Posts Tagged ‘Sequence 05: Tropes and Archetypes’


Men in Tights vs Frozen – The Invocation and Subversion of Tropes and Archetypes

Tropes and archetypes are effective as a channel of short hand communication between the reader and writer because they are predictable. Whenever a trope or archetype is presented to the reader, they will subconsciously compare the current work to other stories in which they have seen similar elements. One of the biggest risks of using tropes and archetypes is being perceived as clichéd. However, this tendency can also be used by a clever writer to surprise the reader.

As writers are also voracious readers, we are aware of how tropes have been used and what expectations are associated with them. When we write, we can choose to either fulfill those expectations or subvert them. In this way, tropes and archetypes both provide an invaluable opportunity to pull a twist. Though reactions will vary from individual to individual, many readers will be surprised and delighted by this tactic. They will want to see where this twist goes, engaging the reader and pulling them through the story.

As I see it, there are two major types of trope and archetype subversions. In the first, a surface subversion, the trope is invoked and then immediately and obviously twisted. This often is done for the sake of comedy, and is a popular technique for satirical books and movies. Take for example the scene in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights where Robin serenades Maid Marion. Though a starlight declaration of love and desire is a common trope in romances, the way Mel Brooks set up the scene is designed to satirize the story element. Such treatment is appropriate and effective given the style of the movie, but attempting to subvert or even utilize the trope again would not be wise. The joke has been made, time to move on.

In the case of a deeper subversion, the reader is led to believe that the trope is in force once it is invoked. The author then subtly clues the audience that those expectations may be wrong before revealing the twist. It is essential that the twist makes sense in hindsight, so much so that it seems inevitable. This technique can clearly be seen in Frozen. The setup of Anna’s character shows her to be someone who is desperately chasing romance. However, in the climax of the movie, the theme of “Sisters before Misters” is clearly cemented, subverting the trope that Disney has relied on for more than a generation.

By subverting a trope or archetype, the author plays on the reader’s expectations and twists them to enhance reader engagement. The tropes still serve their purpose as a means of short hand communication between the writer and audience. However, the subversion allows for an element of originality and cleverness that keeps the tropes and archetypes feeling fresh and original. However, subversion must be used intentionally, with full knowledge of the technique’s effect on the reader. Only in this way can the reader’s expectations be exceeded.


Where The Rubber Meets the Road — Creating Characters with Tropes and Archetypes

One of the hardest darlings to kill are our pet characters. Characters require a great deal of investment of time and words. Unnecessary characters can easily derail an otherwise smooth story. Unfortunately, if a character isn’t pulling their own narrative weight, we can’t afford to keep them. In order to avoid this editorial heartache, I will focus on what story needs a character will fulfill during prewriting. Those who come up short get cut before I invest in them emotionally.

Take as an example my character of George in The Girl with the Artist’s Eyes published in the One Horn to Rule them All anthology. When I created Catalina and Walter, I realized that their personalities and character objectives would imbalance the plot. By herself, Catalina had neither the physical nor social presence to overpower Sams. In addition, I was unable to change either character without ruining what I was aiming to do with their individual arcs. And so, George was created to fill the role of Catalina’s side kick.

With a clear need established, I sketched out George’s character in broad strokes by invoking tropes and archetypes. For instance, George needed motivation to help my protagonist, and so I made him her Best and Truest Friend. However, I also wanted him to empathize with Walter, especially the absurdity of the situation. And so, I mixed in a bit of the Class Clown and Prankster archetypes. Though those three aspects were sufficient for a character in a short story, the process needed not end there. By layering and blending tropes and archetypes, it is possible to create a character complex enough for any length of work.

Once I had George’s character sketch, I began to round him out by digging into the details of his past and personality. However, this process proved to be more complex than simply adding trivia to his character profile. Though hair color may be an important descriptor, being a brunette rarely informs character. Instead, it was essential to determine what aspects made George unique amongst a crowd of sidekicks. In addition, I looked for how his fundamental composition created internal, external, and interpersonal conflict. Through adding details I was able to both highlight and smooth over incongruities to create a believably complex and well-rounded character.

In their raw forms and taken individually, tropes and archetypes can be clichéd. However, when cleverly combined and altered with the right sort of details, they form the basis of something entirely new and interesting. For me, characters offer a unique opportunity for that sort of manipulation. Though tropes and archetypes have a strong presence in the realms of milieu, story idea, and plot, I find that all of these elements often revolve around character. After all, it is through the PoV that the reader interacts with the milieu and by the PoV’s choices that the plot is driven. It seems wise, therefore, to be extra thoughtful about that character’s most basic makeup.


Coming Full Circle – A Hero’s Return Home

** SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for the end of the Wheel of Time series. You’ve been warned. **

The protagonist’s character arc in a hero’s journey is nonlinear. After their adventures, the hero must come full circle and return to their starting point either physically or metaphorically. By doing so, the reader can acutely see how the character has changed. Once home, the character must either reconcile their newness with their old world, or choose to abandon it entirely.

An example from classic fantasy can be seen in the characters of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Bilbo never wanted adventure. During the entire story, he yearned for the peace and simplicity of Hobbiton. He was certainly changed by his adventure with the dwarves, but he was able to leverage his gained experience and wealth into higher social standing within his old society. Bilbo changed his home to match his new self and was able to remain.

On the other hand, after his adventures Frodo never again truly belonged in Hobbiton. Though forced from his home, Frodo wanted the adventures his uncle Bilbo had experienced. His journey, was much darker and left him more broken. No one in Hobbiton could share his experiences or perspective, not even his best friend Sam. As such, when the elves left Middle Earth, Frodo chose to journey with them. Frodo’s change was so drastic that he could no longer live within a society of peace loving hobbits.

