ARCHETYPES CAN (BELIEVE IT OR NOT) HELP US WRITE
A while ago I took some heavy fire in a conversation because I like using archetypes in my fiction… and while I’m happy to take it on the chin for not using them well, I remain pretty committed to the idea that they constitute a useful tool in my writing toolbox. Here’s why.
What is an archetype?
Archetypes are recognizable “stereotypes” that help us immediately plug into a story.
I’m sure you’ve heard of character archetypes. They appear regularly in all manner of popular film, television, stage-plays, radio, and literature. They have been used in story-telling since time immemorial (from Cinderella through to Bugs Bunny, to name but a famous few). At the very least, you know them when you see them.
They include such notables as…
- The Rogue – Han Solo
- The Princess – Leia Organa
- The Mentor – Obi Wan Kenobi
- The Evil Sorcerer – Darth Vader
They may also include the rebel, the scientist, the wise woman, the healer, the wise king, the trickster, the exile, and many others. We know a lot about them as soon as we encounter them (because of the rich history of story we’ve inherited via movie, television, radio, and literature) and this familiarity helps us enter the story at a run.
What do archetypes achieve?
A shorthand way to establish a character…
A story (particularly a serial story) that is populated with archetypes is going to be accessible to an audience much more quickly than one that is full of unpredictable, complex characters who it takes us time to get to know.
…while allowing for great depth
“But isn’t that an invitation to lazy writing?”
The person I referred to erlier obviously thought so. In actuality, it’s not, though at first glance it sounds like it is. Characters based on an archetype can be easier to write, true, particularly if they are left as two dimensional caricatures, but they needn’t be. They can also be highly complex and nuanced figures, full of inner conflicts and unpredictabilities.
What? Didn’t I just get through saying that I thought unpredictable, complex characters were hard to get to know? I did, in fact, say just that. But that is only part of the picture. When you introduce an archetype to a story, it lays down an immediately recognizable foundation upon which you can start to build a more complex character. With the foundation in place, some of the heavy lifting has already been done for you, but you can then go on to layer in all the complexity your heart desires, revealing more and more over time. You can even subvert the expectations that are built into the archetype if you want.
When first we see Darth Vader he is immediately recognizable as a two dimensional evil villain. We “recognize” and “understand” him immediately. We are then taken much further. He is, in fact, Luke’s father (and Leia’s also). He is conflicted about his own descent into the dark side and his assigned task of finding and destroying his own children. There is still good in him etc.
People love archetypes in stories. They love the mental shorthand involved, but an archetype does not have to be employed in a shallow manner.
The “hook me now or lose me as an audience member” approach of our modern “short attention span” lifestyle presents a serious obstacle to writers competing for attention. It is a sad fact. But it is also a feature of modern audiences that writers ignore at their peril. Characters presented initially in terms of archetypes are going to draw in a modern audience faster than those who aren’t.
That isn’t to say you should never engage in the slow scratch-build of your characters, only that you should be aware of the trade off you are engaging in and the advantages presented to you by the wide range of stock characters available to our culture as a result of our long literary history.
That said, there is, however, at least one character who should almost NEVER be presented as an archetype. This is our central protagonist; the character who’s thoughts, emotions, and viewpoints we share and are invited to follow, the character with whom we are expected to identify. Ursula Leguin referred to this character as Mrs Brown. Luke Skywalker is the Mrs Brown of Star Wars, often referred to as the everyman character, the figure who represents the audience in the story. Luke is not an archetype of bravery, or cowardice, or wisdom, or industriousness, or cunning or anything else. He is a person from the outset, one who daydreams, fears responsibility, is prompted by dreams of adventure, wants to goof off with his friends etc. In many ways he is the audience he represents and because he is fallible (and, dare I say it, ordinary) we identify with him, and his story becomes our story.
I agree with the person who was arguing with me about this much; the most important characters in a work of fiction tend not to be archetypes – they are Mrs Brown.
Archetypes may help hook an audience, but Mrs Brown is the reason we keep on paying attention all the way to the end.
Archetypes are a great tool available to the author to create immediate recognition with the audience member. They allow the story to begin at a gallop because little exposition is required regarding the characters’ natures. But they become boring quickly and should always have a deeper level of character layered in as the story develops. Further, the characters with whom the audience is meant to identify should almost NEVER be archetypes, or if they are, only superficially so. Like all tools, archetypes serve a legitimate purpose, but like any tool, they can also be subverted and used in new and novel ways. And they should always be laid aside when the aim changes or some other tool achieves the aim more effectively.
Are there other tips and tricks you’d like to share around creating characters? Add them to the comments below.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.