Superman. Batman. Harry Potter. Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. R2D2 from Star Wars. (Wait, what? R2D2??) Flynn Rider from Tangled. Finnick Odair from The Hunger Games.
What do all these men have in common? At first glance, they all seem very different. The first two are superheroes, Sam is a hobbit, Flynn Rider is a swashbuckling rogue, and Finnick Odair is a handsome victor who won the Hunger Games. R2D2 isn’t even a person; it’s a droid. You can shoot Superman and the bullets will bounce right off, but if you shoot a hobbit like Sam, you’d probably seriously injure (or kill) him. Flynn Rider and Finnick Odair have similar personalities in that they are both a bit arrogant and both men are easy on the eyes, however Flynn is an outlaw and Finnick is adored by Panem’s public. And what on earth does “the boy who lived” have in common with an astromech droid like R2D2?
Well, a lot, actually. The thing that each of these characters have in common is that while they have vastly different backgrounds, their “personality program”–or what we will be referring to here as their character archetype–is essentially the same.
In her book 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, (Incidentally, I cannot recommend this book highly enough to aspiring writers; it’s one of the best books I’ve seen for developing characters.) Victoria Lynn Schmidt explains that “[t]o a psychologist, archetypes are mental fingerprints revealing the details of a patient’s personality. To a writer, archetypes are the blueprints for building well-defined characters, be they heroes, villains or supporting characters” (9). Characters that share the same archetype might come from any walk of life and have had vastly different life experiences, but they will share four core qualities in common. To illustrate, let’s apply this thinking to two of the men on our above list–Superman and Samwise Gamgee–both of whom are examples of what Schmidt classifies as “The Protector” archetype.
The Protector archetype is typically a guy who is more “physical” than “mental” or “spiritual.” He cares about defending people without worrying about the consequences. He’s all about winning the fight.
Superman is “stronger than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Sure, in a physical fight, Superman would kick Sam’s butt (After all, Sam is about half his size and has no super powers.). He’s your typical action hero: handsome, physically strong, and good in a fight. Everything about Superman’s physical body enables him to fight and protect. His goal is to fight for the little guy, and if any of his friends (especially Lois Lane) are in danger, he sees it as an attack on him.
Samwise Gamgee, however, fits this archetype as well. Unlike most action heroes, he’s humble, gentle, and not a person who gets into physical fights. He’s not tall and muscular, but he’s clearly the most substantial of the hobbits with respect to his size. When it comes to defending and protecting Frodo, Sam’s bravery and loyalty are absolute, to the extent that he places Frodo’s safety above his own. In the movie adaptation of Tolkien’s novel for example, Sam shows no hesitation about engaging Aragorn (as Strider) in a fist fight at the Prancing Pony when he thinks Frodo has been captured. Aragorn is twice Sam’s size and clearly someone who is a formidable fighter. When Frodo’s friends rush in to rescue him, it is Sam who leads the charge, bursting into the room with his fists up, ready to attack. As Frodo and the fellowship set out across Middle Earth, Sam fights a cave troll and vicious orcs. In a much later scene, when a spider (Shelob) attacks Frodo, Sam not only picks up Frodo’s sword and defends his friend’s body by fighting off the spider, but he even goes so far as to follow the orcs when they take Frodo’s body back to the tower of Cirith Ungol. With his concern only for rescuing his friend, Sam charges up the tower stairs, physically fighting off one orc after another until he reaches Frodo. Even at the very end of the trilogy, he carries Frodo up Mt. Doom when Frodo is too weak to go on.
The Protector fears losing touch with his body and abilities. He is most afraid of not being able to protect the people he cares about, and hates having to think too much. He also would hate having to work a job where there is no risk.
Think about what happens to Superman when he’s around kryptonite. He experiences his worst nightmare; he cannot protect people because he is utterly powerless. All the superpowers that allow him to use his body to fight are useless, and he is completely at the mercy of his enemies. When he’s not being Superman, it’s interesting to note that his career choice as Clark Kent is working as a journalist–a job that often involves a degree of risk.
Consider first that Sam is Frodo’s gardener–a job that requires a good deal of physical labor. Also, throughout The Lord of the Rings, Sam is keenly aware of the importance of keeping his and Frodo’s bodies as healthy, rested and nourished as possible while they go through their ordeal. He worries about how much Frodo eats and sleeps, and even rations their food to make sure they can survive not only the journey to Mt Doom, but also that they will have enough for the return trip. He takes Gandalf’s directive (“Don’t you lose him, Samwise Gamgee.”) seriously, to the extent that we see him (in the movie adaption) panic when he loses sight of him and nearly drowns trying to get to Frodo when Frodo tries to leave without him. Seeing Frodo safely through his quest and protecting him is Sam’s top priority.
The power of the archetype
The above comparison of Superman and Sam Gamgee illustrates some fundamental commonalities these two characters share,despite their vastly different personalities, qualities, and limitations. If we examined what motivates these two men, or discussed how other characters might view them, we’d come up with several other ways in which these two essentially have the same archetypal blueprint that governs their behaviors and reactions to the world around them.
The next time you find yourself reading one of your favorite books or watching one of your favorite TV shows or movies, be on the look out for archetypal characters like the protector. See if you can pick them out, and when you find them, be on the look out not only for the similarities in the things they care about, are afraid of, and are motivated by, but also pay attention to the ways in which they differ, and note how many variations there are on that general archetype.