Though Bilbo and Frodo both made a physical return to their home space, this choice isn’t required by the Hero’s Journey archetype. However, to see a metaphorical return, we’ll have to look to another series entirely. Rand Al’Thor started the Wheel of Time as a farm boy stuck in the Two Rivers. His dreams were to explore and experience the larger world. However, his life was hijacked by the universe to complete a specific task. When successful, he was freed from the burdens laid upon him as Ta’veren. In his metaphorical homecoming, Rand chose to follow his initial dreams and travel. Though he never went back to the Two Rivers, the return to his original state is still apparent and his changes even more so.

By closing the circle of the Hero’s Journey, the author provides contrast between the character’s starting and ending states. This not only shows the reader how the character’s choices have affected them and their world, but also adds significance to the adventure as a whole. After all, a character who ends their journey exactly where and as they began has really not adventured at all. Whether a physical or metaphorical homecoming, the character can never be the same after their experiences. As such, they must either change their environment to suit their new station or leave their home to find a place where they can fit better.


Pawn to Queen – The Staircase of Protagonist Power

“I may be a pawn, but I’ve been to the other side and survived the trip back and can move like a queen. Don’t piss me off.” ~Rachel Morgan in The Witch with No Name (2014) by Kim Harrison

At the beginning of a story, the protagonist is forced to act by the initiating event. As such, they are often like pawns, moving to the whims and plans of the antagonist. With each successive challenge faced and defeated, the character grows stronger until they are motivating the action of the story and are able to defeat the antagonist’s designs. After all, with enough moves made in a chess game, a pawn will eventually have the opportunity to become a queen.

Though victory may be achieved over the course of a single volume, it seems like the publishing industry and readership have increasingly come to expect a series. This trend presents unique challenges for the Pawn to Queen archetype. After all, each story should represent a step change in the ability of the characters. However, with sustained growth the protagonist will eventually become strong enough that they overshadow all of the antagonists’ efforts. Tension is then lost as the character doesn’t need to struggle to win.

The first way to avoid this problem is to have the protagonist face and defeat a sequence of minor villains that eventually lead to the ultimate Big Bad. This strategy is extremely popular in video games and other forms of serial storytelling. The major hazard in this approach is the reader getting threat fatigued. This issue, however, can be effectively turned around if the protagonist knows of and seeks to defeat the Big Bad from the beginning of the story, approaching defeating each of the lieutenants as steps in that journey. Each conflict becomes a measure of progress, not another irritating hurdle to be faced.

The second approach I have seen work well is having the challenge be so overwhelming that it is impossible for the protagonist to ever defeat the antagonist solo. The story becomes about the protagonist gaining friends and allies to help them accomplish their goal. By spreading out the step change in power over a group, the antagonist can still isolate and threaten individuals to maintain tension. Take out any of the relatively weaker members, and the whole plan can fall apart. It’s a plot structure ripe with tension.

In order to maximize story tension, readers must believe that the protagonist simultaneously faces impossible odds and is capable of their own salvation. After all, we want to see our protagonists struggle, but we also want them to grow and succeed. However, the more extreme the growth in a single volume, the more difficult it is for us as writers to find a plausible challenge for the next book in the series. After all, you can only save the world so many times before the threat is no longer believable.


Help Me Obi-Wan Kenobi

In essence, a Hero’s Journey is the transformation from weakness and naiveté to strength and wisdom. Though stories should be protagonist driven, that doesn’t preclude the character from needing help to realize their destiny. Often, especially in the beginning of the story, the protagonist needs a mentor to guide and strengthen them. An excellent example of this sort of relationship exists between the characters of Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

In the beginning of A New Hope, Luke is introduced as a backwoods moisture farmer, a whiner who tries to shirk his responsibilities. He is by design an unpleasant character. In addition, he is barely able to hold off a single Sand Person. His lack of heroism was set up to contrast with Kenobi’s introduction. Where Luke is uncertain and childish, Obi-Wan is mature and in control of not only himself but also the world around him. Through his force of personality and skills as a Jedi, Obi-Wan is able to solve many problems that would prove insurmountable to young Luke. This contrast not only foreshadows Luke’s potential, but also provides a benchmark against which to measure the trajectory of Luke’s arc.

After establishing his authority and prowess, Kenobi’s role as teacher and bestower of power becomes more apparent. He gives Luke his first lessons in the way of the Force, and starts to correct many of Luke’s attitudes on life. Even after his death under Vader’s lightsaber, Kenobi whispers in Luke’s ear, assisting him in his greatest moments of need. When this intervention proves insufficient, Obi-Wan directs Luke to his mentor.

In The Return of the Jedi, Mark Hamill signals the completion of Luke’s Hero’s Journey through echoing many of the mannerisms of Alec Guinness’ performance. Though Hamill is still very clearly Luke Skywalker, his posture and speech patterns remind me strongly of Guinness’ acting in Episode IV. Whether intentional or unintentional, this subtle queue was incredibly effective.

Even though the Mentor figure provides for and gives strength to the protagonist, they also represent a limitation to the protagonist’s freedom of action and initiative. By definition, a mentee is subordinate to the mentor, often seeking approval and guidance before acting. Protagonists must ultimately solve their own problems. For this to happen, the mentor must be removed from his position of influence. In Star Wars, Lucas kills Obi-Wan to limit what influence he can exert on the physical world. It is an effective and popular choice, though not the only option available to a writer.

George Lucas’ strong preference for the Hero’s Journey can be seen in Luke Skywalker’s major character arc. He starts as a backwoods farmboy, but ends up guiding the course of events in the galaxy. No matter how powerful at the end, Luke as the protagonists needed the caring guidance of his mentor Obi-Wan to survive challenges he faced on Tatooine and guide him onto the path of his destiny.


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