On our podcast, Firsts In Fiction, Steve and I look at archetypes, how they can inform our story, and how to use them effectively without falling into stereotypical character and plot structures. You may download the podcast here.
To begin, we need to understand what an archetype is. Long story short, we can think of archetypes of as shapes that our characters and stories fill. These are repeated patterns that we see in literature, television, movies, plays, and poetry. One of the greatest examples of modern cinema that relies heavily on these archetypes are Star Wars (which George Lucas wrote based on The Hero's Journey, a book by Joseph Campbell outlining the most common archetypes). The Lord of the Rings is also another classic example, though I'm not sure how much Tolkien consciously used Campbell's work. To understand archetypes, you may want to reference this site, which has a list of archetypes compiled by Lisa Lawrence of Jenkins High School in Oklahoma.
Archetypes are great if we use them as blueprints. However, we fall into a trap if we don't flesh out our character. What good would a building be without insulation, dry wall, and stucco siding? These can give us the bones of our stories, but they are not our end. If we end with these descriptions as-is, we fall into stereotype, which leaves our stories and characters feeling one-dimensional and unexciting. They're too easy to predict.
We want to borrow from these, but we also want to mix and match. We want to turn these tropes upside down. When we do, our audience will subconsciously understand what we're doing, respond to the archetype by recognizing the familiar elements, but still be surprised throughout the story.
In previous episodes, we've talked about originality coming from the unique combination of ideas. I often refer to Twilight as Romeo and Juliet with fangs. However, Stephanie Myers' inspiration was Pride and Prejudice. While she enjoyed quite a bit of success, I won't be able to write Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliet with fangs because it's been done. People would compare me to Myers' in a negative way. However, I can combine Twilight and X-men if I were so inclined.
Christopher Paolini is often criticized for "ripping off Star Wars." They call his Eragon series "Star Wars with dragons." The criticism is well-founded, but instead of condemning him for it, we should celebrate the combination of those ideas. We recognize his use of Archetypes, so the story feels familiar, and we instinctively are drawn to the characters and shape of the story, but are surprised at some of the turns the story must take in order for it to work.
Bible stories are great to pull from, as they're the basis for most of our archetypes. Imagine a popular story, and put it in a new setting, or a new genre. How might it look? When so many stories are written about the Young Hero from the Provinces, we read it with great interest not because we're particularly drawn to the hero, but to the originality of the province. Star Wars, Eragon, Lord of the Rings, and the Wheel of Time series all utilize the Hero from the Provinces archetypical structure, but the provinces from which they come vary greatly.
If you're stuck in your novel or story, try to find which archetypes you're using. Tapping into that instinctive story-telling well might tell you what step your hero must take next.
Until then, good writing.
About Aaron D. Gansky
Aaron D. Gansky is a novelist, teacher, and writing mentor. He is the author of the novel The Bargain (2013, Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas) as well as The Hand of Adonai, a YA Fantasy series. Additionally, he’s written two short books on the craft of fiction; Firsts in Fiction: First Lines and Write to Be Heard (with Diane Sherlock). To find out more about his books, visit his book page here.
Twitter for Firsts In Fiction: https://twitter.com/FirstsInFiction
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A Writer's Tale
Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
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