Monday, June 17, 2013

Fairy Tale Character Archetypes

According to Steven Swann Jones "Fairy tales use the poetic and exaggerated symbolism of fantasy to represent the deep-seated feelings of ordinary individuals facing the typical challenges of life… the fantastic creations in fairy tales may be seen as metaphoric dramatizations of the thoughts and feelings audience members may harbor about their daily lives and the problems they face" 

Although there are exceptions, fairy tales tend to be about ordinary people, or at least people who have to deal with the world in a way that is a part of most people’s everyday experience. Thus, even a princess like Snow White ends up cleaning and doing housework in order to survive in a fairytale. Indeed, fairytales frequently show people succeed through hard work and skill at mundane jobs, such as in “The Four Skillful Brothers” where the protagonists defeat a dragon and rescue a princess with skills such as tailoring. The primary exception to this rule being when the characters use kindness to get someone to help them, cunning tricks to fool dangerous monsters, or simply have someone show up and help them out of nowhere. 

This is as opposed to myths and sagas or epics which typically involve the concerns of upper class and warriors or are about metaphysical questions. The heroes in myths are the sons of deities, or impossibly powerful heroes that are able to strangle giants in their bare hands. Mythological heroes deal with problems by defeating monsters. On the other hand, in fairytales it is commonplace for a protagonist to enter the magical world, to encounter fairies and the like and to be asked to clean a house, to watch cattle, or weave thread. In the fairy tale “Mother Holda”, for example, the protagonist jumps down a well, finds herself in a magical realm, where some bread asks her to take it out of the oven, and apples asks her to pick them, and the goddess Holda asks her to do housework. 

In fairytales the tasks necessary to survive the other world are the same as those which are important for peasants in their daily lives, as are the fears. Stories like “Beauty and the Beast” reflected the concerns of young women and girls who knew that they would likely marry someone their fathers arranged for them, possibly for their father’s own goals. Similarly, fairy tales like “The Fiend” about a girl who falls in love with a vampire that tries to murder her, reflect the fears of dating strangers who may not be what they seem. In either case, the fears were relatable to the people of the time. 

Yes, the protagonists of fairytales will tend to go on adventures, but a character is as likely to learn to sew or use mundane trickery, or simply get help to defeat a dragon, as they are to learn to use a sword. 

These protagonists are often helpless, until they can find a magical friend to aid them in their quest, as Zipes puts it; 

"the focus of fairy tales, whether oral, written, or cinematic, has always been on finding magical instruments, extraordinary technology, or powerful people and animals that will enable protagonists to transform themselves along with their environment."      (The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre By Jack Zipes)

Further, the goal of the protagonists in fairytales is almost never something big or epic. Rather it is something very personal such as finding their fortune, finding someone to marry, survival, or even just getting something to eat. Maria Tatar states that;

Food – its presence and its absence – shapes the social world of fairy tales in profound ways. It is not at all uncommon for a peasant hero, faced with three wishes, to ask first for a plate of meat and potatoes, or to be so distracted by hunger that he yearns out loud for a sausage while contemplating the limitless possibilities before him. “What shall I command?” asks the hero of a Greek tale when told he can have anything he wants. Without a moment’s hesitation, he responds by asking for “Food to eat!” 

When a character in fairytales achieves greatness, becoming a king or rescuing a kingdom, it is usually as a side effect of their primary goal of “living happily ever after” or simply staying alive a little longer.

The mundaneness of the characters, their ordinary goals, and the fact that fairy tales are short and don’t have much time to introduce the protagonists means that the characters within them tend to be so one dimensional and common that the audiences can understand and sympathize with them instantly. These characters include; a younger sibling teased by their elders, a hardworking and abused person, a poor person about to loose everything, etc. 

There are obviously more types of characters than can be done here, what’s more anyone character can include a number of archetypical traits. That said some of the most common character traits in fairytales include;


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 it’s because they worked for it, or because they were polite to a 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 stepmother 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.

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 bear in mind, however, that at one time trickery and deceit were considered acceptable in certain circumstances. Further rogues, 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 one of these poor tailors, who uses trickery and cleverness to defeat giants and unicorns so that he can marry the king’s daughter.

The hero of “Boots of Buffalo Leather” is the story of a former soldier, during a time when soldiers were often abandoned in foreign lands by their former employers, who is wandering the woods alone and 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 are 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.

Less common are the fools or naïve characters who fail because of their naivete, such as “Little Red Riding Hood” from the most famous of her stories who is eaten by a wolf.

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.

Read More about Fairy Tale Villains

Every fairy, vampire, or ghost that ever inspired us to feel dread when we were alone comes from fairy tales. 

Fairy tales and the stories inspired by them have given us many of our most memorable villains – from the iconic Disney villains to the terrifying monsters of grisly horrors, or the dark Lords such as ‘He Who Shall Not Be Named’ a title that is also very much in line with the fear of saying the name of certain evils and dangers of the world from fairy lore. 

