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How to Survive Watching ‘Survivor’

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinion of Byte or Byte’s editorial board. There may be spoilers ahead, so read the “Character Archetypes” section with caution. Skip over this section if you do not want some winning contestants to be revealed.

Survivor: a cultural phenomena in the early 2000s and one of the longest-running reality TV shows of all time. For 21 years, viewers have watched host Jeff Probst challenge different groups of strangers to provide food, fire, and shelter for themselves; win challenges for rewards and immunities; and ultimately survive 39 days in an isolated location. With the release of season 43 of Survivor, many people may feel overwhelmed with the plethora of available series content. I know when I was introduced to this series last November, I had many questions. How is this series different from other survival shows? What's the purpose of each challenge? Which contestants should I keep an eye on? Why would anyone be willing to go into the wild and compete against other people for 39 days? Now, after binge watching all the fully released seasons, I feel like I can break down what newcomers need to know when starting Survivor.

Format and Rules

The Survivor format involves a group of 16–20 contestants being taken to a remote location and competing for a cash prize of $1,000,000. These contestants are initially divided into “tribes,” usually containing 5–10 members, and they are expected to survive with a minimal number of tools, as seen in the first episode of every single season. The teams are required to compete against each other in challenges, involving physical endurance, problem-solving ability, and resourcefulness with the aim of  receiving either immunity or a reward. Introduced in the first episode of Survivor: Borneo, the tribe that wins a “reward challenge” is awarded “luxury” items, and the tribe that loses an “immunity challenge” attends a “tribal council” with the show’s host at the end of each episode to oust one of its members from the show. The game, and immunity, becomes individual instead of team-based halfway through the season when the tribes merge.  As the tribes merge, the contestants who are subsequently voted off begin to form a “jury,” as seen on day 20 of Survivor: Borneo. This group observes each tribal council, deciding which finalist played the best strategic, social, and physical games. The jury ultimately determines the winner by voting, in the last episode, between the remaining two or three contestants.


While tribes are most commonly set by the production team before filming, there have been exceptions to the norm. For instance, the concept of "schoolyard picks," where tribes were selected by the contestants, was first introduced on day one of Survivor: Thailand and was used  future seasons such as day 13 of  Survivor: The Amazon, day two of Survivor: Palau, day 15 of Survivor: Fiji, day seven of Survivor: Cook Islands to name a few. “Schoolyard picks” are not limited to starting tribes and may be allowed if there are mid-season tribe switches. Seen for the first time on Day 13 in Survivor: Africa, tribe switches occur before the anticipated “tribe merge,'' as a twist, making some people swap tribes to test the relationships between old and new alliances. “Mutinies,” where there is the opportunity for individuals to switch tribes, have also been offered, but only one out of four times has a mutiny been accepted. Thus, the only televised mutiny was on day 20 of Survivor: Cook Islands, when the mutiny offer was taken. Also in the case of a twist, a tribe that has lost most of its  members can be permanently disbanded and absorbed into other remaining tribes. For example, in Survivor: Palau, one tribe completely dominated and never lost an immunity challenge, until one sole member remained on the opposing tribe. That member was absorbed; therefore, no merge occurred at all in Survivor: Palau.

Tribes can also be made up of a seemingly random assortment of contestants or divided by theme. Survivor: The Amazon is regarded as being the first season with a particular theme, as the castaways were sorted by gender. In many seasons there could be a division by gender, age, race, traits, degree of success in life, job, or previous experience on the show. Each tribe is given a unique name and a team colored buff, ring of cloth, to denote each group of contestants for that season.

Contestant Archetypes

Every TV show needs its heroes, villains, sidekicks, beauty queens, geniuses, and athletic powerhouses. While there are at least 40 different Survivor archetypes established by the show and fans, some classic roles can be defined by some past key contestants. 

