There are many, many stories involving a young man, often of unknown/mysterious parentage, who suddenly realizes he’s the chosen one and has to embark on a quest against impossible odds to save his people.
And yet Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, David and Goliath, and countless other stories are all different and beloved.
There are many, many stories involving a girl who meets a mysterious/scandalous/acerbic man who she falls in love with even though she probably shouldn’t, and often even though the man tells her she shouldn’t.
And yet Gone With the Wind, Twilight, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and countless other stories are all different and beloved.
The fine line between archetype and cliche
There’s an old saw that there are really only six or a dozen stories (the number changes) ever told. These are archetypes, and we’ve been telling variations of these stories since the days we recounted myths around campfires and painted them on cave walls.
At the same time, especially when dealing with very familiar arcs, there’s a very fine line between archetype and cliche. We’ve all read stories that feel tired and worn – whenever an author is trafficking in archetypes they run the risk of the reader rolling their eyes and saying, “Yeah, I’ve read this before.”
So how do authors navigate archetype vs. cliche?
What sets novels apart
It’s no great mystery: by telling a story differently. The tricky part is: doing it differently is much harder than it seems.
I think there’s a mistaken belief out there that all you need to set the 1,000,000th take on an archetype apart from the previous 999,999 is a little twist.
- It’s like Twilight, only zombies! Voila!
- It’s like Star Wars, only the dark side wins! Voila!
- It’s like The Da Vinci Code, only it’s the apocalypse!
I really don’t think that’s the way it works. It’s not a matter of coming up with a twist and otherwise appropriating a previously created world. That’s when projects fall into cliche. The way you use archetype is by telling the familiar arc in an entirely new world with its own rules, with unique characters, and in a unique style.
That’s why we have beloved stories as varied as Star Wars and Harry Potter, even though the basic arcs of the stories are similar. The worlds and characters could not be more different.
What makes your novel unique?
It’s not enough to start a story with a high school girl swooning in the midst of the cranky new kid’s smoldering stare. What’s different about this world and about these characters?
It’s not enough to start a story with a boy who has to save the realm/galaxy/kingdom from disaster. What’s different about this world and this character?
The road to cliche is paved with imitation. Start fresh.
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Art: Kätzchen im Boudoir by Karl Reichert
Andrea M. Bodel says
Margaret Yang – I just wanted to say, great point! I'll keep that in mind when I'm finally ready to start querying.
John Jack says
Archetypes, stock characters, stereotypes, love 'em in fiction. Not so much as sociopolitical labelings.
Is not a hero or heroine an archetype? A protoganist? An antagonist?
A character cliché happens when a character's personality is a sum total of what the character's purpose is in a story. A two-dimensional villain depicted like Snidely Whiplash is doesn't depict his motivations, his conflicts and complications, his trials that makes him as human as a protagonist ought to be depicted.
Mr. Potter is a stock character archetype: Friedman's Sentimental Plot, a weak character wins through, Friedman's Testing Plot, noble character is tested to the extreme, Friedman's Education Plot, protagonist learns something important. Jungian archetype, Potter opposed by Voldemort, the shadow of the split psyche.
That's just a few of the many complex archetypes Potter represents. He's a complexly rounded and dynamic character. And that to me is what distinguishes a potent archetype from a cliché.
A literally or figuratively orphaned child striving to come to terms with his or her circumstances is a common archetype in many of the best stories and is a cliché in many of the worst stories.
Jean Reidy says
This makes me wonder about a retelling of a classic tale and how different is different enough.
Should there remain only a glimmer of a connection to the classic? Or can a parallel story line with different characters, setting, and subplots be enough to break from the danger of cliche.
Nathan Bransford says
anon, you're just trolling at this point. If you want to have this discussion you can do so non-anonymously.
I think an archetype is a cliche done right.
I think i'll go for a zombie trying to save the universe from the light side while trying not to fall in love, meanwhile fighting evil robots, during an epic blizzard, (counts on fingers), and overcoming his betting addiction which he was cursed with by his God. There, I think I got all seven.
When you break it down like that, I can suddenly see pretty much every story I love in one of those story lines. Awesome, but kinda scary.
Moira Young says
So perhaps in other words, "Write your own story, and THEN see how the archetype fits?"
Josin L. McQuein says
It's more than a twist. You need characterization. You need voice.
You can tell the same story from 12 points of view, and have 12 different stories. Whether they work or not is a matter of skill and voice. The reader needs to connect to the characters somehow.
Every story has a kernel of others, because ever story is inspired by something that already exists.
(Oh good Lord, did I step into the middle of a nerd-off? Do I need to get my Yoda robe and green face paint?)
I have no problem with archetypes and/or cliches. I may not want to see cliched phrases in a book, but as far as story lines go, there's a reason I have favorite books.
if I can find my favorite book with new characters and in a new city, fighting new badguys… yeehaw. I know I will enjoy it.
I don't think making a story unique has anything to do with archetype. 🙂
Woof…shows you how much of a newbie I am, I had to look up what 'archetype' meant.
