Updated: Sep 12, 2022
There’s something about an outlaw, isn’t there? The mystery, the loose-canon energy. After all, what could be more compelling than a rebel with a cause, who spits on authority and incites dissent? Yet, they are subject to emotion, vice, and weakness. The Outlaw is powerful, but even better, they can be bought with the right currency.
Once again, we are faced with the eternal literary question: why do we love morally grey characters so much? Could it be because we see ourselves in them? Because they are, we feel, a more accurate depiction of humanity, which flirts with darkness but still has room to grow? Or is it just because they look so damn cool?
In the spirit of Halloween, let’s take a look at three of my favorite Outlaw Archetypes—which are coincidentally, some of the most common Halloween costumes!
The Witch is one of my favorite outlaw figures, because a witch doesn’t just defy written law, she defies the gender-based power structures that those laws are founded on. While it’s true that anyone can be a witch these days, The Witch Archetype (at least the Western conception of it) has grown out of the actual historical condemnation and persecution of women perceived to be too powerful. This is why so many depictions of witches render her “wicked” and “ugly”.
Like all outlaws, The Witch rails against overbearing and oppressive governing bodies and takes on bloodthirsty mobs using gifts she was born with, her connection to nature, or other supernatural forces she has linked herself to. Often these forces are considered evil or demonic, and are deeply frowned upon by The Witch’s non-magical peers.
One example of The Witch Archetype at work is the titular protagonist of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the dark spinoff of the ‘90s sitcom, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The reboot follows Sabrina Spellman, a half-mortal witch, who uses her wits and magical abilities to fight the archaic, patriarchal laws of her coven that threaten to separate her from her mortal friends and control her forever.
Hallmarks of The Witch Archetype
cleverness > brute strength
often work in secrecy, as opposed to being notorious
sometimes operate within a community (in this case, a coven)
associated with mysticism or the occult
often answers to a higher power; supernatural forces, nature, etc.
Although The Cowboy is considered the quintessential American hero, one of the best flavors of Cowboy is The Desperado Archetype. Appearing as a known fugitive on flyers reading “WANTED”, this archetype’s escapades run the gamut from heroism to anti-heroism to genuine evil. The backstory behind The Desperado’s criminal status is often something to do with “taking justice into one’s own hands”. A dash of tragedy is usually thrown in, in the form of a devastating personal loss leading to an epic shoot-out with an old foe.
Part of what makes The Desperado so compelling is their devil-may-care attitude; they operate so openly because they know they will eventually be caught or killed—they just don’t care. This is what puts the desperate in desperado—they are on a mission to avenge or die trying. A modern Desperado is Kissin’ Kate Barlow, depicted in Holes (a film featuring Shia LaBeouf, based on a 1998 novel of the same name.) After her lover is murdered by a jealous, racist heir called Trout Walker, Kissin’ Kate dedicates her life to looting and killing Walker’s men, eventually amassing his fortune and hiding it, leading to the misery and poverty of the Walkers for generations.
Hallmarks of The Desperado Archetype
cleverness < brute strength
can operate within a community, but not often
characterized by especially reckless behavior
often answers to a “gentlemanly” code of honor
It’s easy to get swept away in the roguish charm of a pirate’s life. There’s a certain romance to a seafarer who plays by their own rules. The Pirate can be depicted this way—a dashing swashbuckler—or as a plundering backstabber. Mostly, they fall somewhere in between or become both at various points in their arcs.
Like their fellow outlaws, The Pirate Archetype is commonly categorized as a villain by default, because they live within their own alternate society—one of questionable morals and violent consequences. While it can be easy to isolate The Pirate in one’s imagination, they are unquestionably a family creature. (Like many families, there’s a fair amount of double-crossing involved.) The found-family trope is part of what makes The Pirate so beloved—they operate on a larger stage than the lone bandit. This is true of their escapades as well. The Pirate is often wanted for large-scale crimes as opposed to personal vendettas alone.
Take one of the best loved pirates of all time, Captain Jack Sparrow: In a deleted scene, it's revealed that Sparrow was branded a pirate for attempting to free a ship of slaves being transported by the East India Trade Company.
Hallmarks of The Pirate Archetype
cleverness + brute strength
operates within a community (in this case, a crew)
characterized by individualistic spirits which cause tension within their ranks
answers to a variable code of honor
Suffice to say, at its heart, The Outlaw Archetype is a versatile one, which has many sub-categories and different flavors to choose from. The ones above are only three out of an abundance of problematic faves to love. If you’re considering writing any kind of Outlaw, I’ll leave you with something to mull over:
While The Outlaw has given us some of the most rich, layered characters, all of the above archetypes are composed of historically very diverse demographics which have been whitewashed and overtaken by other patriarchal mechanizations perpetuated by the media.
I’ve already mentioned how The Witch has been subjected to extreme vilification at the hands of misogyny, and The Desperado and The Pirate are not free from it either. In fact, many cowboys were queer men of color who took jobs in the “Wild West” to escape persecution and be around other folks like themselves. And while movies would have you believe differently, there have been many notable women pirates—just google Anne Bonny, if you haven’t already heard of her!
The next time you sketch out your newest vagabond or bandit, remember that those who live on the margins of society today have always done so!
And, of course, remember to make them look badass.
About the author: I'm Briana Gonzalez, word nerd and card-carrying theatre kid. Writing is just a more accessible form of talking, so it's no wonder I can't stop doing it. Check out my lit blog on Instagram @what_that_book_do!