Archetype vs. Cliche

I posted the following a week or two ago on a forum, and I thought it would follow nicely from the post the other day about running and writing new trails. The discussion was about archetypes and cliches, and much ground had already been covered, so this is by no means a complete essay on the topic. But I thought it might be interesting here too. I'm probably more forgiving of the idea of elves and dwarves and such in a non-comedic fantasy in this post than I might be on my blog, but that made sense within the original context:

In one of her essays in Language of the Night, Ursula LeGuin says the difference between cliche and archetype is that when you look closely at a cliche, you can see that it's just 2-dimensional cardboard, but when you look at an archetype, it looks back at you.

I always found that a helpful way to think of it (I discovered that collection of essays in late high school, and the way I understand fantasy hasn't been the same since). So I think a big part of it is investing the time to make something come to life--cliche says, "Fantasy (or whatever type of story it's writing) has to have elements XYZ, so here's my token bearded wizard and here are my token non-human-but-hardly-alien races and those are my token plot points I'll send the heroes out to accomplish. Hot dang, let's go!" And does that with no sense of irony (comedic and ironic writing can take cliche at face value and leave it 2-D for its own purposes, of course, and not really necessarily be cliche itself).

What elevates it above cliche (I'm not sure this will always make it archetype, but at least not-cliche) is when the writer digs deeper, explores what that will really mean. Why is this wizard the way he or she is? How will it change how readers understand it if I call them shamans or magickers or some other invented term? How will it change things if I tweak some other aspect--beardless? exaggerated beard to the point of absurdity? (Not that you have to change those things to make it non-cliche!--but understanding how those things affect readers helps move them beyond 2-D) How will these non-humans think? (elves and dwarves too often are far too human in their thinking in most things I've read--one of the things I thought Tad Williams overcame nicely with the elf-like race in Dragonbone Chair, etc., as does Greg Keyes in Briar King, etc.) What if I give them a different name or invent a new race? (Again, not that you have to, but that considering the questions and understanding how it affects things helps elevate the result.)

You know, when I looked back at Game of Thrones after reading it, I realized that most of the characters fit a pattern that if you'd asked me beforehand I would have said, "Avoid it--sounds cliche." So that really made me realize how much a good writer can take what would seem cliche and make it come alive through good writing and really doing the little things to make each character seem to be there for a purpose that isn't just token-whatever. Some things are going to be harder to overcome--orphaned farmboys and magic swords, elves and dwarves and vampires...these are all things that I admit to a pretty strong reaction against. So in writing that, you're pushing against that kind of resistance from many readers (though certainly not all). But I would never say that it's impossible to take any of those things or even all of them and make a compellingly rich, even archetypal story that doesn't feel cliche. certainly have some work ahead of you.


Celina Summers said…



But then again, Dan, there are those out there that like archetypal characters. And too, there are writers who like to take character cliches and stomp all over them. *grin*

2 weeks until more Elves hit the shelves....and DIE!