Sep
8
2014

Tropes and Archetypes – Exceeding Reader Expectations

On a biological level, humans are programmed to recognize patterns, an ability that has made us very adept at quickly making decisions about the present and the future. In behavioral psychology, this is referred to as heuristic problem solving. Generations of storytellers have analyzed works of art and identified the aspects that made them successful. They then used that knowledge to improve their own projects. With enough uses, some of these patterns have become an expected part of fiction. Today, we call them archetypes and tropes.

Archetypes tend to be large in scale, serving as the foundation of an entire character, plot structure or other major story element. One of the most obvious examples of an archetypal plot structure is the Fraytag plot. The story starts with exposition leading to an initiating event. Tension then increases through the rising action and culminates with a climax. Finally, the story wraps up with a falling action and denouement. This arrangement has been effective for storytellers for thousands of years, and was in fact discussed in rough terms by Aristotle, and later described in its current incarnation by Gustov Fraytag in 1863. Does the age of the structure make it cliché or trite? Of course not. It is an effective tool, a skeleton of a plot, but not the plot itself.

Tropes, on the other hand, apply to more specific, smaller scale incidences and serve as markers for quick identification. Often, genres are defined by their most common tropes. For instance, the tall, dark, and handsome male love interest is a trope of the romance genre. In this case, that combination of traits serves as an identifier, telling the reader that the character will likely become the love interest. This sort of marker allows the audience to recognize a pattern within the story and quickly move on without much processing time.

Archetypes and tropes aren’t clichés, but can feel trite if they are applied without elaboration or further development. Take our tall, dark, and handsome love interest. Once the audience has identified the trope, they will expect the writer to take her character further and show them why he is attractive to the protagonist other than because he is tall, dark, and handsome.

Like anything else, using tropes and archetypes are a give-and-take balancing act. Though they are effective at communicating information, they cannot be used as the only element in a construction without feeling clichéd. It is therefore the author's responsibility to understand how and why archetypes and tropes are effective, and then move past them to both use and exceed the reader’s expectation.

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