Archetype vs. Cliche

03 Jan

There are some very interesting discussions going on in the comments of this post at Dear Author on “Slut Shaming” in novels written by women. (I’ll get to my actual topic soon, I promise; wait for it!) I recommend that if you write romance or stories with female characters you take a look at that post. It’s thought provoking and some of the comments are even more so, but it’s not what I want to talk about. Rather it prompted me to think, as she was describing some of the things that bother her in romance novels – misogynistic or not,Ā that’s lazy writing.

The characters Jane of Dear Author was describing felt like cliches to me: the hero’s ex-wife who we know is unworthy of him because she sleeps around; the female antagonist who we know not to trust because she flirts with anything in trousers; the co-worker we know is bad at her job because her skirt is too short and she shows too much cleavage to be professional.

Why was my first thought to label those characters with the pejorative “cliche” rather than the more neutral “archetype”? All characters fall, essentially, into archetypes, and really these are just archetypes I’ve seen a lot and don’t particularly enjoy. That doesn’t mean these characters are unrealistic, I’ve met all three of them in real life, but it does mean I roll my eyes when I meet them on the page. A good writer can still make me enjoy those characters, however it takes something special to get me past my initial distaste.

But … I don’t roll my eyes when I read another uber-competent tight-lipped hero – though lord knows that is a character that has been done to death. I just LIKE that cliche. That particular archetype doesn’t immediately raise my feminist hackles in the ways that the characters in the previous paragraph do.

As a new writer it’s really easy to write in shorthand, especially for secondary characters. A minor, but crucial, character in the first chapter in my WIP is a greedy, sexually harassing partner at a law firm. I’ve known people just like him in real life, but will that save him from a reader labeling him a cliche instead of an archetype? I don’t think so. I think it will depend on how well I write him and what baggage and preferences a reader brings to the experience. I can’t control the latter, but I can write the hell out of him and make sure that I’ve thought carefully about the pros and cons of every character trait I put on the page.

What about you? Are there archetypes you just can’t stand (or can’t get enough of)? Do you carefully interrogate every trait you give your characters for its cliche potential?


13 responses to “Archetype vs. Cliche

  1. Judith Keim

    January 3, 2013 at 8:08 AM

    Corina, what a great blog! I think you’re right. Certain characters appear because we meet them in real life and like or don’t like them. But it’s the whys or hows behind them that give them dimension. I admit that after reading this blog I will remember to be more creative in character development for my readers to love and hate! Thanks!

    • Corina Mallory

      January 3, 2013 at 9:19 AM

      Thanks Judy! It’s so easy to focus on making our protagonists interesting and complex and then pick the easiest shorthand to get across the plot-essential characteristics of a minor character. We don’t want to waste page-time on something inessential, so we go for the quick fix. I just want to remember to second-guess those first instincts and spend a little more time figuring out if there’s something that can do the same job in a more interesting way. Every reader has their own idea of what’s “cliche” and we can’t always overcome that, but we can give it our best try!

  2. Liz Flaherty

    January 3, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    I think you’re right and it’s important that we be able to write the difference.

    • Corina Mallory

      January 4, 2013 at 7:38 AM

      That is the challenge isn’t it?

  3. Janis

    January 3, 2013 at 11:56 AM

    I think we all recognize people we’ve known when we craft our characters. I tend to like my secondary characters because I have leeway to make them less heroic and more quirky, IMO. I do think, as writers, we have to be careful not to take an easy way out, as you mentioned. Writing is so hard that sometimes we just want it to be a little easier. šŸ™‚ Hah. Good luck with that. This is a great cautionary blog to think about when writing. Thanks.

    • Corina Mallory

      January 4, 2013 at 7:40 AM

      You’re completely right Janis, I just think it’s interesting that just because we KNOW someone just like our character in real life, just because a character is “realistic” doesn’t necessarily save him/her from also being a cliche. Realistic isn’t always enough in fiction.

  4. stephaniebergets

    January 3, 2013 at 3:54 PM

    Thanks for the reminder. I need concentrate more on making well rounded characters, especially my secondary ones. Oh, and my sleeps-around, bitchy woman who wears her clothes too tight in the first two books is going to be the heroine in the third. Fun, fun, fun.

    • Corina Mallory

      January 4, 2013 at 7:40 AM

      Oooh, I love it when the “bad” girl gets her own story!

  5. maryvine

    January 3, 2013 at 4:33 PM

    I can’t really remember any archetypes in the books I’ve read in a long time. I think it’s like you said, it’s what you do with them that makes them fit naturally in the story or not. Thanks, Corina!

    • Corina Mallory

      January 4, 2013 at 7:44 AM

      It really all comes down to execution, always, doesn’t it? Which is both depressing and encouraging depending on how one is feeling about one’s skills on any given day.

  6. Lynn Mapp

    January 3, 2013 at 9:06 PM

    You have asked an interesting question. I don’t know. I’m really going to need to think about this.

    • Corina Mallory

      January 4, 2013 at 7:42 AM

      I’m glad I made you think Lynn! As you can tell by my blog, I don’t really have an answer either. I think this is one of those questions that it’s more important we think about as writers than one that we have an answer to. I believe (hope!) that if we’re thoughtful about all of our choices, that comes through on the page.

  7. Jennifer

    January 4, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    Great topic Corina! It’s interesting because I love to read about the powerful-take-control-of-everything hero. In real life, I know that I would be repulsed by his overbearing behavior. There’s something about escaping to a place where someone else handles everything for a while though. I tend to write hero’s like that but sometimes I do have a fleeting worry that it’s setting womankind back a notch šŸ™‚


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