Rob Mariano and  Russell Hantz are two good examples of a villain in Survivor; however, they are more of  “mafioso” villains rather than  “puppeteers”  like the original Survivor villain and first winner Richard Hatch. The Mafioso archetype is a man cast on a season to use intimidation and fear as a strategic tactic, frightening his tribemates into doing his bidding. In fact, Mariano is regarded as one of the best contestants in Survivor history because of his mafioso-like gameplay, and he is not only nicknamed Boston Rob, because he always wears a Boston Red Sox hat, but also nicknamed the Robfather, as he was often compared to a mobster. Having competed in Survivor: Marquesas, Survivor: All Stars, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, Survivor: Winners at War, and winning Survivor: Redemption Island, Mariano has displayed a sub-archetype, specifically in the last three seasons he competed in, that can be recognized as a “family man.” This role is characteristic of a man who embodies the All-American father figure and husband. Unlike Mariano, Hantz’s sub-archetype is “the puppeteer,” thus making his character a mixture of both Richard Hatch and Rob Mariano. Hantz is nicknamed Survivorsmost notorious villain because, though he fits the same archetype as Mariano, he lacks likability and relatability in his gameplay. Hantz is well known for his brash gameplay, deliberately causing fights at camp, and finding several hidden immunity idols without clues in Survivor: Samoa, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, Survivor: Redemption Island, and Australian Survivor: Champions vs. Contenders. These two villains share the same archetype; however, one was able to utilize their archetypes and win a season, while the other has never won a season.

Photo by NJ.com

Tony Vlachos is a character that fits under the archetype “the trickster”. “The trickster” is the mischief-maker who is on the show to stir up chaos with witty remarks and generally chaotic actions. Vlachos is well known for constructing "spy shacks" to eavesdrop on his tribemates, double-crossing allies, swearing on relatives, and finding several hidden immunity, while still maintaining a place in most competitors’ good graces. Thus, his sub-archetype is “the wacky wildcard,” which is a man who is cast to be an unpredictable force in the game that brings a lot of entertainment value for the audience’s sake. He competed in Survivor: Cagayan, Survivor: Game Changers, and Survivor: Winners at War, winning both Winner of Survivor: Cagayan and Survivor: Winners at War. Vlachos is the second person and only male to win two times; as such, he is nicknamed the King because of his two-time winner status.

Winning both Survivor: Pearl Islands and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, the first person and only woman to ever win two seasons is Sandra Diaz-Twine. Diaz-Twine falls under a “Feisty Firecracker” archetype, or a woman who is witty and entertaining, spouting snarky remarks and intimidating others with her personality. Diaz-Twine also fits into two sub-archetypes: “the team mom” and “the iron woman”. At the beginning of her Survivor career, Diaz-Twine fit under “the team mom '' archetype. “The team mom” archetype is the woman who fills the motherly role on her season and uses her knowledge of relationship skills to build alliances and socially manipulate the game. In  the latter half of her Survivor career, Diaz-Twine fit under “the iron woman” archetype. “The iron woman” archetype is an older woman, who is determined to  use the skills she's gained from her career to enhance her game. She competed in Survivor: Pearl Islands, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, Survivor: Game Changers, Survivor: Winners at War, and Australian Survivor: Blood vs. Water and, because of her status as a two-time winner, Diaz-Twine is nicknamed the Queen.

One archetype that completely differs from “the team mom” archetype is “the femme fatale”, which is most easily identified in competitor Parvati Shallow. “The femme fatale” archetype is a woman who uses her charm and sexuality as a strategic weapon. While very similar to “the beauty queen” archetype, “the beauty queen” doesn’t have to be single and they flirt unintentionally, while the opposite can be said about “the femme fatale”. Shallow’s sub-archetype is “the sporty chick,” which is a woman who has a background in sports or is considered competitive. She competed in Survivor: Cook Islands, Survivor: Micronesia, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, and Survivor: Winners at War, only winning Survivor: Micronesia. Shallow is well known for her manipulative flirting and leading an all women alliance, nicknamed the Black Widow Brigade, and eliminating all of the men in her winning season.