Fairy tales were the stories of peasants, who could do little to fight the evil in their lives. Little to stave off sickness or prevent a famine, nor did they have any control over the whims of the kings and nobles who ruled their lives. This is perhaps why, while heroes in myths could defeat their enemies with swords, the heroes in fairy tales could do little to fight their villains, but had to resort to clever tricks, luck, hard work kindness, and the help of magical beings. 

It is the powerlessness that the protagonists of fairy tales suffer in the face of giants, dragons, wicked stepmothers, and even the devil that make these figures so terrifying. Yet as memorable and horrifying as fairy tale villains and the characters based on them are, they are all very one dimensional. 

The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood may want to eat the protagonist of that story, but more than this he wants to corrupt her, to destroy her emotionally. In many of the tales he doesn’t just devour her on the spot, in the forest. No, after eating Little Red’s grandmother he uses a disguise to trick her into eating her grandmother’s flesh and drinking her grandmother’s blood as well. 

The fear, bile, and anger that the fairy tale villain evokes is that of a child’s terror. Spitz states that “Fairy tale carries us back to this primordial kind of attention, the attention we gave the world when everything was “for the first time.” This is largely through their dreamlike, or sometimes nightmarelike quality and the villains are no exception. For Fairy tales are at their best when the villains in them make us as angry at bullies as we were as a child or as terrified of the dark as when we hid under our blankets or crawled with tear filled eyes into our parents’ beds. This is done with one dimensional villains, for children tend to see the world in one dimensional terms. 

Because of their one dimensionality it is possible to break down a majority – although not all – of the fairy tale villains into a number of archetypes.

Types of Fairy Tale Villains

The False Donor
Perhaps the most fun of all the villains "The false donor" is a trickster figure, for example the sly fox in "The Gingerbread Man" who tricks the Gingerbread Man into riding on his head so that he can eat him, or Rumpelstiltskin who helps a poor girl in order to take her baby from her. Many vampires and similar figures fall into this category. In “The Fiend” for example, a vampire pretends to be a kind young man to get a lady to fall in love with her, only to begin feeding on her family, and threatening to kill her. At some point in the story the false donor will use the people's desires against them, tricking them into making a deal so that the false donor can obtain some nefarious objective.

Most Disney Villains are False Donor's
at some point  in the story.
We tend to love clever villains, in stories at least, and their moments of guile in part because these allow for some very interesting character actions. This is perhaps why many Disney villains are false donors, and they tend to have the best songs. One advantage to such clever villains is that the audience doesn't need to see the villain's complex emotions to appreciate or enjoy them. The desire for power, beauty, or revenge is often the only real motivation a villain needs for us as the readers of a story to appreciate them. Indeed Rumpelstiltskin, one of the most famous villains doesn't have an easily discernible motivation, yet many people love him.

One false donor type I feel hasn't been played to their full potential are those which trick parents into giving away their children. Certainly, Rumpelstiltskin has been played up, but there are a number of devils or other beings which convince traveling fathers to give up their child through trickery. This child must than go on an adventure to escape the bargain their parent made with the devil. The story in this case than is about the child going on an adventure to avoid some terrible fate.

False Hero
Someone who takes credit for the heroes work and so temporarily prevents the hero from getting their just reward. 
The unicorn in "The Valiant Little Tailor"
was defeated because he was so
enraged he ran into a tree.
Rampaging Villain
Wild and completely over the top, rampaging villains can be terrifying, funny, and or the bases for a good adventure story. Think for example of Cruella de Vil who rampages about like a maniac in her car, slaps her dull-witted henchmen, and generally acts in a way that's so wicked it's funny. This is not to say that all rampaging villains are funny, there is nothing funny about werewolves that shred the people of a village. Rampaging villains can be the most horrifying of all the villain archetypes because of their ability to cause wanton destruction, to kill with impunity.

Vampires were commonly this type of villain. They would slaughter villages and those they once loved with no discernable goal. 

In fairy tales rampaging villains ultimately defeat themselves by focusing so intensely on their destructive goals that they end up destroying themselves. For example, the unicorn in "The Valiant Little Tailor" was defeated because he was so enraged he ran into a tree.

In “The Two Corpses” there are two vampire like monsters which chase down a soldier and then fight over who gets to eat him as their rampaging turns them against each other until the sun comes up.

Going back to Cruella de Vil we see that she ultimately crashes her car while driving in her furious rage and so is defeated.

The Deceived Villain
An often larger than life villain who the hero is able to overcome through trickery by playing off of their pride, greed and or evil. These are Kings, lords, powerful wizards that can’t be defeated but which make a stupid, often comical, mistake. In the fairy tale"Puss and Boots" Puss is able to trick an ogre who is the king of a realm by pretending to believe that the ogre can't change into a mouse. The ogre, offended that Puss thinks so little of him changes into a mouse to prove his power and being a cat Puss eats him the moment he does.

