Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Archetypes are Not Stereotypes

As I read through submissions I see a great confusion (I believe) on the part of authors when it comes to creating their characters. This confusion seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the words "archetype" and "stereotype" (I will also extend this to cliche). Let's see if we can clear that up today and start with the basic definitions of each of the words:

Archetype is defined as "a typical character, an action or situation that seems to represent universal patterns of human nature."

Stereotype is defined as "an author's method of treating a character or situation in a fixed way"

and Cliche is defined as "an expression that has been overused to the extent that it loses its original meaning or novelty. A cliche may also refer to actions and events which are predictable because of some previous events. 

The problem we often see is that authors are presenting characters in their novels not so much as an archetypal character, but pushing it to such an extreme that the characters become stereotypical and cliche. The end result of this is that the story itself lacks the strength and the uniqueness so necessary in today's publishing market.

When it comes to archetypes, readers love to count on certain things from these characters. As the definition states, these are "universal patterns" meaning that we as readers can all relate to this type of character. The odds are, we all have these type of people in our lives.

The issue, however, is when the author has pushed this to such an extreme. Let's look at a couple of examples:
  • The male best friend of the heroine happens to be either gay or very clearly metro.
  • The heroine who needs to be saved happens to be a book worm or a librarian.
  • The hero of the romantic suspense happens to be an ex special ops soldier who saw his buddy die in a military combat.
By taking this extreme, the author loses the vital connection with the reader. That connection will only work IF the reader happens to have someone in their life that matches that stereotype exactly.

The other factor that comes into play is that the reader has nothing to look forward to. When we writer our stories, we want to keep the reader turning the pages. We want them always on their toes wondering what is going to happen next. If, however, an author moves into that stereotypical or cliche side, we end up already knowing the end. At some level, what is the point of reading when we already know what is going to happen.

If an author reads the submission guidelines for most publishers, they will find archetypes of what they are looking for. We want a hero who is tough, but vulnerable. We want a heroine who knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it. These "definitions" provide the author a lot of room to craft their stories with a unique and personal tone. These are not carved in stone.

I spoke yesterday about showing the editors and agents you have something new. This is just one of those ways you can do that. Give us the archetype but make it your own! 

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