Ozzy Lusth has competed with Shallow twice but has never won against her. Lusth fits under the archetype of “the amazing ace,” who is a younger man that most people find likable and always does unfailingly well in challenges. He fits under two sub-archetypes: “the freelancer” and “the captain America”. During the beginning part of his career on Survivor, Lusth fit under “the freelancer'' sub-archetype. “The freelancer” archetype is a man who is versatile and super active; however, “the freelancer” can also be seen as lazy and irresponsible due to his carefree lifestyle. Within the latter part of his career on the Survivor franchise, Lusth fit under “the captain America'' sub-archetype. “The captain America” archetype is a man who generally plays an honest, straightforward, physical game. Most contestants who fit this archetype have a respectable past and are a provider for their tribe. While similar, “the amazing ace” differs from the very similar “the captain America” archetype, as “the amazing ace” archetype usually has less life experience. Lusth competed in Survivor: Cook Islands, Survivor: Micronesia, Survivor: South Pacific, and Survivor: Game Changers, but he has never won a season. He is most well known as the foremost challenge beast and contestant with the most athletic prowess, especially in water, in all of Survivor history.

In Survivor: Cook Islands, Lusth was in the final two with fellow competitor Yul Kwon, with Kwon winning the season in the end. What separates the two survivors, and allowed Kwon to win, was their difference in archetype. Kwon’s archetype is “the mentalist,” which is a young man with a high IQ, often coming from an Ivy League background. Kwon also fits under the sub-archetype of “the Mr. Nice guy,” a role that is characterized by genuine actions and never using deception in the game. Competing in both Survivor: Cook Islands and Survivor: Winners at War, Kwon is best known for his role as the strategist as the underdog Aitu Four alliance in his first season and for being the series’s first Asian-American winner. Kwon accomplished many firsts within his two seasons competing. Not only was he the first Survivor competitor to find the hidden immunity idol and not be voted out, but he also was the first contestant  to reach Day 39 without being in danger of getting voted out. On top of all those firsts, he was the first man to ever reach the final tribal council without winning an individual immunity challenge.

Sophie Clarke played strategically similarly to Yul Kwon within her seasons of Survivor, but played socially similarly to Sandra Diaz-Twine. Clarke competed in both  Survivor: South Pacific and Survivor: Winners at War, winning  Survivor: South Pacific. She played an under-the-radar game and hid the control she had over her five person alliance, only showing her challenge ability within her first season. During her second season, Clarke utilized a similar tactic, however she became more socially oriented. “the perfectionist” archetype best describes Clarke, as the archetype is based on a young professional woman who is very logical and overachieves to reach their goals. Socially, she was well known for her blunt, snarky comments similar to the archetype of “the feisty firecracker;” however, because of her athleticism, Clarke most fits the sub-archetype of “the crusader”. “The crusader” is a woman who is strong-willed, very athletic, and able to take control of her tribe. 

The last key competitor that needs to be highlighted is Cirie Fields. Though she competed in Survivor: Panama, Survivor: Micronesia, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, and Survivor: Game Changers, Fields has never won a season. Fields within the first episode of Survivor: Panama, calls herself a “couch potato”, but she soon evolves to become widely hailed as a one of the most creative and effective strategists in the series. Because of her evolution, Fields is the perfect example of “the phoenix” archetype. “The phoenix” archetype is a woman who has faced adversity in her life and overcame it. Well known for her ability to survive past day 36 throughout all of her games with tactful sociability and intelligence to cover for her lacking survival experience and athleticism. Fields also perfectly displays her sub-archetype: “the social butterfly”. “The social butterfly '' archetype is a woman who has strong social skills and is able to make relationships easily. Fields has many accomplishments within her Survivor career: she was the first woman to compete in four seasons, the first active contestant to successfully make it to three seasons’ final episodes, and was the first person eliminated without any votes against her due to her lack of  immunity during the tribal council.

Evolution of Challenges

No matter the archetype, generally all types of contestants can do well because of the wide variety and evolution of challenges. There are many reasons why Survivor has stuck around so long, and one of them is the show’s willingness to evolve and reinvent itself. Throughout the 42 seasons of Survivor, challenges have evolved becoming more complicated and strenuous. Within the first 10 seasons, Survivor was still light on the twists. From standing on a balancing beam for hours, trivia, firemaking, releasing underwater buoys, and shooting clay pots with slingshots, many of these challenges were more plain to watch. 

