As a reader and a writer, archetypes and tropes are things that I like a lot. I recognize them frequently in the fiction I take in and incorporate them into my own writing too. And I fully believe that archetypes are great–but only up to a point. So I want to talk a little about the good and bad points of archetypes and how they should be used.
First of all, let me clarify my terms in case anyone isn’t sure. An archetype or a trope (I’ll probably use the terms interchangeably here) is a common character, event, setting, or other element that recurs in different stories time and time again. For example, in a typical good versus evil story, there’s a common set of characters: the hero, the villain, the girl who the hero rescues and/or falls in love with, the sidekick or partner or friend who helps the hero out, etc. From the most ancient classical legends to the cheap action movies of today, these universal character types are used over and over again because they’re familiar to us and they make for good stories. To use an example that one of my professors recently made in class, there’s a sense in which Han Solo could be considered a cowboy and Luke Skywalker a samurai, because they fit the general role of those types of figures, even though their story takes place in space. If you want more info about archetypes from a scholarly perspective, then do some quick research on Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye, or the concepts of the hero’s journey and the monomyth. Or, if stuffy academia isn’t your thing, then go to TV Tropes, click the “random” button at the top, and fall into an inescapable hole of jumping from one page to another for a good several hours until you get the idea.
Like I said, as both a reader and a writer, I like archetypes. Because of my love for archetypes, I was able to co-write a parody with some friends where we mashed up a bunch of our favorite characters based on their similar qualities.1 Archetypes are a big part of how I interpret literature and fiction, by comparing them to other stories and characters that I’m already familiar with. I like being able to say, “Oh, so Gandalf is pretty much the old wise wizardly mentor like Ben Kenobi,” or “hey, Nathaniel Hawthorne sure uses evil scientists in a lot of his works who are kind of all pretty similar to each other.”2 On the whole, I believe that archetypes are useful for readers in interpreting stories, and can be a lot of fun to play around with too. But, like any other theory or approach to literature, they have their limits.
Recently for my grad studies, I gave a presentation on a very lengthy book called Love and Death in the American Novel, in which the author argues that all American novels over the couple centuries they’ve been around follow the same archetypal patterns. The book had a lot of interesting points, but most of its critics agreed that it was too narrow and exclusive. It tried too hard to argue that every book followed only one pattern, when in fact the many books out there are quite diverse in their plots and characters and can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The author relied too much on archetypes and tried to exclude nearly everything else.
While researching that book, I also had to acknowledge that I was having similar problems with my thesis. I’m arguing that certain American classics (The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird) can be interpreted as dystopias because they share certain similar archetypes. But my committee isn’t fully convinced yet. They recognize that it takes more than just archetypes to understand a story–more than just “oh, this part is similar to that part because it follows this same pattern.”
As writers, it’s good to acknowledge archetypes, but also not to rely on them too heavily. They can be a great starting place for stories. They can be a good beginning to thinking up new characters or plots, or a good way to bring in stock characters who the audience can understand perfectly even if they don’t get much development. But archetypes can’t be the entirety of your story, or else it’s not really your story–just a rehash and a repetition of all the other stories. Sure, you can decide that you want a certain character to be the hero or the villain or whoever, but (for major characters at least) you also have to flesh them out more and give them their own traits and quirks that are unique to those characters–and unique to you. If you don’t, then your story will just seem trite and generic. In a superhero story of mine, a reviewer once told me that my dark vigilante antihero was too much like Batman. This was not much of a surprise to me, as I had indeed consciously based the character partially on Batman. But I still needed to flesh him out more and give him a personality of his own before he could be his own character.
And that’s how good fiction does it too. We could say that Han Solo, Malcolm Reynolds, and Star-Lord are all the same type of character, because they’re roguish but heroic outlaws in space. But Han’s development changes him more over time, Mal seems more bound to a cause other than self-interest, and Star-Lord puts a slightly more comical turn on the traditional role. They’re similar characters in some ways, but they’re also unique and well-developed on their own.
As a writer, you should be aware of archetypes and use them to your advantage. By all means, use them to establish a story and bring the reader in and make the characters seem familiar and appealing. But don’t stop there. Make sure your characters and plots go beyond typical tropes and archetypes to result in a well-developed story of your own.