Carl Jung believed in a concept he called the “collective unconscious.” According to that precept all humans share unconscious memories about everything that’s happened since the beginning of time. These memories are thought to be of universal and commonly understood human behavior.

Jung believed that we’re all born with these unconscious memories floating around in our heads. So when babies first see their mothers, they already understand what their relationship will be. The “mother” archetype –according to Jung — is immediately understood by the baby as her protector and her nurturer.

Almost every common human experience was considered archetypal by Jung. For example in his estimation, the “Father-Son” relationship, the “Mentor-Pupil” relationship, and the “Star-Crossed Lovers” relationship were all automatically understood by everyone, at all times, in the “collective unconscious.”

Jung even thought a lot of places, things, and colors could be archetypal. For example the castle represented a place of great safety which protected a treasure –an actual treasure — or in the form of an enchanted princess. Water represented birth, or spiritual birth. The color blue represented tranquility, or even spiritual purity.

When it came to storytelling, Jung also saw commonalities of story –for example “the journey,” “rebirth,” and “overcoming the monster.” These and many more archetypal stories were thought to automatically resonate with everyone.

Similarly, Jung felt there were also archetypal characters we’ve seen throughout history (and story-telling history) that resonate across all cultures and time frames. After a great deal of study he narrowed these individual characters or personalities to twelve key archetypes.

Since these characters are all thought to reside in the “collective unconscious,” characters like “The Trickster,” –for example, Grouch Marx in Duck Soup, Hawkeye Pierce in MASH, and Jack Sparrow, in Pirates of the Caribbean, will immediately connect with the viewer.

It turns out that categorizing the character “archetypes” is not an exact science. Take what he calls “The Everyman” character archetype.  “The Everyman” is like the guy next door — so it includes both Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life – and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.

Characters can also exhibit traits from more than one archetype, as well.  Looking at Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, for example –she could easily fit into the archetype of “The Innocent” – in her joyful presence, her sincerity, and her optimism. However, in the context of the film she is also “The Explorer” –exemplified by her ambition, curiosity, and her drive toward discovery.

So when you think in terms of using archetypal characters in screenplays, keep in mind you can mix and overlap. If you already have a character in mind, it might help to compare it with one or two of the twelve archetypes Jung came up with. Don’t feel locked into one archetype if your character works better as a composite.

When Jung wrote about these universal personalities, he also included their weaknesses and ways they can fail. You’ve got to have flaws in your film characters so they have room to grow – and he suggests flaws and weaknesses, which can be useful in writing three dimensional characters.

“The Rebel” archetype, for example can over-do it, and go over to the dark side. Characters like Bonnie and Clyde, for example seemed to walk the line between being “Robin Hood” like populist heroes and out-and-out crooks. Eventually they crossed too far over the line.

Jung broke the twelve key archetypal characters into three groups.  He called them the Ego-Driven, Self-Driven and Soul-Driven archetypes.  It’s not important to understand his thinking on the three classifications; it’s actually pretty confusing even if you’ve studied Jung.

He used the term Ego-Driven to imply these characters were pretty down to earth and seemed to always striving to put on their best face.  These archetypes were grouped the ego-driven category; “The Innocent,” (Forrest Gump), “The Everyman,” (Frodo) “The Hero” (Luke Skywalker) and “The Caretaker,” (Oskar Schindler).

Jung felt the Self-Driven characters had more highly evolved personalities.  Again, don’t get hung up on Jung’s logic here –just think of these characters as being somewhat larger-than-life.

The following archetypes were grouped into the Self-Driven category; “The Trickster, (Groucho Marx),”“The Sage,” (Dumbledore) “The Magician,” (Merlin) and “The Ruler,” (The Godfather).

Jung felt the Soul-Driven archetypes had a highly evolved balance of emotionality, spiritually and psychology.   They tended to want more out of life –sometimes, even in an existential sense.

Jung grouped these archetypes together in the Soul-Driven archetypes; The Soul-Driven types included “The Explorer,” (Indiana Jones) “The Rebel,” (Clyde Barrow) “The Lover,” (Juliet) and ‘The Creator, (Jim Morrison)”

Again, don’t get hung up on his terminology.  What’s important is to look through the examples I’ll be discussing in the upcoming chapters. I’ll give examples of how certain archetypes worked well in certain screenplays.   I hope you’ll find it useful.


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Image credit: Creative Commons Frodo 2015 by Decio Desnodex is licensed under CC By 2.0