Thursday, January 27, 2011

Luuuuuke...I am your [insert archetype here]

So, I'm not going to lie. Literary Criticism was definitely not among my favorite subjects in school. Deconstructionism, Marxism, Feminism...I understood why all these things were important in literature, I just didn't feel a passion for them.

That is, until we hit Archetypal criticism. Oh, be still my beating Joseph Campbellian heart. As writers, most of us have heard of the hero's journey; if you haven't, just go watch Star Wars or the Matrix. There, you now understand The Hero's Journey. Okay, maybe it's a little more complicated than that...but just a little.

But of course there's more to archetypes than Campbell had to say about them. Literature of every genre is nothing but swimming with them: the comic hero, the brave knight, the damsel in distress, the dark witch, the wise mentor, the lovable droids, the...wait. Well, you get the picture. In a general sense, they're eternal tropes. You can find them--sometimes completely unmutated--as far back as the Bible, the Popul Vuh, the Qu'ran and the early drafts of Star Wars (Luke Starkiller? Come on.)

And as much as I, as a reader, like things new and different and exciting, there's comfort in the familiar. As a writer, archetypes and tropes are, dare I write it, HELPFUL. They provide a base and touchstone for our readers and for all of our common experiences. We're just as free as anything to mutate them to suit our whims, but in all reality your story just might need to have an evil stepmother. Don't run from it, embrace it! Embrace it and make it yours. So what if your spunky girl just so happens to be red-headed? Alanna of Tortall, Anne of Green Gables, and Pippi Longstocking all were too, and we don't shout plagiarism at L.M. Montgomery or Tamora Pierce. There can be beautiful, subtle distinctions in archetypes and tropes and THAT makes all the difference.

TV Tropes
, that delightful time black hole of a site, said it best: TROPES ARE TOOLS. (Now that you've clicked over there and have spent seven hours on the wiki, it's good to have you back. Don't worry, it happens to everyone.) They can be dangerous if used wrong, but used right, they enrich our writing, expand our worlds and--most importantly for me--they are INSPIRING. Heck, every single page in Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces" and every entry in TV Tropes houses a brand new shiny idea for a story.

Do you notice archetypes in the works you read or write? Do you intentionally add things that turn out to be a common trope later? How many people with red shirts have you killed, honestly?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a few tabs open.

This and more delicious XKCD found here:


Unknown said...

I love archetypes! I think people forget that they are a little different than a cliche`. A cliche` only relies on previous concepts of the idea being presented while an archetype uses something familiar (or even timeless? true on some metaphysical, beyond specific details Reality?) to create something speciific and full on new details and variations.

K. Marie Criddle said...

Yes! Exactly, that's the perfect way to put it. Sometimes the line is so fine, though...therein lies the beauty and necessity of multiple brilliant beta readers to point out if (for me, when) you cross that line.

L. T. Host said...

I still remember drawing out the little circle for the hero's journey in high school and being amazed when my teacher then proceeded to tell me all the stories I already knew that used it.

Tropes aren't overused because people steal them, they're overused because they are the basic tenets of storytelling. And any storyteller worth their salt can hide a trope in the layers of the story they're telling.

LOVE xkcd! Hubby and I bonded over it when we first started dating :)

K. Marie Criddle said...

So true, L.T. The best is not even realizing a story has utilized a trope until it smacks you in the face. Subtlety is a beautiful, elusive thing.

And that's so cute on the bonding. :) I have to, more often than not, explain some of the nerdier aspects of XKCD to my husband. Heaven help him, he tries.

Matthew Delman said...

I've more than once actively sought out Tropes to see how I might be able to apply them to my story to simplify things. Any tricks I can use to make people easily understand my story's message I am all good with.

*snicker* I remember your poor hubs falling asleep the first two times I met him, and then bemoaning the fact that "I'm fun!"

K. Marie Criddle said...

Ha! Oh, Matt. You poor thing, to meet P-town at the height of dental school. Even *I* didn't see him awake for a good six months.

Adam Heine said...

Good Lord! I just clicked on the Tropes Are Tools link. THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SAFE!!!

K. Marie Criddle said...

I'm so sorry Adam. I should have added a PRODUCTIVITY SPOILER ALERT. Maybe'm sorry, what were we talking about?