Being a Better Writer: Archetypes

So, for the last few weeks we’ve touched on a variety of subjects, among them topics including “What is a Hero?,” “Building a Hero,” and (of course) “The Antihero.” But in touching upon those topics, I realized upon reading the comments that I needed to expand into another topic of discussion, one that was bandied back and forth by a number of readers. This won’t be a long post (at least, I hope not), but it should be a helpful one for those of you who upon looking over the last few week’s worth of topics got a little nervous.

Basically, I want to spend this week’s post discussing archetypes. What are they? What do we use them for? And what do you need to know about them for your writing?

Well, let’s start with the first of those. What is an archetype? This one’s actually pretty easy to answer—though I’ll resort to the textbook definition since it’s distilled it down to a fine form. An archetype is the typical, general example of something. The collection of certain details or identifying marks that make that something a representation of a particular class or form. So going back to our discussion on what makes a hero a hero, a character who fills the criteria we spoke about becomes the archetype of the hero: he/she is the typical example of what a hero is.

Same can be said for a villain. Or an anti-hero. Or a secondary character. Really, most any role in fiction. For example, a team leader. If we set out to write a character who is the leader of a team, we’re going to have to sit down and figure out some broad ideas that make up that character’s design. And what we’ll end up with a sort of archetype of a leader (though depending on the kind of leader, this can vary somewhat).

Note that I mention that the kind of leader they are can vary. This is because an archetype is almost neverspecific, only general. So another way of explaining an archetype might be that it’s a collection of codifying attributes that can be used to apply sweeping generalizations to characters or situations. You might find a story about a character who is an explorer archetype, but what or when they’re exploring isn’t part of that archetype. Simply the exploration is. Further study might find that the story itself is science-fiction (also an archetype), and that the main character faces an unstoppable alien horde (which is a trope … but the case could be made that it’s an archetype as well).

Are you seeing what I’m getting at here? An archetype isn’t anything specific. Rather it’s a short but broad explanation of what a character or a setting might be. Calling Rise a mystery? That’s an archetype that it fits. But you could also call it an adventure story—again, it fits—and you could apply a number of character archetypes to the main cast.

And this is where we get into iffy territory and I start getting slightly nervous anytime I see a bunch of people throwing the term “archetype” around willy-nilly, like say the last few week’s comments for the posts on heroes. Because archetypes are deliberately not specific. They’re supposed to be broad definitions, summaries of typical, general ideas and concepts. It’s a bit like looking at a Boeing 747 and assigning it the archetype of “jet airplane.” It’s true. It is a jet. And it fits the archetype of a jet: Jet-engines, wings, tail fin, etc. But at the same time,  the F117 Nighthawk also falls under that archetype. And while both are fully comfortable under that umbrella, both serve vastly different purposes.

So then, when it comes to what we use archetypes for (and perhaps we should add why to this question), the answer is fairly straightforward. We use them as broad descriptors of something, as a way to funnel people’s minds in the proper direction. In the same way that we can use the term “jet aircraft” to apply to both a Boeing and an F117, we can use the term “Hero’s journey” to give someone the idea of the basics of a story or concept. However, just as the Boeing and the F117 are different planes, so might our specific hero’s journey be very different from what someone else’s would be. Again (and to use another example), both Superman and Batman are heroes who lost their parents, but both are very different heroes.

But archetypes are useful for this kind of mental “funneling.” If a reviewer tells the reader that the main character follows the “heroic archetype,” than that tells the the reader something general (the main character is a hero and does heroic things) without being specific.

The catch with this is that in being so general, most characters and stories can fit multiple archetypes, often at the same time, and people have a tendency to confuse archetypes with other more specific definitions or classifications. Which leads to a muddled, jumbled mess that can confuse everyone … including the original one who used the terms. A heroic archetype, for instance, can still cover the tragic hero, but when people start getting the two confused or conflating the tragic hero with another conflicting form of identification, say a trope, you can end up with readers or even debaters going round in circles, unable to make ends meet.

In other words, archetypes are useful as general summaries of situations or stories, but are not useful, nor to be used as, incredibly precise definitions or examinations of a topic. That route is like trying to say that “jet aircraft” applies only to a Boeing 747, and that all the other “not-jet aircraft that are jets which fit the same description, but are not Boeing jets” must use another archetype. The obvious problem? We already have descriptors to describe the different between a Boeing 747 and other jets: It’s right there in the name. Boeing 747.

But you can probably see how this kind of insistence on specificity with a broad scale generalization might be a little counter-productive and confusing (and if you really, really want to see what happens when this mentality is taken to the full extreme, just go browse Tumblr for a while—or don’t, if you value your sanity and common sense). We can’t use something like an archetype as a precise definition. It just doesn’t work. That’s what we have more detailed or precise terms and definitions for; tropes and the like. These serve as our details. The archetype is just an umbrella term.

Right, then, what about that last starting question. How do we use archetypes?

Well, it depends on what you’re doing. Are you a reviewer? Well then, you might find it very useful to tell your readers that the book you just read is an adventure, or that the movie you just saw is a romantic comedy, or that the main character is a doctor. Those are archetypes, and they’ll funnel your reader’s expectations and thoughts in a certain direction. However, if you’re going to get more specific, you’re not going to find much help in repeatedly telling your readers that the character is a doctor. You can become more specific, however, and add in things like profession or specialty.

But there are other ways to use archetypes. For example, in thesis papers on books, discussion of archetypes will often be made to funnel the reader’s thoughts in a new direction, often to find new meaning or explore unexpected themes. For example, one can write two very different papers, with two very different conclusions, upon a story based on what archetype lens they view the story through. Looking at a mystery with the lens of a romance, for example, or vice-versa, has led to many a paper discussing a story in an new light and finding ways to look at the plot and the characters.

But what about fiction writing? Well, you can use archetypes there too. What kind of story do you want to write? Thriller? Fantasy? Epic Science-Fiction? Starting with archetypes can be a way to funnel your own creative process in the direction you want it to go, or give you an idea of what sort of story you’ll be wrestling with, which can be incredibly useful for brainstorming, as it gives you some basics to play with. Starting with basic archetypes? You’ll be able to make rough estimates how the characters and plotline will go. From there, you can start working out small details with a rough idea of how each one will affect the outcome, and from there you can create a more and more detailed. picture of what you’re going to create. Simple, but effective. And it can help for more than just your own brainstorming as well. Archetypes can be used to present a quick summary of another writer’s work in a writing group session, or perhaps to offer general suggestions on changes they could make. Archetypes are useful for stuff like this.

So, archetypes are general summarizes of an idea, concept, or thing. It can be a “hero.” It can be a “adventure.” But we use them as funnels, as guides to give readers and ourselves an idea of the general scope and direction of our work. What it isn’t is a precise definition of an idea (those are tropes and the likewise), but rather something we can use to quickly put our audience and ourselves on the same page—though the words on that page might differ.

Are archetypes useful? Of course. Provided we use them as intended. If we don’t, we end up with confused, circling ideas and debates. But if we do, we can guide discussions, ideas, and ourselves towards a further, and eventually deeper, understanding of whatever it is we’re working on, be that thesis paper, review, or even our own story.

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