Isn't basically every book of fiction out there today an archetype of some sort?
jimmy Ng says
So you're saying that a single twist isn't enough. It's got to be a number of twists, right?
How about Twilight in a spaceship, going to Mars for the first time in human history?
John Jack says
Depicting a character–archetype–a milieu, an idea, or an event without a life-affirming transformation of existence is unlikely to be a story, an anecdote or vignette perhaps.
You make a very good point Nathan. All stories contain elements from previous stories. The art is to rennovate these well known archetypes with a fresh design, same room, different everything else.
This post worked on so many levels. (Even the nerd in me was satisfied.)
I agree, even as I am likely falling into the dilemma of walking the line between archetype and cliche.
Then again, I may be over the line(or is it that my story inhabits a big grey area where inevitably low-sale, but publishable works reside by veering from one side to the other?).
I hate not being sure, but I guess if it is picked up, there's the answer.
SAMUEL PARK says
I think the cliche is poor execution. I also think the archetype is about plot, more so than character.
And I think the notion of archetypes is useful as a form of literary analysis–like a taxidermic tool, splitting the world into flora and fauna and animals. But within each category, there are thousands of possibilities.
Archetypes, to me, reflect a desire to provide mythical and heroic dimensions to a character, an attempt to elevate such a character.
Quote: "So how do authors navigate archetype vs. cliche?"
One of the things I like to do is browse through TVTropes.org and I swear the site is a time suck (which I justify under the guise of, ahem, "research"). The site is a wiki where anyone can contribute so one way I judge how much something stuck with viewers and readers — with teens and young adults anyways — is how many contributed to an entry.
Usually, I'll go in after finishing a manga or anime or starting a new TV show. But recently, I find myself going in, picking a trope and comparing examples and seeing which ones get which reactions from readers and viewers. I also like the basic format of explaining the trope in its most cliched form at the top and letting people contribute examples below. And I like how contributors point out when tropes are averted or subverted.
Recently, I realized things such as: Nobody notices a loser but, when said loser is made of 200% m*****f***** loyalty (Code Geass), fans notice and want more. Everyone dislikes a deus ex machina but when the machine is THE GOD (Supernatural) viewers sit up and want to know what God is up to.
I don't think it's a bad thing to be so cliche that something ends up as the trope namer or as The Example because, it stuck with people in some memorable way. If anything, the TV Tropes taught me that everything has multiple cliches/tropes and where it gets dangerous is when one's plots and characters are so undistinguishable from the another random example that they aren't even mentioned on the site, as weird as that might be.
…At the end of the day (or a web surfing session) maybe I waste hours on that website trying to figure out the answer to the question I quoted and I still haven't figured it out yet. But clues are good. *nods*
Corra McFeydon says
Hi Nathan –
Thanks for sharing your view on this. As a new writer it's helpful to know that a story retold isn't necessarily an 'old' story unless it repeats the same. Kind of Like on American Idol, how the judges all keep saying –
"Sing it in a new way! Blow us away – in your voice. Don't be a Karaoke act."
*GONE WITH THE WIND, TWILIGHT, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, JANE EYRE*
Please tell me Twilight hasn't been uplifted to a place among the greats??? Sure, it's a story, but is it of the same caliber? At all?
Great post! I found it inspiring (which I reckon was the point.)
from the desk of a writer
Icy Sedgwick says
I couldn't agree more. Vladimir Propp posited that there was only ONE narrative, after he managed to distill Russian fairytales down into one essential narrative. Obviously the various elements can, and do, change order, but all narratives are basically the same. Even if you apply this to Hitchcock and realise all of his films are the same story, they're all so different. Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars and The Searchers are all essentially the same narrative, it's just the characters and settings make it feel so different. Fiction would be more inventive if authors let themselves create new worlds, and then people them accordingly, instead of copying what's gone before.
I think you can vary old archetypes and avoid cliche by doing two things 1) offer a unique time in history or 2) unique setting.
Maybe people don't do that enough. I wonder how many ms are being written about smoldering teenage vampires and lusting teen girls that take place the time of Pharaoh? WWII?
thanks for the topic Nathan. Good one!
Zoe Courtman Smith says
I used to spend a lot of time fretting about writing horror, because, especially in that genre, there's just nothing new. No new monsters, no new heroes, really – then I realized what everyone's been saying all along. Just write the story that you have inside you. What differentiates you is your voice. Your perspective. How you'd react to situations, which informs how your characters would react. The rest is all execution of that voice, which is what (hopefully) makes it unique.
I'm super late to this post, but I wonder if you can touch on a similar topic?
I was flipping through a popular YA author's new girl-centric book the other day and the entire plot seemed to be a ripoff of Ocean's Eleven.
Same with a ugely successful book about a teen pitted against other teens in a huge battle for survival — that whole plot set up was already a movie called Battle Royale.
So, my question is, at what point is derivitive okay or not?
