A Little On Archetypes

Posted: October 18, 2012 in Discussions, On Books, On Writing
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Archetype is defined in the dictionary as: noun- 1- the original pattern or model for which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based, a model or first form, a prototype 2- (in Jungian psychology) a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc, universally present in individual psyches. ( from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/archetype?s=t )

Now, archetypes are all around us, and in horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. fiction, it’s important to know archetypes for the genre and know how to avoid turning your individual work into a cookie cutter story.

Don’t get me wrong, archetypes are not bad, and many great stories have come from them. The only problem is with archetypes, your vampire or Big Foot, or werewolf could end up like damn near every other one ever written about. So how do we avoid this?

Basically, the archetype is everything that is typical of a certain kind of story. For example, in a story, there are details included about the house feeling cold, strange noises in the walls, the lights flickering, people getting the sensation that they’re being watched. All these elements can go without a label, because people would know upon reading these details that it is a ghost story. That is because there is an archetype for ghosts, and while we may not want to admit that they really exist, they do exist on a shared imaginary level that is learned, handed down, or inferred through movies, stories, etc. Think of any major monster you’ve heard of, like the vampire. The vampire is the perfect example of an archetype (though its been changed a bit recently by new books and movies). We all know the basic vampire has fangs, pasty or pale skin, they can hypnotize you with their gaze, they’re afraid of garlic, sunlight, and crucifixes, they drink human blood, a steak to the heart will kill one, you can’t see their reflection, etc.

When using an archetype, I feel that it’s very important to set your story apart from others, much as Stephanie Meyer did with her Twilight series. She changed little things here and there on that dusty old archetype, and made it her own, such as the sparkling vampires. It’s up to you whether you want to change the archetype itself or events and circumstances surrounding the archetype. However it’s important that when changing something to explain how and/or why this is. Failing to do so can leave your story to fall flat.

Also, when using an archetype, be sure to research or at least think hard on other stories you know use the same one. Back to the vampire, let’s say you had this wonderous idea to write about a little back woods town that is slowly changed into a town full of vampires. You might want to think twice about that one, since it’s been done before in Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. A good way to implement the idea would be to develop that idea a little farther, go into more detail. Changing your “little back woods town that is slowly changed into a town full of vampires” into “a resort or hotel where everyone is changed into a vampire”. See how little tweaks, little changes, can make a world of difference and make your story your own?

The thing that makes archetypes so easy and so helpful is that they are widely known or widely accepted ideas. This makes it easier for the reader to connect with the story on some level. They’ve heard of your monster before and know a little of what to expect when they pick up your story. Versus writing a story about a monster that didn’t previously exist, even in our collective imaginations.

Creating your own monster is a difficult thing to do. If you don’t include enough detail, the creature won’t stand in its own story. This is why I stress the importance of research. Some people may think that horror, sci-fi, fantasy writers have it easy. Nothing that we write about really exists, right? So we can just make it all up as we go. Wrong. If using an archetype, you must thoroughly research the lore, background, and other stories written about the same thing. A poorly researched archetype makes for a poor story, especially when you forget that most vampires are allergic to garlic, and yours are eating spaghetti. The same is true for our created, individual monsters. They must feel as real as possible, otherwise it’s not believable. Have your monster take on a trait shared by well-known predators, or maybe use traits of known archetypes. You want to include details that your readers can recognize as being from or correlating with the real world.

Any thoughts, or comments on archetypes? Share them, please. How do you use archetypes in your writing?

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