Monday, June 17, 2013

Fairy Tale Character Archetypes

Article by Ty Hulse

A typical feature which runs through nearly every fairy tale is that the characters are one-dimensional archetypes. In other words their personalities are not well filled out. Most fairy tales seem to rely on the audience to fill in mood, personality, emotions, etc. just as they expect them to fill in visual details on how the characters look (and we seem to do a pretty good job with this). Fairy Tale Characters, as with fairy tales themselves are most often built on a number of fixed formulas which occur over and over again. Some of the more common fairy tale Archetypes include:

(Keep in mind that any given character can have more than one archetype – For example the hero of “The Giant who Had No Heart In His Body” is a trickster hero who uses hard work as part of his deception.) 


Hard Working and Polite Hero
Many fairy tale heroes don't gain success through brilliance, strength, luck or fate; rather they gain success through hard work. Even when these heroes are given money by fairies or other magical creatures its because they worked for it, or because they were polite to the magical creature.

For example in “The Girl in the Well” a girl finds herself in the “Other World” which exists at the bottom of the well She is able to earn great wealth in this strange land by helping it's people with their jobs.

In “Grandfather Frost” the heroine is left in the cold by her wicked step mother to freeze to death. However, when Grandfather Frost comes she is able to survive and even get a great reward by being polite to him.

Most often politeness and hard work are the keys to success when dealing with the fairy realm and magical creatures.

Tricky Rouge Hero

There are many protagonists in fairy tales who have a questionable morality, who steal to get what they want. Sometimes they steal for the greater good, but often they simply steal to get wealth for themselves. One should bare in mind, however, that at one time trickery and deceit were considered acceptable in certain circumstances. Further rouges, bandits and thieves were often honored as folk heroes, even as they were arrested and hanged.

In “Thumbling as Journeyman” the Thumbling helps some bandits rob a royal treasury. There is no indication that the King in this story is wicked, or that he in any way deserves to be robbed.

In “The Raven, The Sun, The Moon and the Stars” Raven uses his magic to steal the sun, moon and stars from the sky deity who owns them. In this case, however, Raven is a Robin Hood like figure as he only steals the sun to bring light and warmth to humanity.

In “Jack and the Beanstalk” Jack climbs to a castle in the sky where he robs and ultimately murders a giant whose wife has been kind to him.

Outcast Trickster Hero
These are heroes who have fallen through the social cracks, or who have been kicked out of society all together. Tailors are common members of this archetype in German Fairy Tales as the industrial revolution left tailors with very little work because machines began to replace their jobs. Poor Soldiers or Veterans are another common member of this archetype as far too often Veterans are left poor and with no peace time skills when the war is over. In the modern day college graduates who can't find a job and veterans could fulfill many of these rolls.

The Valiant Little Tailor” tells the tale of a Tailor who sets out and through trickery and cleverness is able to defeat a giant and a unicorn in order to marry the kings daughter.

The hero of “Boots of Buffalo Leather” is the story of a soldier who has learned magical powers.

The Trusting Fool or Outcast Hero
Trust, kindness, and the ability to make friends are the means to success for some heroes. Typically these heroes as portrayed as foolish, as somebody who shouldn't be able to succeed such as the youngest brother, but who is able to become rich because they trusted the advice of a wise person, fairy, or other entity. In the modern day this archetype has gained popularity in Japanese Anime.

In "The Fool and the Birch Tree" the protagonist trusts a birch tree to pay him for a cow he's selling.

In "Puss and Boots" the impoverished farmers son spends what little money he has getting Puss a pair of boots.

The Selfish Hero
Although a rare character in fairy tales, The Selfish Hero occurs in one of the more popular fairy tales of “The Frog Prince” in which the Princess refuses to keep her promise to the frog and ultimately sets him free by trying to kill him. We also see a selfish hero character in "The Mari and the Lime Tree" in which a man threatens to kill a tree spirit if it doesn't make him rich.

Born Under a Lucky Star
Some heroes such as Cinderella have fairies, spirits, princesses or some other being looking out for them and so are able to achieve success simply because of this.

The one who tells the hero that there is a problem or sends them out on their journey. For example their parents who can no longer take care of them...

Wicked Dispatcher
A cruel person who sets the protagonist on their journey such as the parents in "Hansel and Gretel" who abandon their children in the woods to die.

Foolish Dispatcher
Someone who creates the problem that sets the protagonist on their journey by being foolish, such as the many characters who agreed to give their children to beasts or devils by mistake.