As the series enters the 10s, the challenges become slightly more challenging . For instance,  staying under a grate as the tide rises,  memory obstacle course challenges, or hanging upside down for hours. These challenges may seem difficult enough but the intensity of seasons 20-29 increases again.  Some of these challenges include, using tension hooks to hold a rod as long as possible or navigating a blindfolded obstacle course while tied to a rope and solving a puzzle. But it doesn’t stop there! The 30s are some of the hardest challenges to date. Some of the challenges include contestants navigating a balance beam maze while carrying a heavy ball with tongs, enduring holding up 25% of the contestant’s individual body weight with only a rope for hours, 

While viewers have only seen two seasons of the 40s, the newest eras of challenges seem to be some of the hardest to master. Season 43 will probably bring new evolutions of old challenges or harder challenges to endure.

Evolution of Advantages

Not only have the challenges evolved to be harder, but the amount of possible advantages or immunities have grown exponentially, forcing the contestants to be even more  strategic. First introduced in season 11, Survivor: Guatemala, the “Hidden Immunity Idol” has become an important facet of Survivor strategy. The hidden immunity idol grants protection at tribal council for the player who finds it, and in most cases, the idol must be played before the votes are read, negating all votes against the user, and eliminating the person with the second-highest number of votes. When the hidden immunity idol was first introduced, there would only be one in play for the game. However, as the seasons have gone on, these immunity idols have multiplied, become easier to find and manipulate the game with.

    Survivor has also introduced voting advantages in later seasons. Advantages such as getting an extra vote to use during tribal council, stealing someone's vote, or removing a member of the jury from voting have all been previously used. Contestants have also used advantages to steal rewards, nullify a hidden immunity idol, or receive clues to the locations of hidden immunity idols.


One of the main components of Survivor is the elimination aspect of the game. Every three days, or every episode, the losers of the immunity challenges must face tribal council, where they will account for their loss by voting one person off of the island. Twists such as a double tribal council, where both pre-merge tribes are forced to vote tribe members out, like on day 19 of Survivor: Pearl Islands, and double elimination, where one tribe is forced to eliminate two people from their tribe in one tribal council, like on day 24 of Survivor: Cook Islands, have also occurred.

A few seasons have offered opportunities for eliminated contestants to reenter the game. For example, in Survivor: Pearl Islands the first 6 eliminated contestants could be eligible to vote at least one of themselves back into the game if their group won against the remaining contestants. Also, in Survivor: Redemption Island, Survivor: South Pacific, and Survivor: Blood vs. Water, eliminated contestants could compete against each other in duels until one person can reenter the game at either the merge or at day 35. This idea of Redemption Island was reintroduced and expanded upon in Survivor: Edge of Extinction, with the only change being contestants would stay in the game until the second re-entry duel instead of being immediately eliminated if they lost in a duel.

Overall, Survivor is pretty easy to follow when you know the basic format and rules. There is a reason that Survivor is one of the longest running reality TV shows of all time and its torch has not been snuffed.

Featured Image: TV Insider

Sources: IMDB, The Sun, IMDB, CBS, CBS, CBS, CBS, CBS, CBS, CBS, CBS, Instagram, IMDB, Salon.com, Youtube, Heavy.com, CBS, CBS, CBS, CBS, CBS, Usmagazine, Youtube, CBS, IMDB, Instagram, Youtube, CBS, CBS, CBS, CBS, Instagram, Youtube, Youtube, Instagram, Youtube, Goldderby, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Youtube, Instagram, SurvivorOZ, Youtube, CBS, Youtube, Youtube, Youtube, Youtube, Youtube, Youtube, Youtube, CBS, Youtube, Youtube, CBS, Youtube

Contact Rosie Mitchell with comments at rosalita.mitchell@bsu.edu and on Instagram @rivetin_rosie.