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.

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.

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.


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