Character Archetypes and the Orphan Hero

I’m going to start this blog post by describing a popular work of fiction that most of you are probably familiar with. There will be a short quiz at the end, so pay close attention.

The story begins with the Hero as someone who lives in ignorance of the bigger troubles that exist. He doesn’t have a complete family, and what he thinks he knows about his family isn’t quite true. He thinks he’s just an ordinary person, until trouble begins and he finds out he is destined for greatness.

An elderly wise figure leads him from his home on an adventure to stop a great evil. This figure possesses some strange magical powers that the Hero doesn’t understand. Yet the Hero learns that he, too, has something special about him, and as a result he is the only one who can complete his task.

The Hero receives a special weapon, which later in the story he will lose for a time only to later replace/reclaim it. This weapon is significant enough to be considered a way of identifying the hero in some way.

The elderly figure with the special powers is eventually lost in battle with a horrible villain. The figure returns later and still continues to guide the Hero in some way.

The Hero is, at one point, injured in a massive way that leaves him permanently changed or scarred. He is joined in his journey by a good friend who saves his life at one point, and without whose help the Hero would have failed in his quest.

The Hero eventually learns he has a stunning and unexpected connection to the main villain. He eventually defeats the villain, but only through some spectacular means that are more dramatic than just a battle to the death.

Which character/series did I just describe?
A. Harry Potter (Harry Potter series)
B. Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
C. Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars prequels)
D. Rand al’Thor (Wheel of Time)
E. Richard Rahl (Sword of Truth)
F. Frodo Baggins (Lord of the Rings)

Don’t think too hard. This synopsis can more or less describe all of these stories, and hundreds more. It’s a story concept that has roots all the way back to Greek mythology.

Some, but not quite all of those elements can also be found in The Matrix, several Final Fantasy games, The Order of the Stick, and many more. If you try hard enough, you could probably find hundreds of stories that have at least 75% of those elements.

Why are these tropes so common? Well, you can go spend a few weeks on tvtropes.org trying to figure that out. But regardless of the reason, these story elements and character archetypes are a fundamental part of our literature and other media.

You should consider how many of these elements are in your story. I guarantee there’s a few, especially if you write fantasy or adventure. Even in romance, you can have the “elderly wise figure” as someone who offers the protagonist advice in lieu of having magical powers, and you can replace “evil villain” with “the wrong guy” for other elements to work.

Does having all of these elements in your story make it cliché? No. If it did, Harry Potter would have been a flop. But you should be AWARE of these elements in your story. If you’re saturated with them, you might have reason to second guess a few things as being overdone. For example, if the villain is the main character’s father, THAT has been done to death. Don’t do it. Please.

Awareness of your story’s elements can help you better understand what you’re doing as a writer. If you don’t know WHAT you’re doing, it’s hard to do it RIGHT. So you should look at your story and see what tropes and archetypes you’re working with, and try to do them right.

If you understand your story, you can actually enhance things by building off one of these tropes. For example, I once wrote creative nonfiction story about my childhood and my first ever writing experience. I was having issues related to my parent’s divorce and being home alone after school, and I wrote a story about a character who fights a villain in a haunted house. Sound familiar? I didn’t realize it was using “orphan hero” tropes until my college professor pointed it out. Once I became aware of this element in the story, I was able to accentuate it in revisions and focus on it more.

What are the “themes” of your story? Some people say they don’t write to have a theme on purpose, and that’s fine. I didn’t intend for Manifestation to have themes about female empowerment, but my three main characters are a poet, a mechanic, and a doctor, all of whom are female. Therefore, I’m aware that someone might look at this story as saying “You can be anything you want to be, regardless of what society says.” That viewpoint is actually a big part of Tock’s character, and her personal motto is “ANYTHING is possible” (and with her magical powers, that’s literally true).

By seeing that theme in my story, I can build on it, and I have (specifically in how I write Tock). I think the story has become stronger as a result.

What tropes do you see in your story that you didn’t realize were there at first?


mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

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and in ebook format through:

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4 thoughts on “Character Archetypes and the Orphan Hero”

  1. Reading this makes me wonder which other tropes I’m using–I’m aware of several, of course, but there always seem to be more.

    I have a middle grade fantasy that falls pretty neatly into this structure, though. My main character has powers, must be trained, parents are captured by Evil Bad Man, older mentor (a couple, actually…), and all that jazz. It’s good times! A fun story structure, for sure, and probably so popular not only because it flows so well, but because society is so comfortable with it. We like familiarity, whether that familiarity is being represented through Shires or space ships.

    1. I first studied character archetypes in community college, so I’ve been aware of them for awhile. I tend to notice and pick them out of most books and movies. Then there’s TVTropes.org, which (despite being a horrible timesuck) is actually a really good research source for learning about this kind of thing.

  2. And now I want to go play on TVTropes.org to see whattropes I’m using. I’ve started doing that several times and keep losing my list.

    But I love how Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings all essentially have the same basic plot – but handled in such very different ways.

    And like Eve said – I have a MG fantasy idea that I’ve been toying with that I think could easily fit this structure. I already have a heroine that isn’t quite what she thought she was and the older figure that leads her on an adventure to stop an evil. I think you just gave me a structure for the rest of it.

    1. I’ve got the same thing myself. The young heroine (Gabby) guided by an older mentor figure (Dr. Caldwell), the development of strange powers (arcana). I didn’t even do most of that on purpose. But there it is.

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