Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Archetypes and Stereotypes

Most people take a dim view of stereotypes and assume that it is a bad thing to design a character to fit a stereotype or archetype.  The assumption is that making use of a stereotype means making cookie-cutter, low dimensional characters or, worse, that you are giving in to unfair perceptions of different groups.

This view operates under the perception that a character can only fit one particular stereotype at a time.

Stereotypes exist because, for one reason or another, at one point in time, they were true.  These are an example of inferential thinking.  Inference, as adverse deduction, takes into account similar situations or individuals that have existed in the past and looks for common patterns. They then make the guess that those patterns would be true in the situation or individual you are currently looking at.

This is how profiling works.

If you look at most of the stories of love and romance involving the Knights of the Round Table or a samurai, then you will find that the pattern is that most of those stories are tragic in nature.  Following that pattern, one can reasonably assume that any love story involving Arthurian knights or samurai will result in a sad ending somehow.

Inference, however, is not one hundred percent accurate.  As stated, it operates based on information about similar situations, not the situation that is in front of you currently.  It will often be correct, especially if the information leading up to the inference is up to date.

A good example of inferential failure comes from a TV movie where Sherlock Holmes wakes up after being preserved for a hundred years.  He tries to prove his skill in deduction (actually inference) by looking around the room and making guesses based on various things he sees around the room.  However, his framework of understanding is so far out of date that he is fairly inaccurate and in fact makes a statement that we would consider racially bigoted that was not a cliche in his original time.

Inferences are in essence guidelines for understanding a situation.  Profiles again are the same thing, they are a broad range of traits and behaviors that statistically match together.  Another comparison is the search areas defined on maps.  The more elements you know of, the smaller an area you have to focus on.

In the same case, stereotypes narrow down a character, defining them so that the readers can understand them.

If you have only one stereotype to deal with, you have a huge range of a characters that fit that stereotype and thus the character resembles a large number of other characters.  They are bland and boring, not because they are over-defined, but because they are underdefined.

A more unique character fits a large number of stereotypes and with each trope, stereotype and archetype you add, the narrower and more unique the character appears and the more interesting.

In addition, stereotypes give you a guideline to understand what a reader will expect from a specific character, and when you know what the reader expects, you can have an easier time leading them to specific conclusions.

In addition, it allows you to mix concepts that usually aren't seen mixed.  When you do that, you force a reader to think harder about a character in order to find the place where those two concepts intersect.

For example, Runya Sulemar from the Greenwater is first introduced in one of the prologues (and thus not posted for view here).  I initially describe her in the process of performing a ritual cleansing and establishing her as a lost, young and religious person.  I only reveal that she is serpentile from the waist down after establishing her as a holy and faithful person.

In this case, I have presented two stereotypes that normally conflict with each other: snakes and holy knights.

There is a narrow intersection where that works, involving Asian style concepts on the snake: guardianship and wisdom, both of which fit in well with the concepts of the holy warrior.  When I later show Runya using stealthy tactics and attacking from silence to eliminate enemies before they notice her, that fits in with the tactics of a snake.  As such, even though it is not normal for a paladin-style character to stab someone in the back, it is acceptable for her since she's established as a snake earlier.

Another example, Lucretia from Bystander is superstrong, supertough and with super-reflexes.  Normally, that would also mean that she is good in a fight, however, Lucretia is worthless in a fight.  I essentially apply to her the stereotype of an untrained street kid who spends most of their time running and talking tough but with no real fighting skills.

Again, two conflicting stereotypes with a very narrow space of intersection.

Take a look at any character sheet on and you will find that a lot of characters fit a large number of tropes.  The more unique the character, the more tropes and stereotypes they fit within.

Despite this, the readership will generally define your characters only on one or two of the most obvious stereotypes, or else insist that they don't fit the normal stereotypes.  However, they will still at least subconsciously expect the characters to follow the standard patterns of the connected stereotypes.

This means that if you understand the standard patterns, you can deviate from them at appropriate points to make the readers pay more attention to what is going on.

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