One thing every writer fears is falling into the pit of clichés. Fantasy writers especially, in a literary world inundated with quests and elves and magic, face this fate with certain dread and spend an awful lot of time grappling for that elusive "originality" that will set their world and characters apart. It's a tremendous pressure, and one that can be quite staggering sometimes.
Our audience reads fantasy in search of a certain type of escapism. There are themes readers long to see again and again, character types and dramatic moments that thrilled them at first encounter and which they would love to experience anew. Granted, our audience doesn't want to read the same plot over and over, and it certainly doesn't want to be able to predict from page one how everything is going to turn out. But lovers of fantasy and fairy tale are looking for a certain sense of familiarity that stretches back to childhood loves, to themes and stories they learned before they can even remember.
So how do we strike a balance? How do we give our audience what they long for while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of clichés and of losing all sense of individuality?
The answer lies in understanding the difference between "clichés" and "archetypes."
Let me start with a definition of "cliché." A cliché is a storyline or character that has become trite or hackneyed. It is a theme, characterization, or situation that has been used so many times that it is now commonplace and predictable.
An "archetype," by contrast, is an image, character, or pattern that recurs throughout literature so often that it becomes universally recognized by readers across the globe.
Can you see the difference here? One has to do with the how the story plays out . . . one has to do with what the story is about.
If that difference remains foggy, let me use an example:
A small person and/or child goes on a dangerous quest to destroy a powerful and magical talisman.
The above storyline has become a cliché. We loved it the first time Tolkien did it in The Lord of the Rings. But now when it crops up again, we groan and say to ourselves, "I've read that before!"
But wait a minute. There is more to this story! Because, you see, an archetype would be:
A small person and/or child goes on a dangerous quest.
Now this is a storyline of which we never tire! We'll read it again and again, be it in a fairy tale like Little Red Riding Hood or Puss in Boots, or in a longer fantasy such as Harry Potter or The Lightning Thief. Humanity as a whole responds to the idea of the underdog, the small person, the child, facing extraordinary odds and somehow, against all expectations, overcoming and proving victorious.
The archetype of the small hero against the great enemy speaks to us at a universal level, evoking a response that is deep and almost unconscious. We want to read that story again. We don't want to see the same plot (i.e. small person destroying the magical talisman) again, but we do want to see the theme (the small person overcoming outrageous odds).
Archetypes can be something as simple as a symbol. Consider your reaction to the symbol of the snake vs. the eagle. Your immediate reaction is "snake = bad," "eagle = good." That's a universal response, a pattern of thought ingrained in what Carl Gustav Jung would call the "collective unconscious." We all respond to the perceived insidiousness of snakes and nobility of eagles in the same way.
This idea of the "collective unconscious" holds true with different types of characters. Archetypal characters include the third son, the princess in disguise, the chosen one, the girl disguised as a boy, the wise grandparent, the prostitute with a heart of gold, the wicked uncle, the wicked stepmother, the warrior princess, the clever thief.
Archetypal storylines might be something like "the princess, prince, and dragon" theme, which we have seen again and again in literature. Or even "the enchanted sleep," "the princess locked in a tower," "true love's first kiss," and many more.
All of these archetypes evoke certain feelings and reactions in lovers of fairy tales and fantasy. Granted, we don't want to see these themes and characters used in exactly the same way they've been done before. We want something fresh and different. But we do long for the archetypes. We respond to them, and they are what keep us coming back to this genre.
The sooner we writers of fantasy recognize the difference between clichés and archetypes, the sooner we have the freedom to take our stories in the fantastic directions we long to explore!
Author Anne Elisabeth Stengl
Anne Elisabeth Stengl makes her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, Rohan, a passel of cats, and one long-suffering dog. When she's not writing, she enjoys Shakespeare, opera, and tea, and studies piano, painting, and pastry baking. She studied illustration at Grace College and English literature at Campbell University. She is the author of HEARTLESS, VEILED ROSE, MOONBLOOD, and STARFLOWER, with DRAGONWITCH due to release in 2013. HEARTLESS and VEILED ROSE have each been honored with a Christy Award.
When a cursed dragon-witch kidnaps the lovely Lady Gleamdren, Eanrin sets boldly forth on a rescue mission...and a race against his rival for Gleamdren's favor. Intent upon his quest, the last thing the immortal Faerie needs is to become mixed up with the troubles of an insignificant mortal.
But when he stumbles upon a maiden trapped in an enchanted sleep, he cannot leave her alone in the dangerous Wood Between. One waking kiss later, Eanrin suddenly finds his story entangled with that of young Starflower. A strange link exists between this mortal girl and the dragon-witch. Will Starflower prove the key to Lady Gleamdren's rescue? Or will the dark power from which she flees destroy both her and her rescuer?