Because I have to admit it bugs me. I think most writers do know not to use the specific archetype of Bella in Twilight, for example, because they simply won't get published. But shouldn't we avoid entire, recognizable plot set ups and situations that have already successfully been done in other books or film? Because YA best seller lists don't seem to bear this out. I'm not seeing anyone take a stand and say, hey, you swiped this from a movie, what gives?
So this makes me wonder, what's the archetypical cliche? (or, of course, the most cliche archetype?)
Perry Robles says
I started my first book that details my family’s illegal entry into The United States. My mother died. I stopped writing and quit the university.
Two years ago, after a considerable mourning period, I was admitted into a CW Master’s program. I didn’t want to continue with my first book. I wanted to write about my mother’s death.
Does that make it a sequel?
I thought I was writing/telling a different story.
A little help please…
You can't write a sequel to a book that was never finished or published to begin with. So no worries, you are writing a new, fresh book. Also, I think Nathan is talking primarily about fiction. For non-fiction, and memoirs, there aren't really "sequels" — just different aspects of that person's life they are choosing to write about. Like the author (name slips my mind) that wrote Marley and Me, about a dog he and his wife bought. His next book was about his Catholic upbringing. Same person, different time frames and focuses.
My condolences on your mom's passing. Good for you that you are back in the swing of things now.
This is an awesome post- next one should be, "cliche sells incredibly well but shouldn't because…"
Timothy Fish says
As the term Archetype is used here, we can’t avoid it. Yes, stories are told over and over, but I think the problem people run into is that they don’t know what makes a story good and rather than copying the “archetype” they copy the other elements, piece them together into something that isn’t good and the story fails. Archetype is at a much higher level than the other elements. Television shows follow the same archetype week after week, but the audience doesn’t get bored because details are significantly different.
This is a deceptively simple post that is really growing on me.
Nicely done, Mr. Bransford! 🙂
And your line:
"The road to cliche is paved with imitation."
Oh, well. That's just…..that's just really good.
I think a lot of it is in the delivery as well. Not just the different setting, characters, etc. The voice changes everything–even the exact same story.
If I understand my Jung (and I probably don't) or my Erich Neumann (and I am sure I don't), ANY story you write will fit an archetype.
No reason to worry about it advance, huh?
Matthew Rush says
Dear Mr. Bransford,
This is completely off topic and I apologize for that but I would just like to say thank you for your blog. All the wisdom you share here for the world to see is incredibly helpful and informative (especially to writers hoping to one day be authors). On the other hand so many of your posts are also very entertaining, and often hilarious, so I imagine readers who have no aspirations for becoming published enjoy it as well.
Your optimism and friendly attitude are truly inspiring. So thank you.
In the meantime while we await your next post any amateur writers who have felt discouraged by the query process can read my blog: TheQQQE, a clumsy attempt at catharsis by a novice writer brand new to blogging.
There is a sort of tribute to you there Mr. Bransford, and if you find the time to read it I certainly hope you don't consider it blowing smoke.
Don't go Lakers and all mosquitoes must die!
Perry Robles says
Muchas Dankes kind stranger…
Ishta Mercurio says
I love this post! Such great advice – can I hire you as my personal sage?
It is a very fine, and difficult, line to walk. Thanks for your take, and good luck with all of those queries!
Julia Weston says
Thank you, Nathan, for posting right in front of me in simple terms the thing that's been trying to coalesce in my head for years.
OMG, how the heck did I miss this post?? I guess I'm a day late and dollar short. Oh, well. I'm going to reply anyway.
Someone on here mentioned Carl Jung, but I was surprised to see (at least in my brief scan) that none of the Star Wars fans mentioned Lucas' mentor, Joseph Campbell. Nathan alluded to The Matrix and, of course, talked about Star Wars. Both Lucas and I believe the Wachowski Brothers used Campbell's "Hero's Journey" as a model for their films. Some Disney movies have even been modeled after it.
If you look at the outline for the "Hero's Journey" (Call to Adventure, Initiation, Return), the pattern becomes very clear in both Star Wars and The Matrix.
Yet, both movies are very different. It's that "twist" thing Nathan was talking about, I suppose.
My question is (and I doubt anyone will answer it since this blog post is from last month): How do you treat sequels with regard to applying this concept (I'm referring to the "Hero's Journey," only b/c Star Wars was mentioned)? Does your character just keep repeating the journey? Or are some elements eliminated? I'm assuming the MC has grown by the conclusion of book one. Are they allowed to digress (e.g. deny the initial call to adventure again) in the sequel?
*Sighs* I need to pay closer attention to this blog.
I would just like to know what those half-dozen or dozen plots that exhaust all of human storytelling are. People often make this claim, but never accompanied by a list. I would imagine that given a list, one could challenge the claim by concocting a plot not on it. In fact, there might even be a diagonalization algorithm for doing so.
Young Writer says
I am in constant doubt that there are any stories that are not cliche. The difference between good and bad stories is this: a good story is so good you don't realize or don't care it's overused. A bad story, that's all you can think about.
What about 50 Shades of Gray?