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.
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.
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.
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