Giants often fall into this category, for their only purpose in many stories is to be tricked by a protagonist. The Tsar of Russia was a deceived villain in an interesting Komi tale in which a man tricks the tsar into thinking a member of his family murdered his grandmother, so that the tsar will have to pay recompense. As this last story shows, deceived villains often existed as a way to allow the audience of fairy tales to laugh and poke fun of the things they feared and the people in power. 

The Devil
Devils, like false donors, offer people something they want in return for something nefarious. The difference is that devils are up front about their desires. They let the character know from the beginning what they want in return for their help. This means that stories with devils are from the beginning about characters trying to figure out how to get out of the bargain they just made. Such stories include “The Dragon and the Three Soldiers” about three soldiers who make a bargain with the devil or dragon that offers to help them become rich and escape the military in return for their souls.

Rude and Lazy Villain
Bullies more than purely evil villains, the purpose of the Rude and Lazy Villain is to act as a contrast to the protagonist's qualities, to show how good the protagonist is. In stories like “Cinderella” the wicked step sisters are ugly and likely lazy bullies, whereas Cinderella is; beautiful and hard working. 

Typically, in fairy tales Rude and Lazy Villains are defeated by a magical being they are rude to. After all in magical worlds where curses are real, being rude, lazy or attempting to bully others eventually leads to being cursed. For Example in “The Girl in the Well”  the Rude and Lazy Sister of the Heroine refuses to work for the people of the magical world and so rather than being rewarded with wealth she is cursed with thousands of defecating insects.

In one story Baba Yaga is the protagonists aunt
who forces her to clean, or do other impossible
household choirs.
Evil Stepmother and The Domestic Witch
Because fairy tales are about heroes who must often find success through mundane tasks, many villains are those who give them impossible or overwhelming amounts of work. In many stories the protagonist is sent off to a witch named Baba Yaga, who gives them choirs to do, threatening to eat them if they fail. 

Many of these villains, such as the wicked Stepmother are like false donors in that they promise to be one thing – such as a good and kind wife or husband – but turn out to be something else entirely. 

They often do, however, give the protagonist a gift by accident. Hard work in the fairy tale world, after all, is one of the greatest sources of success, so by forcing the protagonist to labor night and day the Evil Stepmother or Domestic Witch sets them up to get magical gifts and or help. In the story of "The Three Little Men in the Woods" for example the heroine is made nicer by her stepmothers cruel treatment and so shares her food with three magical fairy beings who in return give her the gifts of wealth, beauty and the perfect marriage.

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.

Many, if not most fairy tale characters succeed because someone helped them. This someone is often a magical being, an animal spirit, a fairy, a god, wizard, or witch. The people telling fairy tales knew that they often wouldn’t be able to succeed without some form of miracle, without outside assistance. Fairy tales are stories about this assistance, which does often come from fairies or their kin. Indeed, many of the secondary characters in fairy tales are fairies or helping spirits, even when it isn’t obvious. In the Irish fairy tale “The Corpse Watcher” that helps the protagonist with magical challenges is only called an old lady, but she is likely a fairy. 

Fairies often represented a sense of hope, a way to escape one’s dreary life or to survive the harsh world in which people once lived. According to Perkiss “Fairies are the fantasies of the dispose. They do not come from wealth and privilege. They come from the depths of misery. People whose lives are a perpetual struggle to survive are suddenly faced with one burden too many… A fairy story is about reaching rock bottom.” 
Into this picture came a hope that magical creatures or wealthy people might come and provide aid which is exactly what happens in many fairy tales. 
There are a number of helper archetypes in fairytales, which include;

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. These characters are often fairy like, or familiar spirits, just as Puss in Boots resembles the idea of house fairies or familiar spirits that were frequently passed down parent to child.

A magical character who gives the hero advice and or a magical object. Often this occurs when the protagonist shows them kindness. Odin was a famous donor, as was Merlin, as both of them would give advice to heroes, often while disguised as old men.

The Grateful Helper
Someone who the Hero helps. In return the grateful helper will come and help the hero when they need it most. This is often an animal whom the hero either helps or whose life they spare. This can also include a number of different fairies, as they frequently needed human help.

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

The Caring

These are most often fairies who will, out of the blue, appear to help the protagonist. This includes the elves from “The Elf and Shoemaker” who show up to help a poor cobbler or the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, who was likely a friend of Cinderella’s mother [thus the godmother title] but who wasn’t previously established. 

The Cruel Donor 

Sometimes the character gets what they need to succeed from a villainous and dangerous character who may have originally tried to kill them. Hansel and Gretel, for example, became rich enough to live happily ever after thanks to the treasure stolen from a witch that tried to eat them.

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.


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.


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