Story is about archetypes and tropes. Avoid stereotypes.

WHAT IS A STEREOTYPE?

The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to the narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, non-specific generalities. […] Stereotypical stories stay at home, archetypal stories travel.

Story, Robert McKee

COMEDY TRICK MAKING USE OF STEREOTYPES

Like many comic writers, Jeff Kinney, author of the Wimpy Kid books, makes use of our stereotypes by giving us just a few details then leaving us to fill in the rest. There’s no getting around it — a lot of comic writers rely on stereotypical views of their audience.

Greg’s older brother Rodrick is set up as a fool. Like lots of stereotypes we hold about dimwits, he can’t spell and is a member of a rock band. Of course, being unable to spell and having an interest in rock music has zero correlation to overall intelligence. But we find this combination of traits funny because it reinforces everything we believe (sort of) about someone who can’t spell ‘loaded diaper’, or who thinks they’re going to become famous via their garage band. Every now and then, however, Rodrick does something amazing. His strokes of genius defy our expectations (based on stereotype) and are ironically funny for that reason.

comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

WHAT IS A TROPE?

A trope is a pattern which can be seen time and again in various stories. The site TV Tropes is a good place to start for many, many examples of tropes (not just seen on TV). However, the ‘tropes’ on that site get a little too specific. Some of the most specific examples can’t really be considered tropes at all, except to the most discriminating of story consumers. In order to work, the trope has to be recognised by the audience.

When I first encountered the TV Tropes website I was overcome with a sense of There’s Nothing New I Can Possibly Add To The World of Storytelling. I’ve since calmed down a bit and realised that’s not true at all. Nor should we be afraid of using tropes in our own stories. In fact, if you try to avoid tropes, you’ll probably end up with something no one can connect to.

There are, however, tropes I avoid like the plague. Sexist and racist character tropes are to be avoided.

 

WHAT IS AN ARCHETYPE?

Archetypes are fundamental psychological patterns within a person. They are roles a person may play in society, essential ways of interacting with others.

e.g.

  • King/Father
  • Queen/Mother
  • Warrior
  • Magician/Shaman
  • Trickster
  • Artist/Clown
  • Lover
  • Rebel

Archetype is a five-dollar word for ‘pattern’, or for the mythic original on which a pattern is based. It’s like this: somewhere back in myth, something — a story, let’s call it — comes into being. It works so well, for one reason or another, that it catches on, hangs around, and keeps popping up in subsequent stories. That component could be anything: a quest, a form of sacrifice, flight, a plunge into water, whatever resonates and catches our imaginations, setting off vibrations deep in our collective consciousness, calling to us, alarming us, inspiring us to dream or nightmare, making us want to hear it again and again. You’d think that these components, these archetypes, would wear out with use the way cliche wears out, but they actually work the other way: they take on power with repetition, finding strength in numbers. … When we hear or see or read one of these instances of archetype, we feel a little frisson of recognition and utter a little satisfied ‘aha!’. And we get that chance with fair frequency, because writers keep employing them.

— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor

Because they are basic to all human beings, archetypes cross cultural boundaries and have universal appeal.

The idea of an archetype comes from Jung’s psychoanalytical writings. Jung wrote about our heads, but the Canadian critic Northrop Frye took these ideas and applied them to books.

Unless you give the archetype detail, it can become a stereotype (or a cliche). A stereotype is a character who behaves in exactly the way he or she is supposed to, according to the prevailing conventions.

Always make the archetype specific and individual to your unique character.

Don’t bother looking for the originals upon which modern archetypes are based — there has probably never been a single, definite version of the archetypes.

Robert McKee says:

Characters are not people. Whereas people constantly change and are difficult to pin down, characters in stories stand for things about human nature that are unchangeable through the ages.

See: Fairytale Archetypes

RELATED LINKS ABOUT STEREOTYPES

  1. World map of useless stereotypes.
  2. Your Scene Sucks. Why you are just like everybody else.
  3. Stereotypes, stereotypes, everywhere from Teen Skepchick
  4. Automotive stereotypes look a bit different in Australia, so this American summary was interesting.