Archetypes are ubiquitous, yet misunderstood. All writers innately know how to use archetypes, yet many don’t realize that’s what they’re doing and don’t understand how they fit into literature as a whole. So let’s have a conversation about archetypes: What they are, what they aren’t, and how to use them.
Archetypes, in literature, are universal elements that show up over and over in various cultures across the world and throughout time. It can be any type of story element: A character (eg, the evil overlord), a plot (eg, the coming-of-age story), a symbol (eg, the forbidden fruit), and so on. Technical definitions of what archetypes are and how they work get complex and contentious, so I’ll keep it simple: If you can immediately name half a dozen drastically different works that use the same element, you’re looking at an archetype.
The most common misconception about archetypes is that they’re clichés. They are not. A cliché is a storytelling device that gets overused until everyone is tired of it. An archetype is a storytelling device that people never get tired of, no matter how often it’s used. For instance, a dragon kidnapping a princess is a cliché, so much so that for decades now we’ve expected any story along those lines to have a twist, such as the dragon kidnapping the prince and the princess needing to rescue him. But the dragon and the princess themselves are not clichés, because they are elements that we enjoy seeing in stories again and again*.
Many people think that, because they’re common and easy to use, archetypes are therefore bad and a sign of weak writing. It’s true that they are often used by beginners and weak writers and that they appear more often in the genres that the establishment considers less reputable (fantasy, romance), but there’s an important distinction between “things that bad writers do” and “bad writing.” After all, bad writers usually copy good writers.
Conversely, there’s the Jungian school of thought that archetypes tap into something universal deep in the human psyche and resonate with people in a way no other story can. This line of argument says that all characters and plots should be based on archetypes and that, the farther away they stray from well-established story types, the weaker they’ll be. I think this is also nonsense. An archetype is one type of character or plot that we know from experience works well, but there can be any number of less well-trodden ways to write a story that will resonate just as strongly or more so. Archetypes should never become rules to limit people.
Archetypes are like recipes. Some people always use recipes when they cook. Other cooks prefer to freestyle. Neither method is better; it’s entirely a matter of preference. Beginners and people who aren’t good at cooking are best advised to stick with a recipe, but it would be ludicrous to conclude that recipes make bad food or that really good cooks don’t use recipes. On the other hand, the fact that good recipes make delicious food doesn’t mean you need a recipe to make good food, and lots of excellent cooks never use a recipe.
I myself tend to be a freestyler, both when cooking and when writing. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with archetypes. They’re a fundamental storytelling tool that has been used, at one time or another, by practically every writer, and whether you prefer to use them or not, understanding archetypes is essential to being a writer.
*Okay, I don’t like the princess, but the question of problematic archetypes is a different conversation.
First image is (left to right) Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Orcus from Dungeons and Dragons (4th edition), the Horned King from The Black Cauldron, and the Lich King from World of Warcraft. Second image is The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. Third image is from Wikimedia Commons.