Archetypes in Middle Grade and Teen Literature

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending two days hanging out with seventh graders. The English department at Cheyenne Mountain Junior High (Go Thunderbirds!) had contacted me and asked if I would be interested in talking about literary archetypes in teen literature with their students as part of their unit on literary elements and characteristics (the Colorado Academic Standards/Common Core State Standards for Reading: Standards 2.1, 2.3, and 3.1, if you want to know).

Are you kidding? A chance to hang out with the age group for whom I write? To talk about reading and writing and favorite books? To chat with future authors during break about the struggles and joys of writing? An opportunity to use my Lord of the Rings lunch box that comes with its own matching Thermos?

Yeah. I couldn’t say yes in fast enough.

First of all: What is an archetype? To paraphrase several Jungian experts: An archetype is a constantly recurring or repeating symbol or motif that represents universal patterns of human nature. It is NOT a stereotype (which takes a general type of person and oversimplifies their qualities into predictable or clichéd types).

The psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung, used the concept of archetype in his theory of the human psyche. He believed that universal, mythic characters—archetypes—reside within the collective unconscious of people.

Male Archetypes:


  • Brave, honorable, self-controlled, with moral and physical courage
  • Takes responsibility for actions, magnanimous to defeated rivals
  • One of the strongest symbols used in the opposition of evil
  • Example: Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers


  • Searcher, wanderer, full of hope, faith, need to improve life, wanderlust, a soaring spirit
  • Must give up comforts of familiarity to find that which he seeks
  • Adolescence is a metaphor for a pilgrimage
  • Example: Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen


  • Lustiness, unpredictability, independence
  • Oneness with nature
  • Can evoke host of negative images
  • Example: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen


  • Caring, giving, deeply empathic, sensitive to pain and joy
  • Primal energy and passion, and appetite for all human hungers such as for food, well-being, reproduction, creativity, and meaning
  • Example: Larry and the Meaning of Life by Janet Tashjian


  • Responsibility, firm correction, moral principles, care, nobility, self-sacrifice
  • But also a sense of fun
  • Most “father-like”
  • Example: London Calling by Edward Bloor


  • Mystical, spiritual
  • Bringer of wholeness to people and societies
  • Cures the physical, emotional, spiritual illnesses of the tribe/society
  • Example: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis


  • Intuition and cleverness
  • Use of right brain
  • Connected to their subconscious
  • Example: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling


  • Greatness, trustworthy, wise
  • Inspires excellence in others
  • Composed in the face of danger
  • Able to make difficult decisions
  • Example: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien


  • Spiritual figure who battles falsehoods
  • Truthbringer, even if a painful truth
  • Full of spiritual virility
  • Example: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli


  • Impish side of the masculine spirit
  • Often satirical, funny, irreverent
  • “Snarky”
  • Example: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

Female Archetypes:

Maiden-Mother-Crone (the essence of the feminine changes through time)

  • Innocence and purity (Maiden)
  • Nurturing maternity (Mother)
  • Wisdom and collected knowledge (Crone or Wise Elder)
  • Example: Searching for Silverheels by Jeannie Mobley

The Innocent

  • The naive, wide-eyed traditionalist
  • Eternally optimistic, faith based, saint-like
  • Yearns to do the right thing
  • The nice girl-next-door
  • Example: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke


  • A “regular girl,” often working class, desires to belong and be loved
  • Typically down to earth with solid morals and empathy
  • Striving to fit in/find her place in the world
  • Example: One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Spunky kid/Jester

  • An optimist at heart, finding levity and laughter in heavy situations
  • Cheerful, loyal and likable
  • Her life’s strategy is to find playfulness in all things
  • Gets into scrapes, but gets herself back out
  • Example: All Four Stars by Tara Dairman


  • Uses feminine knowledge and feminine sexuality/sensuality as a tool to achieve a goal
  • Can be viewed as either a positive or a negative
  • Example: The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu


  • Seekers of truth and knowledge, self-reflective
  • The “quiet reader girl”
  • Often academics, philosophers, or teachers
  • Values the intellectual world over the physical world
  • Example: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


  • Often thought of as the “bad girl” or trouble-maker
  • She is also the one that brings change to a society, for good or for bad
  • Willing to take risks and stand apart from society
  • Thinks outside of the box
  • Example: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai


  • Desiring to save, protect and feed
  • Puts everyone else’s needs before their own
  • Believe in compassion and generosity, while also making themselves the martyr
  • Altruistic, protective and supportive
  • Example: The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Now, please keep in mind that there is no hard and fast rule about the number or types of male and female archetypes. Some archetypes, too, can be both male and female: magician, pilgrim, warrior, and ruler. And, certainly, many characters will be a blend of several types. But, no matter how they are use, these universal motifs can be a powerful tool for writers.

Darby Karchut is an award-winning author, dreamer, and compulsive dawn greeter.  A native of New Mexico, she now lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where she runs in blizzards and bikes in lightning storms. When not dodging death by Colorado, Darby is busy writing for children, teens, and adults. Darby has recently been chosen as one of nine Mentors for the SCBWI-Rocky Mountain Chapter’s 2016/2017 Michelle Begley Mentor Program. She will be working one-on-one with an aspiring MG or YA writer for 6 months starting in January. Darby is represented by Amanda Rutter at Red Sofa Literary.

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Purchase Darby’s newest book in the Finn Finnegan series, Finn’s Choice.