Author’s Note: Breaking Archetypes

Here we are — the last of the archetype series! Are you relieved? I am! Three months on the same topic?! Geez, it’s like writing a book!

Anyway, onward and upward! In previous months we’ve talked about how to successfully work with archetypes. Today, I’m going to tell you what not to do. First, we’re going to briefly discuss archetypes that aren’t what they appear. Then we’ll talk about two mistakes I see most often: breaking an archetype, and having an incomplete archetype.

Let’s get started!

So, archetypes that aren’t what they appear. In one of the first archetype columns, my editor mentioned priest and nun archetypes. You may notice I haven’t used them. The reason is this: it’s almost impossible to find a priest or a nun archetype in current media.

“Ah ha!” I hear you cry. “What about Shepherd Book in Firefly? Or Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Sister Act? Or … uh…” Yeeaaah. I even hit up TV Tropes just now, and even THEY don’t have much of a list for priests. Sure, they have different types of priests — pedophile priests, sexy priests, and so on. But none of those are a straight-up priest archetype, and the same is true when I searched for nuns.

So, let’s look at the priest archetype. When you think of a real life priest, what is the first thing you think of? A father figure, a spiritual man, someone who ministers and helps his flock, offering advice where he can, a quiet man, a man who does not do anything to excess, etc. A priest is often defined not only by that inner holy feeling, but also by what he does: a priest without a flock is a different archetype altogether. Priests don’t wander; a holy man who wanders has a different archetype. It could be one of several: it could be a missionary, a wanderer, a holy man, a Buddha, etc. But it’s not a priest. Priests stay home. Shepherd Book, therefore, regardless of the fact that he is a priest, does not have a priest archetype.

Let’s look at nuns. There are two prominent nun archetypes: the cloistered nun and the outreach nun. The cloistered nun is, well, cloistered. They pray and chant and pray some more. These are the nuns in The Sound of Music. (Maria, the main character, does not have a nun archetype, even though she’s a nun.) An outreach nun works giving food to the homeless, is a holy woman, and may or may not wear a wimple. For instance, Sister Peg, a reoccurring character on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Whoopi Goldberg was certainly not a nun archetype. Warrior nuns are not nun archetypes; they are warrior nun archetypes.

Does this make sense? How about this: Will from Will and Grace. He is gay, but he does not have the stereotypical gay man archetype. (Stereotypes that are archetypes eventually start to break down, which is what’s happening here. Thank goodness, since not all gay men swish!) My point here is that just because someone is something, doesn’t mean they have that archetype. Someone who’s a librarian but parties all night doesn’t have a librarian archetype, regardless of their title.

All this just to say: don’t think that just because someone is something, that means they MUST have that archetype!

Okay, onward. Let’s talk about breaking archetypes. Do you ever hear someone say, “That’s out of character”? What they’re really saying is, “You broke the archetype!” I had this reaction when I watched the third Transformers movie last summer. Until then, Optimus Prime had been shown as a hero archetype, complete with a hero’s arc: sacrificing himself to save humans. In the last movie, he was shown as killing other transformers without regret or hesitation: NOT a hero trait. It threw me out of the movie, because in my mind, it broke the archetype. (I am using the qualifier, “in my mind,” because it was not a strong archetype, and many others probably didn’t feel the same way.)

A hypothetical breaking would be a character with a nun archetype who suddenly becomes cruel, or a risk taker archetype who is suddenly cowardly. You can set any of these things up, of course, but if they appear without a set up and contrary to their archetype, you are breaking an archetype.

Similar but different is an incomplete archetype. For this I turn to the Harry Potter movies. Now, I didn’t read the books; I only saw the movies. I am told that this incomplete archetype was completed in the books, but for argument’s sake, let’s stick with the movies. Take a look at the character Draco. He has a victim archetype (among others). The victim archetype, like the hero archetype, has its own arc: it becomes victorious. Draco was made victim when he was told to kill Dumbledore but clearly knew it was wrong, and when his parents unwillingly handed him over to Voldemort’s side. This victim archetype was built up over the last three movies or so, and I was quite looking forward to the victorious part — only it never appeared. Had he stood up and taken sides with the good guys, or if his parents had stood up and rescued him, either of those would have made either him or his family unit victorious, completing the victim arc. It didn’t happen, and I was left feeling like a subplot hadn’t been wrapped up.

This can also happen when a hero arc isn’t completed. People may walk away feeling like there was no character growth. Nothing changed because the arc didn’t reach its end. Complete archetype arcs are just as important to story-telling as complete character arcs; your hero may learn how to overcome his fear of spiders, but if that’s not important to his task as a hero it won’t matter that he grew as a person; his archetype is still incomplete. You need both.

So, now you know how to spot and apply an archetype, combine and make interesting archetypes, and what NOT to do with archetypes. Next month: We’ll talk about something other than archetypes. Woo hoo!

Posted on December 27, 2011 at 17:16 by JB McDonald · Permalink
In: Columns, Columns, The Written Word · Tagged with: , , , ,