A lot of modern storytellers, critics, and reviewer types lament these things called tropes, literary and rhetorical devices which appear frequently enough to be recognizable. The same goes for archetypes, characters of certain frequencies types (wise old granny, etc).

The complaints go that tropes and archetypes are tired and old and no longer interesting. That they constitute lazy storytelling.

I assert, though, that tropes and archetypes are not the problem. Shallow application of these are the real issue.

The human brain only has so many possible variations it can embody and comprehend. This is why we can comprise a system of frequent mental health disorders, and also why archetypes speak to us. We actually enjoy familiar patterns, and familiarity makes immersion easier.

Stories have been with us as long as we’ve been a species. Toddlers learn beat through stories, and imaginative play is how they share their understanding of the world.

We use familiar archetypes as vehicles to simplify the raw data we need to transmit to each other.

If you need to build not only a person’s understanding of new physics but also how language works, how senses work, and lay an entirely new foundation, that’s a lot of work to get a person into the story you’re telling.

The more familiar the elements, the faster they sink in.

However. Weak storytellers who’ve not developed their skills believe tropes and archetypes are all that’s necessary for a story. They saturate the market with shallow repeats of the same dross over and over.

Creative types overreact by proudly shunning any familiarity at all.

You can check the shelves at your local collapsing bookstore to see what a system which abhors familiarity does to general appeal.

Note the growing toy section in Barnes & Noble. Did you know they only stay afloat by selling store locations every year? Eventually they’ll run out.

Humans need familiar touchstones to feel immersed in a story without having to constantly pause and remember new facts.

But how much familiarity? Too much and we become bored.

More than that: Not enough depth creates lack of motivation to learn.

The lesson here for authors is there’s a long spectrum running from shallow archetypes & tropes to abrasively avant garde.

The key ingredient: Depth. You start with an archetype. What’s under the surface? What human experiences made them into that archetype? How will they grow?

Dynamic characters who have a reason to be their archetype and eventually grow beyond their archetype are absolutely adored. Harry Potter is a classic example of a sad orphan abused by unloving people. An archetype. Gandalf is an archetype. Ned Stark. Superman.

Then a twist.

This is where so many creators go wrong. They twist too far and make the character alien and unrelatable. Or they don’t twist far enough and the character feels flat and stale.

The twist should either arise from their backstory for being the archetype or should interplay with it

Harry’s twist is that he’s a wizard. This arises from the reason he’s an unloved orphan archetype abused by a cruel system. It also interacts with that backstory by shaping what kind of man he becomes as he makes choices on morality.

The best characters do both because the twist forces them to confront their past and mindfully shape their future.

And this is why we really need that familiarity. Because the story needs to ring true, and that means we need to know what we believe the character SHOULD do.

Consistent cries of “It doesn’t make sense that the character did that” arise from too much alienation in the familiarity window. People can predict what should happen for that archetype. They WANT to see it fulfilled. Like a destiny. It’s satisfying.

So in summation, if you want to appeal to a wide audience: Mind the opposing pull between familiar and new. Provide a familiar entry for your audience. Twist in such a way it makes sense for past and future. Provide dynamic depth without alienating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s