostly concerned with saving his own skin, yet he never fails to help out in Harry’s darkest moments. Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy learns the entire human race is about to be destroyed, but all he cares about is saving his house.

The everyman speaks to anyone who craves for the mysterious, supernatural, and adventurous, but whose principal desires are grounded in safety, acceptance, and the everyday human experience.

#4. The Innocent

Often represented as a woman or child, the innocent archetype is pure in every way and somehow manages to not become jaded by others, despite being surrounded by corruption and evil.

Perhaps in reflection to the seemingly turbulent and dark times we live in, the innocent archetype is ubiquitous in modern storytelling. From Prim in the popular Hunger Games series to animated characters such as the minions, Max the dog from Zootopia, Dory from Finding Dory, and WALL-E, the innocent’s virtues lay in their optimism in the face of danger and enthusiasm in spite of looming defeat.

Another way to look at The Innocent is as the Child archetype. With increasing conformity and regulation over how we live our lives, inevitably more people are looking to get back in touch with their inner child and experience more light-hearted playfulness.

#5. The Villain

On one plane, the villain or the destroyer archetype is the complete opposite of The Innocent. But whereas the Innocent’s goal is to remain in safety, the Destroyers is to gain control and power over everyone and everything around them.

This makes it the antithesis of the Hero, and, in many cases, the only reason the Hero exists. Like in the Batman series, the villain spreads chaos and destruction while the hero slaves toward order and safety. However, like the Joker, people don’t act maliciously for no reason, and that reason almost always comes down to fear.

The villain can also, then, represent an inner fear of death and the urge to lash out recklessly in frustration. Characters like Darth Vader and Jack Torrence from The Shining embody this desire and allow us to see what acting on such feelings would actually look like.

With these five archetypes in your storytelling toolkit, you can make sure your content speaks directly to the needs and wants of the average person today. And by weaving them into your narrative with compelling plotlines and meaningful rewards, you’ll be sure to capture the imagination and hearts of a loyal following.

Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, spirituality, meditation, and everything in between.