Monday, December 15, 2014

Archetypes vs. Stereotypes

Last week I was driving to a client meeting and was stuck in traffic.  There's nothing worse than dealing with traffic except the realization that you'll eventually have to leave the car and it's cold and wet outside.  Likewise, listening to rock music while bumper to bumper on the I-4 is counterproductive to one's stress relief efforts.  So I decided to switch the radio to NPR and caught part of a segment of the Diane Rehm Show on "The History and Modern Relevance of Fairy Tales."  The piece is interesting in its analysis of some of the messages and themes hidden in some of these old stories, as well as the various lesser known versions (i.e. the bloody glass slippers that appear in some incarnations of the Cinderella tale).  

One discussion point that really stood out to me as being particularly relevant today: archetypes and stereotypes.  As most readers and writers know, archetypes are characters, actions, or situations that represent universal aspects of human nature or shared common experiences.  From these "molds" come multiple incarnations, which likely reinforces the idea/maxim that there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them.  And this is a great thing because these stories and the messages behind them tend to strike familiar chords with readers that stretch all the way back to their childhood.  Blending the familiar with a new presentation of the tale can open up entire new worlds or directions.  What if Red Riding Hood was a little boy, instead of a girl?  What if the story took place in feudal Japan?  What if Red was a samurai being hunted by a ninja from the Wolf Clan?  Silly?  Perhaps?  Now was there a moment there where you could actually see Little Red Samurai Hood?

There is usually a sincere attempt, I find, to strive for plumbing the depths of an archetype, while trying to steer clear of stereotypes.  It's difficult work, to be fair, because we are constantly barraged with stereotypes through the different media we consume each day.  Worse, if left unchecked, a writer can run the risk of embracing a stereotype without evening realizing it due to the insidiously subtle ways that stereotypes of seeped into television, music, and other forms of multimedia.  One need only open a magazine or the "shopper" section of a newspaper to and look at the various clothing and commodity advertisements.  There, we often get treated to ideals of beauty and prosperity depending on whatever scene the advertising designer wanted to convey.  Turn on the Tv for the holiday ads depicting one spouse surprising the other with a luxury car; it's almost always the driveway of a large home, rarely the parking lot of an inner city apartment.  It's not the place, but the people we envision doing these things that is the issue.  Certainly, there are plenty of stereotypes that confront us on a daily basis, whether they are based on appearance, religion or ethnic/cultural backgrounds.  The point, from a writing perspective is that while archetypes lend a thematic or deeper representative aspect to a character, stereotypes keep characters from growing or taking on any significant meaning.  Picture perfect people living picture perfect lives are boring because they are perfect.  Perfection implies an utter lack of tension between needs, wants, desires and danger.  

How many of you have struggled with stereotypes, whether in works you've read or written?  What are your favorite archetypes and how have you found new meaning within them?

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