3 Ways to Go From Cliché to Archetype

Social PaintingLast week I touched on archetypes in our discussion of characters versus plot in horror. Since there are archetypes for both in the genre, it’s tough to say one is more important than the other, and any author worth her salt should be investing in both. Then we stumbled into interesting territory–what separates an archetype from a cliché?

1. Clichés are more specific. Archetypes are the paper upon which you paint your story, but clichés are a specific paint color. Archetypes fade into the background as the story is filled with your details. To write cliché is to say, “J.K. Rowling used red, so I’m gonna use red.”

2. Archetypes show awareness. It may seem like I just suggested that authors are more aware of using clichés, but actually, clichés are treated as new ideas–this is why high schoolers excel at them. Clichés are too specific to be original, even though the author treats them as such. Writing with archetypes shows a level of reading depth in a particular genre–this is also what enables them to fade into the background. Authors with archetypal knowledge are also able to use it to their advantage, using archetypes to lull the reader’s expectations and then to break from the archetype–which thrills Gentle Reader.

3. Archetypes are the language of the Great Conversation. No matter your genre, a Great Conversation is happening about its themes and questions. When you know the archetypes, you can enter the Conversation and express your own viewpoint. The more you read, the more you’ll know what people are already saying. The more you know what people are already saying, the more you’ll recognize when someone contributes something fresh. The more you recognize, the better you’ll be able to move the Conversation forward.

What are your favorite horror archetypes? What characters or plots never get old for you?

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