Archetypes are fundamental psychological patterns within a person. They are roles a person may play in society, essential ways of interacting with others.
Archetype is a five-dollar word for ‘pattern’, or for the mythic original on which a pattern is based. It’s like this: somewhere back in myth, something — a story, let’s call it — comes into being. It works so well, for one reason or another, that it catches on, hangs around, and keeps popping up in subsequent stories. That component could be anything: a quest, a form of sacrifice, flight, a plunge into water, whatever resonates and catches our imaginations, setting off vibrations deep in our collective consciousness, calling to us, alarming us, inspiring us to dream or nightmare, making us want to hear it again and again. You’d think that these components, these archetypes, would wear out with use the way cliche wears out, but they actually work the other way: they take on power with repetition, finding strength in numbers. … When we hear or see or read one of these instances of archetype, we feel a little frisson of recognition and utter a little satisfied ‘aha!’. And we get that chance with fair frequency, because writers keep employing them.
— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor
Because they are basic to all human beings, archetypes cross cultural boundaries and have universal appeal.
The idea of an archetype comes from Jung’s psychoanalytical writings. Jung wrote about our heads, but the Canadian critic Northrop Frye took these ideas and applied them to books.
Unless you give the archetype detail, it can become a stereotype (or a cliche). A stereotype is a character who behaves in exactly the way he or she is supposed to, according to the prevailing conventions.
Always make the archetype specific and individual to your unique character.
Don’t bother looking for the originals upon which modern archetypes are based — there has probably never been a single, definite version of the archetypes.
Robert McKee says:
Characters are not people. Whereas people constantly change and are difficult to pin down, characters in stories stand for things about human nature that are unchangeable through the ages.
See: Fairytale Archetypes