“Story is about archetypes, not stereotypes.”
Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
Robert McKee was talking about his book but his assertion holds true for stories in general. Archetypes good, stereotypes bad. But there’s also a third option: completely original types of characters.
Most writers just write without consciously deciding which types of characters they will use, although I suppose we all hope that our characters will be completely original types, even if it almost never happens, or at the very least archetypes.
But being able to recognise them when you move into the review, revision and rewrite phase is crucial to whether you will have characters that readers can relate to, characters readers will wonder where they’ve seen them before or characters who will blow readers’ minds with their originality.
“Archetype – a typical, ideal, or classic example of something”
Macquarie International English Dictionary
Archetypes are classic characters that appear and reappear throughout literature and history. According to MH Abrams’s A Glossary of Literary Terms, they “reflect a set of universal, primitive, and elemental patterns, whose effective embodiment in a literary work evokes a profound response from the reader.”
Some examples of archetypes include heroes, villains, mothers, jokers, virgins and teachers. James Bond is an archetype hero. Dracula is an archetype villain. Mary, mother of Jesus, is the archetype virgin, not an archetype, the archetype from where all other archetype virgins have descended.
Archetypes will often be copied by other writers – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously – because they are such great characters to have populating a story.
“Stereotype – an oversimplified standardized image of a person or group”
Macquarie International English Dictionary
Stereotypes often have an offensive element without any suggestion of complexity or variety. Although many stereotypes are based on anecdotal evidence, they attain a comprehensive grip on certain characteristics and refuse to let go.
Let’s take two groups: rich Mexicans and poor Mexicans. A stereotypical rich Mexican character would be a drug lord. And a stereotypical poor Mexican would be trying to cross the border into the US and having made it, would work illegally as either a domestic servant or a farm labourer. Otherwise they’re crossing the border back and forth transporting drugs for the drug lord.
While these two types of characters certainly exist, both in literature and in real life, to continually perpetuate them suggests a writer who hasn’t made much of an effort, either to create interesting characters or to avoid offending Mexicans who don’t fall into one or the other category. There are 123 million Mexicans in Mexico alone and they can’t all be drug lords or undocumented immigrants.
It can be hard to spot a stereotype in your own work because the things we stereotype tend to be those that we consider the “other”, the things we don’t have firsthand knowledge of. A good beta reader should be able to point them out. But it’s better – and less embarrassing – if we can learn to identify them and weed them out of our writing before anyone else ever sees it.
Completely Original Types
Every once in a while, a writer will come up with a character type that no one has ever seen before. It’s rare but when it happens, it is so wonderful that it usually gets a lot of attention.
The thing about completely original characters is that once they gain some recognition, every man, woman, dog and grumpy cat will have a go at a version of them, which tends to turn them into a stereotype. Which is why it’s so important to be the writer creating them.
Once upon a time, Dracula was a completely original type of character. Yes, vampires had been around for years in folk tales but Dracula is not a vampire, he’s the vampire. Thus he evolved into the archetype vampire. Not a single vampire since has been able to dislodge him – not Angel (of “Buffy” fame), not Edward (of Twilight fame). In fact, neither Angel nor Edward would ever have existed if it weren’t for Dracula and his long-lasting archetypical popularity.
So it would seem that over a long period, one character can actually be all things – completely new, then evolving into an archetype, then being done to death with homages and copies and parodies until it becomes a stereotype. Stick to the original or the iconic and avoid lazy labels and you should be just fine.