The Archetype, Your Characters, and You

Holy cow, how long has it been since I’ve posted on here? Is anyone even still out there anymore? Sorry for being MIA for a while. I’ve had a… busy summer, to say the least. Lots of things happening, good and bad. Lots of traveling. Lots of feelings. But no matter if these events left me broken-hearted or ecstatic, they each have given me plenty of fodder for writing. And THAT is undoubtedly a good thing.

I’ve been doing a ton of writing lately. I’ve also, of course, been doing tons of reading. And playing video games. And watching movies/TV shows. It’s been a relaxing month or so (at least compared to the hectic start to the summer).

In each story I’ve heard, through whatever medium, I’ve noticed a ton of archetypes. And it got me thinking: what is the difference between an archetype and a stereotype? And are they something to steer clear of in writing? What about in real life? Wouldn’t we be better off without these stereotypes/archetypes? Wouldn’t it allow room for more complexity and individuality if we got rid of them altogether?

I’ve come up with some answers.

A stereotype reduces a character (fictional or non-fictional) to one dimension. Take, for instance, my least favorite stereotype: “the bitch.” Now this stereotype stems from a big thing called internalized misogyny, but I’m not writing this post as a lesson in sexism. But I’ve noticed that all the mean girl characters in mainstream media are inevitably reduced to “the bitch” stereotype, no matter how complex they actually are. Take, for instance, the character Emily in the new PS4 horror video game Until Dawn. Fan reactions to her have been pretty consistent: they don’t just hate her, they loathe her. Why? Because she hugged her ex-boyfriend once even though she currently “belongs” to another boy, and because she complains a lot. She’s also snippy; she has a big attitude. Oh, and she mutters something at one point about her $600 shirt being ruined, so she’s “obviously materialistic.” GOD FORBID she be a little pissed about that shirt (who wouldn’t be?!). Players up and down the board latch quickly onto this label and are so eager to hate her that, when given the option later in the game (SPOILER ALERT) they gladly pull a trigger and send a bullet through her eye instead of putting the gun down… which is a very real, very easy option.

Meanwhile, those players ignore her complexity. She has so many layers. She’s not just “bitchy” for the hell of it; she’s incredibly insecure, so she lashes out at people, including her boyfriend, and she acts tough and “masculine” as a defense mechanism so that she doesn’t appear “weak” or “vulnerable” (interestingly, traditionally feminine traits, and unsurprisingly, viewed as negative). Emily’s also intelligent, with a 4.0 GPA. And even though she screams and cries when she’s afraid, she still steps it up and survives. She’s the one to think of going up to the radio tower, which eventually (if you play the game right) gets everyone saved. And yet, everyone stereotypes her. So then as a character she becomes reduced. (Largely, I think this is because of the writing; she never gets her one “redeeming moment” like all the other characters do, and if she survives she continues being bitter and snippy. With better writers, I think she would have had that chance to prove herself and more people would maybe doubt their first impressions of her. But I digress.)

People are guilty of doing this in real life too — especially younger people, although I know many adults who sadly still jump to label others. For instance, cheerleaders and jocks are often written off as “shallow” in high school. (News flash: there is no such thing as a “shallow” human being. I hate that word.) It saves us the trouble of getting to know someone we might otherwise become great friends with. Stereotypes dehumanize people and distance us from each other. The act of stereotyping generally says more about you than it does about the person you’re labeling.

“The bitch” isn’t the only reductive stereotype; it’s just perhaps one of the most negative. There’s also the “virgin” stereotype where the good girl is pure and innocent (or the awkward boy is just looking to get laid), or the “nerd” stereotype where they’re always the butt of the jokes and/or the sidekick, or the “jock” stereotype where they’re essentially just pure muscle and no brains.

Archetypes, on the other hand — if used correctly — add depth to a character. It’s true that some writers may rely too heavily on archetypes and end up creating a cliche. This is often because they write that character into a single role and focus solely on that role, restricting the character’s personality and ability to change and adapt and grow.

That’s not to say archetypes are all bad though. In fact, I like to think that each of us — and every truly complex fictional character — has a little bit of every archetype within ourselves.

Now when I say archetype, I mean things like: maiden, mother, crone, hermit, magician, king, queen, warrior, fool, etc. That is, traditional, universally-recognized “characters” (you can find huge, varying lists of these all over the internet, or you can stick with the most well-known archetypes found in the Major Arcana of any Tarot deck). These archetypes — as far as writing goes — are building blocks. In real life, I like to think of them as channels. On many a bad day, I “channel my inner warrior” and put on a tough face. When I need a self-confidence boost, I “channel my inner queen” and hold my head high like a royal. When I face a difficult decision and don’t know which path to choose, I try to keep optimism in the face of the unknown and “channel my inner fool.” But I’m not just a warrior, just a queen, or just a fool. Sometimes I have the wisdom of the crone, the naivety of the maiden, the nurturing instinct of the mother, the thirst for learning of the magician. Each of these archetypes contributes to who I am as a fully-rounded human being. So, like I said: building blocks.

And they can serve the same purpose for your characters too. Do not reduce your characters to stereotypes.

And certainly don’t shy away completely from archetypes. They’re not the same as stereotypes because, generally, they’re not used as a vessel of hate or fear or misunderstanding. But at the same time, don’t reduce your characters to a single archetype, which is a common mistake of the new writer.

What are your thoughts? Have any pet peeves when it comes to stereotypes? Or even archetypes? Feel free to start a discussion below in the comments!

Happy writing!

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