The Mother in “The Old Dame and Her Hen” for example looses her hen and so sends her daughters out to find it.

Dispatcher In Need
Someone who send the protagonist on their journey because they need help. Often times this dispatcher will give the hero some reward for helping them, though not always.


The Helpful Trickster
A trickster figure who aids another person in finding success through trickery such as the Cat from “Puss in Boots” who helped a young man become wealthy by tricking a king and an ogre.

A magical character who gives more than just advice but also provides the hero with a magical object.

The Grateful Helper
Someone who the Hero helps. In return the grateful helper will come and help the hero when s/he needs it most.

In “The Giant With No Heart In His Body” the protagonist helps a raven which later comes to his aid.

Magical or Wise Helper
A wise person or magical being who provides the protagonist with advice or magical help when needed, but who isn't sought out specifically by the protagonist.

In “The Childe Rowland” Merlin tells the hero what he must do to save his love from the Elf King.

This is a wise person who the hero seeks out, rather than one who simply appears when the need them.

Read More about Fairy Tale Villains

False Donor
A character who starts out pretending to help the protagonist but which has their own ulterior  motive.

In "Rumpelstiltskin" Rumpelstiltskin offers to  save the protagonist but he only does so so that he can get her child later.

In "Cinderella" The Wicked Stepmother fools the protagonists father into loving her and trusting her with the care of Cinderella whom she mistreats.

False Hero
Someone who takes credit for the heroes work and so temporarily prevents the hero from getting their just reward. 

The Devil
A figure which entices the person with something they want, such as The Devil in “Bearskin” who promises a soldier wealth in return for his soul.

Rampaging Villain
A villain who is incredibly destructive, who rampages about but does little more.

In “The Valiant Little Tailor” a Unicorn is rampaging about wreaking havoc across the countryside.

In “The Two Corpses” there are two vampire like monsters which seek to eat the soldier, but which do very little beyond attack, fight and yell at each other.

The Deceived Villain
An often larger than life villain who the hero is able to overcome through trickery by playing off of their pride or their evil.

In "Puss and Boots" for example Puss is able to trick the ogre by pretending to believe that it can't change into a mouse.

In “The Yokai” the protagonist is able to trick the monster into telling him what he is afraid of.

Rude and Lazy Villain

Rude and Lazy villains aren't usually completely evil, they're just bullies who refuse to work for what they get. However, in magical worlds where curses are real, being rude, lazy or attempting to bully others eventually causes them to suffer greatly.

For Example in “The Girl in the Well”  the Rude and Lazy Sister of the Heroine refuses to work repeatedly and so rather than being rewarded with wealth she is cursed with thousands of dedicating insects.

In “Grandfather Frost” the Rude and Lazy Sister of the Heroine is rude to Grandfather Frost when he comes and he causes her to freeze to death.

Evil Stepmother
In many ways the Evil Stepmother is like a false donor in that they promise something but turn out to be something else entirely. However, they are so common I thought they should get their own mention.

The Domestic Witch
A witch or other fairy figure who forces someone to work, but who in doing so teaches them how to be a better person.

In “Baba Yaga” the witch forces the protagonist to perform many household choirs for her in hopes that she will fail so “Baba Yaga” can kill her.


Princess or Prize and her Father
The one who the hero seeks to marry and their parent.
The parent in this case can have put their child up for marriage but may try to prevent the hero from marrying their child in a way that can border on the evil (such as when they try to kill the protagonist to prevent the marriage).

These are the characters who the hero is striving for, the princess or prince they can wed and the character who sets the conditions by which such a wedding might happen.

In “Molly Whoopie” there are a group of princes who the protagonist wants her and her sisters to marry. In order to achieve this she must bring gifts to the princes father.

The Gossiping Animals
This is a knowledgeable character whom the protagonist overhears gossiping about what they need to do to become rich.

In “True and Untrue” the protagonist is hiding when he overhears some animals gossiping about various kings and lords and from the knowledge he gains he's able to get rich.

The Grateful Character
Someone who Gives the protagonist a reward for helping them out.

Antagonists and Failures

Often older brothers or sisters, these are characters who tease the protagonist and are certain they'll fail.

The Failures
These are characters who try to complete a quest before the protagonist can but who fail

The Greedy
These are greedy characters who try to replicate the protagonists success, but who fail because of their greed and so are punished.