What are the differences between stereotypes, tropes, and archetypes? What are they? How do writers use them? Let’s take a look at some vocabulary and how we define these terms to make sense of them for ourselves.
Stereotype (n): A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
To elaborate on this, stereotypes can be seen as sets of characteristics or behaviors that are commonly associated with one another, thus making it easier to intuit some of them if one or more is known. Stereotypes, though, are not literary. They refer to beliefs held about groups in reality, not types of characters. The literary cousin of the stereotype is the trope.
Trope (n): devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.
If tropes seem a little too much like to stereotypes for comfort, that’s because, technically speaking, they are stereotypes. “A Trope is a stereotype that writers find useful in communicating with readers.” (x) However, because the word stereotype has become so stigmatized in society, we prefer to think of tropes as specific to storytelling.
You use tropes in your writing. It is nearly impossible to escape them. And that is okay.
Tropes are things that pop up repeatedly in media as cultural norms in storytelling—types of characters, settings, plot lines, etc.. Stuff like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who exists to usher a male character to his higher level of emotional awareness or personal growth, or a case of Mistaken Identity where Hilarity Ensues. Tropes are culturally-based, which is what sets them apart from archetypes.
Archetype (n): a very typical example of a certain person or thing; types that fit fundamental human motifs.
An archetype is a kind of character that pops up in stories all over the place. A trope is a character that puts that archetype in a cultural context.
For instance, let’s say you have a character who is a Geek. The role of a Geek in literature is a trope, because it is common in a certain culture (i.e. Western, though depictions of the Geek will vary within Western Civilization as well). Broadly and therefore in terms of an archetype, the Geek is the Scholar, a person who is constantly in search of knowledge. Various stereotypes about the Geek (like poor social skills) might then be inferred by characters or readers based on their understanding of the society in which they live.
It’s important to mention that none of these things are necessarily clichés.
- A trite or overused expression or idea; often a vivid depiction of an abstraction that relies upon analogy or exaggeration for effect, often drawn from everyday experience.
- A person or character whose behavior is predictable or superficial.
For more about clichés, mosey over to this post. Essentially, clichés are boring and overdone by definition, but tropes and archetypes can be useful. Yes, this is a subjective distinction.
So here’s the breakdown:
- Stereotypes: Not literary. We avoid using this term to talk about classifying characters, settings, plot points, etc..
- Archetypes: The broad, all-encompassing norms of the stories humanity tells. The same archetypes can be found in all or nearly all cultures.
- Tropes: Culturally-specific norms in storytelling. Tropes are cultural classifications of archetypes. There can be many tropes found under the umbrella of one archetype. Literary devices are not tropes (i.e. narrators, foreshadowing, flashbacks, etc.).
- Clichés: Overused and hackneyed phrases, characters, settings, plot points, etc.. Archetypes do not become clichéd. Tropes can become clichés if they are used too often and readers get bored of them. Clichés are defined by a loss of the meaning or as a distraction from the story.
Let’s focus on tropes and archetypes now as these terms are often used as a sort of shorthand when writing. Once you have firmly introduced a character as one type of archetype and/or a trope within that archetype, you do not have to elaborate on the character as much before moving on in the storyline.
While this can be useful and can help keep a section moving, it can also be very lazy, can help to perpetuate unhealthy stereotypes that carry over into the real world, and can make for one-dimensional characters. All of this forces the readers to focus on the way the story is being told instead of the story itself. Not good.
Here are some questions to keep in mind when using trope and archetypes in writing:
- Is this derogatory? Does this demean or belittle? Is it harmful to the reader? For instance, the Dumb Blonde trope from American culture can assume that all blondes are easily-fooled, flighty, and even promiscuous. In the real world, the Dumb Blonde trope certainly translates into a derogatory stereotype, so is it something you want to use in your writing or can you manipulate the trope to create something unexpected?
- Is this really necessary? Do you actually need to use a trope or archetype as a base for your character to keep the flow moving or the characters easy to remember, or are you using it so you don’t have to bother to give your character, well, character? Laziness is no excuse for poor writing. Using a trope can flatten a character very quickly if that’s all that they have going for them. There’s even a term for a character whose personality is limited to a single trope; they’re called stock characters.
- Is this actually the one I want? Perhaps the empty headed and hot cheerleader trope is not the one you want. Maybe the secretly hot booksmart nerd is a better fit for your story. Maybe not. Really think about what base characteristics you give your characters, because they an come in handy farther down the storyline. Browsing tropes is fun, but at the end of the day, try combining character traits to create something that is unique for you is what makes a character worth writing.
- Am I using this to bash someone? While almost all tropes can be harmful in one way or another, how you present them can have a big effect on whether or not you are actually using a trope or are pulling away from your story to offer the reader a stereotype instead. Being nasty because of someone else’s perceived shortcomings won’t help your story, and, if that’s not enough reason, it can be harmful to you because people will call you on it. Depth is key.
- How can I use this in a way that is helpful? By making your characters more personalized and three-dimensional, you humanize them and give the reader a better chance of empathizing with them. In Creative Writing Tip: Avoiding Stereotypes, Matthew Arnold Stern says:
Choose a base trope or archetype for a character, and then elaborate on it in a way that breaks expectations or defies convention. A shy, sweet, nerdy girl who is not afraid to loudly tell someone to stop when she is uncomfortable and is happy with who she is could be a much more interesting character then the throw away filler character of a compliant, scared bookworm. A big, popular jock who is not afraid to stand up against bullying and treats his parents and teachers with respect has more hidden depth than the usual sneering bullies that populate literary sports fields.
The antidote to stereotypes is to create well-rounded characters with clear and human motivation. Even a character who appears briefly in a story can benefit from depth and complexity. Such characters add realism and depth that draws us further into the story.
All in all, archetypes and tropes can be a handy writing tool when used sparingly, but we have to remember that the stereotypes we perpetuate in our writing resonate with people in real life.
Speaking in terms of subject matter and not story construction, stereotypes have their place in literature, so long as the writer and the reader are completely aware of the fact that they are being used. Perhaps you are using a stereotype so you can later break it in an interesting way as a plot device, or you are driving it home as a stereotype that you feel is justified. For instance, there is the stereotype that drug dealers are dangerous and violent. The fact that anyone who is actively complicit in illegal activities is potentially dangerous is true, and it probably is best to avoid and not trust someone whose livelihood revolves around convincing you to break the law.
In Is Stereotyping Bad?, Brittney Weber said:
“Stereotypes have the potential to show a member of a particular group how to behave or how others believe they do. The latter may be apparent in the way they are treated by society at large, while the former encourages them to remain within the confines of that definition.”
So think before you write, and be considerate of the effect your writing may have on others, as well as the effect that devices like tropes can have on your writing.
-Ji, O, and C