Stereotype vs. Archetype

And Why They Both Matter

Today’s topic for writers and students of writing: proper use of the archetype. The reluctant hero. The wise magician. The power-hungry villain. Yes, we know them.

Archetype: A typical and recurring example used as a model from which to build a character. Readers quickly recognize archetypes, allowing authors to provide context and backstory for their characters in only a few words. I say power-hungry villain, and readers think, “Oh yes, I know him!”

Not to be confused are stereotypes, or the widely held and oversimplified ideas of certain people. The power-hungry villain, yes, but not all villains want to take over the world. (Cue The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”)

Whenever I’m in an airport, I people-watch. Duty-free shoppers, low-battery outlet hunters, those efficient types who power walk on the moving sidewalk. Sleepless individuals zombified at the terminal, trapped in layover purgatory. Their clothing, facial expressions, juicy snippets of conversation. Hemingway said, “If a writer stops observing he is finished.” Everyone there has a story, and I try to figure it out.

For example, the woman by herself toting a purse the size of her carry-on, Kindle and neck pillow already out, is on her way to visit her parents. She bought the chips and bottled water at the snack stand; she’s comfortable, bored, and makes the trip a few times each year. Suit jacket guy is some kind of consultant making twice as much as me. It’s the end of the week, so I’m guessing he’s on his way back instead of on his way out. That family of four with kids glued to iPads, Frozen backpacks, and ziplock bags of Goldfish is going to Disney World—too easy, that one.

Anyway, to my point: Writers are detectives, deducing the logical, likely, and mundane aspects of a situation. After all, good characters are grounded in reality so that the inevitable twist in the plot comes with a willing suspension of disbelief. Certain universalities of the human experience tie readers to a story and allow literature to speak its transcendent truths. Readers understand the rebellious teen, the loathsome stepmother, the insightful mentor. Archetypes provide a framework, a proper syntax for the writer and reader to communicate. Conflict needs archetypes—the average office employee has no appeal until he becomes the workaholic father or the guy with a dead-end job lacking love or adventure. Readers know these starting points; they understand and relate to these problems.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, shut down a story instead of open it up. While archetypes provide background information to enrich a character, stereotypes limit and flatten them. The rebellious teen starts out okay until readers realize that their spike-wearing, punk-rock-loving, high-school-failing, parent-disobeying heroine is, well, just a stereotypical rebellious teen. Without anything fresh or unexpected, the story implodes. The characters are two-dimensional; the plot is no longer one to care about. Clever use of archetypes says, “Look, readers, you already know the beginning. Now keep going and find out where this adventure will take you.” Careless use of stereotypes says, “Look, readers, you already know the ending. So why bother?”

Back at the airport, my archetypes help me make sense of what I’m seeing. If I needed to know which gate is boarding a flight to Orlando, I’d do well to ask the Disney World family. Stereotypes, however, end the story prematurely. Assuming that the traveling consultant is an arrogant know-it-all? Well, I might miss out on a stimulating conversation aboard the plane. Real people are three-dimensional with story and complexity, and real characters ought to follow.

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