People respond at a visceral level to images of children. These images are usually positive, inspiring feelings of love and warmth. Almost every child is cute and people admire the pictures of children shown by loving parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Every Christmas, statues of the baby Jesus can be found in manger scenes all across the country. Lisa from The Simpsons and many other youthful characters populate mass media. Tires, breakfast cereal, cleaning solution, and even political ideas can be sold by showing pictures of children.

The desire to protect the innocence of childhood motivates most people, in real life as well as in fiction. Photographs of suffering children, such as a starving African baby with its stomach swollen and flies landing on its mouth and eyes, imprint themselves on the minds of those who see them. The photograph of a young girl running, screaming, her clothing burned off by napalm, raised the consciousness of a generation and convinced many Americans that the Vietnam war was the wrong war at the wrong time. These profound images are from photojournalism, but their power comes from the human desire to see that youth survives and that life continues.

In most cultures, being a child means much the same thing. Early childhood is a time of playful innocence, a period of hope and trust, wonder, and of open-minded acceptance of the world. For young children, the moral complications and social pressures that come with adolescence and adulthood are absent. These characteristics of childhood are structural, that is, they come from the nature of the relationships in the family or the community. The characteristics of childhood arise from the situation of being new to life, dependent on others, and growing in body and mind; characteristics of all young children in all human societies for all time.

The fact that children have their futures before them is one of the most important features of childhood. Children are creatures who are becoming something new; they are characterized by hope. The aspect of becoming is especially important for infants and young children. The photographs of the starving baby and the napalm-burned girl have a strong effect on people because the hopes for the future for these children are under grave threat or, perhaps, the hopes of these children have already been lost.

Children are seen as pure, close to the instinctive emotional roots that enable them to see the truth unclouded by cynicism and doubt. They are honest; unfettered truth comes “out of the mouths of babes.” People are taught to protect young children, to, as the Bible dictates, “suffer the little children,” a notion made clear once we accept that the word “suffer” means to allow. In other words, children must be allowed to be children; they must be protected and nourished so that they can grow and mature.

Human beings are a species whose offspring are helpless and in need of constant care for many years. It makes sense for people to be programmed to love and care for young children. An older person can teach a child, act as a protector, be an all-nurturing mother figure, the stern father figure, or the loving grandparent. These ways of relating to children are easily recognized in real life. They are also celebrated in religious tradition, myth, and fiction developed by cultures throughout the world.

There are other, less helpful, but equally well-established roles that older people play in the lives of young children. There is the overly strict disciplinarian or the wicked step-mother who, as in the stories of Cinderella and Snow White, tries to destroy the potential of the child in favor of her own children.

In most interactions between a young child and an adult or a teenager (in the role of a partially formed adult), the child is influenced by the older person. There are, however, situations in which the influence flows the other way. These can occur when an adult or a teenager has been battered by misfortune, is sick at heart over past mistakes, despairs of finding the right path in life, or feels sullied by the compromises he or she has made. In these situations, a young child’s innocence and purity often inspires the older person. Transformed, the adult or teenager may try again, forgive him or herself, or find the right path for the future. This does not occur because the young child knows the answer to the problems confronting the older person. It occurs because the adult or teenager finds wisdom within, inspired by what he or she sees in the young child.

When influence flows from a child to an older person, the child acts as the medium through which change becomes possible; the child has become a savior. This type of relationship is so important that most religious traditions include a child god who is a savior and the concept has found expression in innumerable works of art, including film.

These characters and relationships, such as the child and the child savior, cross cultural boundaries and are timeless. The models which people, events, or actions seem to follow are called archetypes. The word is from the Latin archetypum, which derived from the Greek word archetypos, meaning “of the first mold” which itself came from combining two other Greek words archein which meant “to begin” plus typos which meant “type.”

The society of students in every school contains archetypes such as the bully, the leader, the nerd, the class clown, and the teacher’s pet. Centuries ago, the bully pattern of personality must have been evident in the powerful hunter or warrior who used his strength to hurt others. They contrast with the leader who uses the power of his personality or his physical prowess to take care of his people. And although math or science as disciplines are rather new in the long history of mankind, certainly there were members of ancient societies who involved themselves with numbers and were devoted to the accuracy of exchange, the measurement of distances, and even the passage of time. There have always been court jesters and comedians. And, of course, the person favored by a teacher or authority figure, the teacher’s pet.

The characters of the child (innocent, full of wonder and hope, characterized by the condition of becoming), the mother (the nurturer), the father (stern and judging), the evil step-parent, the hero, and the wise old man or woman each have their own constellation of attributes which most people easily recognize. As with the other archetypes, the characters and our reactions to them arise from the nature of the relationships in the family or the community. Like other archetypes, these characters and relationships occur again and again in myths, books and film.

The character of the child is one of the primary archetypes of mankind. The relationship between children and older people in which the child is the medium for a solution to the older person’s problems is derived from the archetype of the child and is a natural result of the structure of relationships between children and older persons. The latter is often referred to, somewhat imprecisely, as the child savior myth. However, it is much more than a myth, being the expression of an important relationship that occurs repeatedly in real life and is often used in fiction.

Since they are a part of the common human experience, certain characters and relationships resonate clearly with readers and audiences. The use of archetypes in telling a story whether in a book, in a movie or in a video game builds the empathic reaction as each reader sees something familiar in characters that populate the story. There is universal appeal in protagonists, antagonists and ancillary characters that partake of archetypes. When archetypes are repeatedly found in stories, they are called literary archetypes.

The concept of archetypes fits easily into the discoveries of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who theorized that people share a psychic inheritance, a collective unconscious. According to Jung, the psychic inheritance is knowledge that all people are born with and which affects all human experience. Jung believed that this knowledge is sourced beneath our consciousness and can only be accessed indirectly through dreams, myths, forms of religious belief, and the arts, such as fiction, visual arts, music, and dance.

Whether we are born with a knowledge of archetypes or whether this knowledge is acquired because there are certain ways that human beings in family and in society relate to one another, the concept of archetype helps people understand and organize their common experience. As such, archetypes are an important part of telling a story and understanding our world.

This article, The Child Savior: An Example of a Literary Archetype, was written by James Frieden and Mary RedClay. It was last revised on April 14, 2013.