Tropes vs. Archetypes

Tropes vs. Archetypes

This is a follow-up to some points Marissa made in her recent post about characters. When creating a character it’s important to think about who they are, their desires, and where they come from. We’re products of our environment, your characters should be too. A good place to start is by studying archetypes and clichéd tropes. The first is a good base to build from, the latter is the result you want to avoid.

I’ll start with some easy definitions:

  • Archetype: something that fits fundemental human motifs and is reused without becoming trite or stale.
    Example: A mentor character, a Loveable Rogue.
  • Trope: culturally specific person or theme that is already present in the reader’s mind. Often becomes a cliche. 
    Example: Magical Native, Broken Bird.

I’ll get this out of the way now: your character is going to fit into some archetype. And that’s OK. It’s even good. Get over the whole “They’re an original perfect unique snowflake!” Now, tropes in and of themselves aren’t inherently bad, but they are  often used poorly and become a shallow, lazy way to create a character that the term carries a pretty negative connotation. Lets take the above examples. 

  • Mentor vs Magical Native
    There is always a mentor character in any journey. Good examples are Yoda in Star Wars, Dumbledore in Harry Potter, Qindra in Forged in Fire. They are wise, cryptic, powerful, and often a bit morally ambiguous. Within those guidelines there is tons of creative wiggle room. Now, if we look at a trope of a guiding/mentoring character, Magical Native, we see a big issue. 
    The character of a Magical Native is often the only character of color, and their entire existence centers around guiding the main character (often to ultimately Do The Thing better than people who studied it for hundreds of years). Characters who exist only for a single plot device are a problem, regardless of color or sex, but these are the roles most often given to marginalized folks.
  • Loveable Rogue vs Broken Bird
    She blazes in, weapon and tongue equally sharp with a rap-sheet as long as her list of complaints. He’s more likely to run and hide, but when he does fight it’ll be for Good (but not the Law) and with a barrage of snark. Character examples: George Cooper of the Song of the Lioness, Wesley of The Princess Bride, and Catwoman of Batman. Again, there’s a lot of ways a character can be built off of this archetype. Learning the over-used ones so we can avoid them, is a great first step.
    Broken Bird’s often have a good-but-bad personality type too. They were good-hearted but have a troubled past and lots of emotional (and sometimes physical) scars. They are interesting because they are “damaged.” Most of their character arc serves to show how not-shallow the main character is when they don’t give up on the Broken Bird. There’s usually a resolution that involves “fixing” said Bird. While I whole-heartedly endorse adding characters who had suffered trauma or are neurodiverse, you need to be sure you’re not perpetuating a harmful myth. People can’t be fixed with a kiss, and we shouldn’t pretend they can be.

Tropes and archetypes are a great instance to learn the rules so we can break them. There are many sites that have extensive lists on Tropes and their appearances in main stream culture. As authors we need to make sure we’re not perpetuating something negative — Manic Pixie Dream Girls(Boys) and Token Race characters are too common. Learn common archetypes and tropes in your genre. Why are they so often used? What are we doing to make them different (and we should be doing something). And above all, write characters that are People.

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