Writers use them all the time, but what are they? Why do we use them?
An archetype is a typical character, situation, theme or symbol that is easily recognised and very common in novels, plays and movies.
We always notice typical characters, or clichéd ones, such as the two-cop partnership, the quirky or unusual best buddies, the teacher/mentor student partnership, the sappy female who needs rescuing by the hero or the smart-mouthed wise guy and so on. These are familiar character archetypes, but we’re interested in story archetypes.
A diverse range of story archetypes can bring a different purpose to the story. It’s not about complexity; to make a novel look complex, but rather it’s about simplicity - story archetypes help the reader identify with the characters and the story and their situations, because they see something they recognise and they easily understand such experiences.
There are plenty of situation archetypes that writers use all the time. They’re commonly used and easily recognisable, and they represent just a small portion that you can find in all literature. There are dozens of distinct types of situational archetypes found on the internet and in books, and they all cite the same things, for instance, the Quest describes the search for someone or something which will restore order in some way to the character and his situation, or make something good again.
Another familiar one is the Journey, where the hero goes in search of something – the truth, information; himself...it could be anything. It’s not that different from the Quest - the hero or heroine goes in search of something or someone and it’s about the journey they take to reach it.
Another other common type is rags to riches. How often have we read about these types of stories? This is where the hero or heroine is born into a life of poverty, but eventually, through hard work, help or even underhanded means, they overcome this and become rich and powerful. Of course, the ‘riches’ don’t have to necessarily mean money. Sometimes we enrich ourselves through knowledge, family, or what we do for others.
Fall and rise is similar to rags to riches because it describes how the protagonist starts off in a position of authority or power, and through a spate of bad luck, other people being underhanded or perhaps because of his own actions, he falls from grace and ends up losing everything and finds himself at the bottom of the pile, but through determination, hard work or sheer luck, he claws his way back to the top again.
There are others, such as Overcoming the Monster. The monster in question doesn’t have to be the horror movie kind either. It can be a person or a corporation or something more sinister.
You’ll probably recognise some aspects of these archetypes in your own writing. That’s not a bad thing, and that’s because there are a finite number of dramatic plots to use, but limitless ways we can interpret them, so we use these archetypes to help the reader feel familiar to and connected with the story.
In addition to situational archetypes, there are also symbolic archetypes that appear in stories. Again, some are quite common and very recognisable:
Light and darkness is used so often in literature that it could be a cliché, but like any archetype, it’s how we use it that makes the difference. We use light and dark because it’s still an effective symbol. Light usually suggests something spiritual, it represents hope, renewal, positivity or good things, whereas darkness implies foreboding, the feeling of vulnerability, the unknown, fear or something sinister. Writers use these two tropes as a way of contrasting narrative.
Fire and water are used symbolically because of the different associations with them. Water can symbolise just about anything, from life, being cleansed or even a soothing entity. Fire tends to denote rebirth, fear and or death. Again, different people use it symbolically for different reasons.
Birth and death doesn’t have to be literal – these can represent our state of being, our psyche and thought process and dreams. Symbolically they’re quite powerful – birth can often denote gaining knowledge or a realisation, whereas death can signify a breakdown of something; a marriage, feelings, a vehicle...anything the writer wants it to be.
Colours are another symbolic archetype that perhaps isn’t used as often as it could be, but we use them to provide contrasting ideas or to enhance the narrative.
There’s no doubt that black and red are the most often used colours. Black represents darkness, the unknown, our fears, death and all things nasty and evil. Red, on the other represents life (and death), love, passion, anger, injury and emotions.
White represents the light, and so we associate it with something pristine or virginal, spirituality, goodness and purity etc. Blue, on the other hand, is a colour not explored as much as black and red, yet it can represent depth, feeling or soothing. Darker blues can be used to accentuate mood and tone, as can grey and green.
Of course, there are story archetypes in just about anything – characters, numbers, symbols, plots/stories, themes etc.
We use them not because they’re common, but because they provide us with different ways to enrich our writing. We actually rely on them quite a lot – they form part of the building blocks of writing and they help our readers become familiar with the story.
Next week: How to start and end chapters