The Waif often finds herself a set of allies on her journey. There’s something about her genuine and gentle demeanor that compels others to protect her—think Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz or Buttercup in the Princess Bride.
The Waif has a pure heart. She’s trusting, gentle, kind and almost ethereal in her interactions with others. But she can be passive, impressionable and submissive, too willing to follow the wishes of stronger or cruel personalities.
The Waif is incredibly vulnerable and does not put up walls or defenses to shield herself. She pools her strength inward and waits. While the Waif has resilience, she doesn’t have much agency in her story. That’s why I consider this archetype a transitional role that challenges the character to find their way back to their true self (often with help of a romantic interest), much like the Lost Soul.
“The Waif does not fight back; instead, she endures untold hardships until she is rescued. Drifting through life, this woman desperately seeks a home base… The Waif draws attention of the wolves of this world and she has no clue about how to get rid of them.” *
Cinderella is a classic Waif in all versions of the story, but the 1997 movie really shows this gentle spirit of this rags-to-riches princess (plus, it stars Brandy, Whoopi Goldberg and Whitney Houston.)
Cinderella is verbally abused, mistreated and disdained by her stepmother and stepsisters, but she never wishes them ill. She takes solace in her corner by the fireplace and continues to believe that the world is a good place with good people.
Cinderella is insecure, or unaware, of her good qualities. Her self-worth is continuously chipped away by her stepmother and she remains isolated from the rest of society. Luckily, she has Whitney Houston as a Fairy Godmother to show her that “impossible” may not be so impossible at all.
Prince Christopher is drawn to Cinderella’s gentle, dreamy demeanor. They’re fascinated by the outside world and feel constricted in their homes. They’d much rather stroll about the market and take in all the sights and sounds of the world without being pushed by the strong personalities of their family members.
Ilsa Lund (Casablanca)
Ilsa finds herself in the crosshairs of World War II, following her husband’s dangerous efforts to help the Allies. She believes in the cause, but not with the same fervor as Victor Lazlo or the same defiant spirit as Rick Blaine.
Ilsa is wistful, longing for stability and waiting for the war to be over. She knows what must be done, and holds onto her faith that Victor will find a way to escape Morocco. Her quiet looks pierce right through Rick’s hardened shell, but she doesn’t use that vulnerability against him. She never protects herself from catching feelings, either.
In the end, it’s not Ilsa who decides to leave Rick and get on the plane with Victor. She can’t choose, so Rick steps in to make the choice for her. He’s certain she’ll regret staying with him, and she defers to that conviction.
Frodo Baggins (Lord of the Rings)
Frodo Baggins is definitely a Waif. It’s a rare role for heroes, but not impossible.
Frodo was chosen to carry out the quest to destroy the Ring because of his purity. Gandalf saw that this man had no desire for power or domination. He was perfectly content to live in his hobbit hole, hear about the world from travelers and live a peaceful life.
When Gandalf tells Frodo what must be done, Frodo accepts the heavy burden – the fate of his world – without complaint. He’s prepared to go it alone, but thankfully has the Best Friend of legendary proportions, Samwise Gamgee, to protect him.
Seriously, Frodo would have died ten times over the three movies without Sam.
Frodo amasses a group of protectors and allies around him through his journey, but he’s never really close with any of them. He remains distant and separated, looking inward for his strength as the quest grows harder, and harder.
His task is to wait and endure until it’s all over, until the quest is done.
And that’s the Waif. They’re a rare bird in modern stories, but one of the classic archetypes to this day.
Next up we’ll have the Professor – a hero that could read every book on romance and still be puzzled by the phenomenon when it crosses his path.
*This series is based on The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever and Sue Viders.