Archetypes are typical situations, characters, or symbols that are repeated in stories. Most notably found in literature, these are most easily identified in characters. Many stories have a villian, hero or damsel in distress. If you look at The Odyssey for example, Odysseus is the obvious hero, Penelope is the Damsel in distress and the Cyclops is one of many villians that haunt the hero. Other typical character archetypes include the mentor, the sidekick, the old maid, the wise man, and the leader.
As far as situations or events go, often a character experiences a journey, an enlightenment, a baptism or re-birth, or a setback.
For symbols, the traditional use of the color yellow signifies happiness. The use of a butterfly suggests a shift or new life. The use of red can symbolize danger, love, or passion.
An archetype must be a regularly used device in which readers have seen a pattern.
You can even watch The Simpsons on TV and find a rebel (Bart), a brain child (Lisa), a villian (the principal), a trickster (Krusty the Clown), and a stereotypical mom (Marge).
One way of defining archetypes is the "cookie-cutter characters" that seem to pop up everywhere in literature. Some of the most common include:
- The Hero - the protagonist, the one with whom we all sympathize and empathize. Oftentimes, the hero is on a (of course, noble) quest (maybe to save the world), perhaps instigated by some tragic happening that occurred early in his life. Think Harry Potter.
- The Trusty Sidekick - always just next to the limelight of the hero, but always there to support the hero. As indicated by the "trusty", this individual is commonly described as loyal, though the secret yearning he has for the spotlight occasionally comes into view. At the end of the day though, he's the person our Hero can count on. Think Ron Weasley.
- The Lover - the beautiful woman, maybe a damsel in distress, maybe the end goal for our Hero. She encompasses all the beauty, kindness, compassion, etc., that there is (it seems). There isn't a perfect example of this in Harry Potter, so think Princess Peach in relation to Mario.
- The Mentor - older (most likely), wiser, and has all those teacher-like qualities. He helps guide through the Hero through the tough patches just as it seems all is lost. Think Dumbledore.
Of course, there are many many many different archetypes. These are just a few of the biggest, most common ones.