Saturday, October 14, 2006

Is It A Stereotype Or An Archetype?

I got into an interesting debate with a fellow writer on Thursday night.

He was talking about plot-driven authors, and he gave as examples John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Stephen King. I countered, saying that--while I agree Grisham and Clancy are very much plot-driven writers--I think of King as being character-driven.

His response was interesting. He agreed that King wrote characters that readers cared about passionately, but complained that King often had stereotypical characters. As examples, he pointed to two characters in Carrie: the hyper-religious mother and the pretty but bitchy high school coed.

That answer struck a chord with me. I responded that an indication of King's genius as a writer is his ability to take a stereotype and turn it into a rich and complex character.

After all, what are stereotypes? They are our social reality. Everyone knows people who fit into one or another stereotype: the short but belligerant man; the always pregnant earth mother; the over-controlling but distant father.

The interesting thing is that if we change the word we use; if we say "archetype" instead of "stereotype," the dialogue changes, too. The word "archetype" just doesn't have the negative connotations that "stereotype" does.

I checked the definition of "archetype" in Wikipedia and found this:

In the analysis of personality, the term archetype is often broadly used to refer to: (1) a stereotype--personality type observed multiple times, especially an oversimplification of such a type; or (2) an epitome
--personality type exemplifed, especially the "greatest" such example.

In the hands of a skilled writer, a character becomes an archetype, a rich, complex individual who fascinates us and helps us to understand his/her motivations. When written by a less skilled writer, the same character becomes a stereotype--a stick figure with bones but no flesh.

I think it's a compliment to King to say that he takes a stereotypical character and enlarges it to the point that we become emotionally involved with the story and the character.

Archetypes are meaningful because they do reflect universal truths that we instinctively recognize. Stereotypes irritate us because we realize that a person is being reduced to a caricature.

Are you writing stereotypes or archetypes?

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