Stereotypes, Tropes and Archetypes

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

It’s hard if you confirm a stereotype and it’s hard if you violate a stereotype and it’s hard if you think you’re violating the stereotype only because you hate it so much.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
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.

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.

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. Some academics use the word archetype and then make sure to distance themselves from the specifically Jungian definition. This is from a footnote I happened across:

The concept of “archetype” is used here to denote a widely-known story characterised by a repetition in its characteristics (the setting and resolution are predetermined) and a slight variation in its details; the concept of the “archetype” as used in this paper is devoid of the Jungian overtones commonly associated with the concept.

See: Fairytale Archetypes

ALISON HALDERMAN: Don’t people tend to choose an archetype they like and then seek out books that use that theme?

URSULA LE GUIN: Sure. Because people always need new symbols and metaphors.

The Last Interview

RELATED LINKS ABOUT STEREOTYPES

  1. World map of useless stereotypes.
  2. Automotive stereotypes look a bit different in Australia, so this American summary was interesting.