Writing Excuses 13.35: Cliché vs. Archetype
Key points: Clichés, archetypes, tropes are tools that every writer uses. Tropes are the building blocks for stories. Fresh green beens, tropes, archetypes, or clichés are pretty good, even if you’ve had them before, but if you get it wrong, we can taste the can. Recontextualize, use the trope in an interesting way. Think about what the trope does for the reader, why does it work, and then incorporate that into your story. With a dash of unpredictable. Watch for cliché dialogue, tired dialogue, and ask yourself if there’s another way for the character to say that. Put the well-worn tropes in a very specific life and place, and make them fresh again. Play up the fact that you and the reader know it is a cliché. Think about subversion, joking or playing on the shared context. Use tropes and archetypes as diagnostic tools, in planning or editing. Be aware that some tropes and clichés are steaming piles of poo. Be aware that some audiences want tired clichés, while others don’t.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 35.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Cliché Versus Archetype.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We’re going to be talking about archetypes as tools. Tropes as tools. Now, specifically, this week the idea is that we are approaching these as tools that every writer uses, consciously or unconsciously, and we’re going to talk about how to use archetypes, how to use tropes, or at what points you want to back away or subvert that trope. Let me start off by saying you can’t avoid tropes. Tropes are the way by which we communicate in a lot of ways. It’s the way by which stories work. Also, tropes are not bad in and of themselves. The fact… They are simply something that exists, that are pieces and building blocks that stories come from.
[Howard] Let me open with a metaphor that has always worked well for me. If you have ever had fresh green beans, they are pretty delicious. Boiled, however… If you’ve ever had canned green beans, they are less delicious. When you do a clich… When you use a trope, an archetype, or a cliché and you get it wrong, we can taste the can. When you get it right, it’s fresh green beans, and even if we’ve had it before, we like it. Also, add butter.
[Mary] A friend of mine uses a slightly different metaphor, which is very similar also in the “Well, this tastes like poo.”
[Mary] Which is that books are building blocks, but that sometimes building blocks are made of poo and that’s not architecturally sound.
[Dan] Well, I suppose…
[Brandon] Let’s dig into this. Let me ask you…
[Dan] You and I build things very differently.
[Howard] Don’t use that archetype. It’s canned poo!
[Brandon] So how do you make the poo not canned, Howard? How do you make it fresh… I don’t know. No.
[Mary] No, there’s a reason this… That Howard’s canned metaphor’s really, really good. It’s that there are a lot of things that when they are fresh, when they are new, they are not a cliché yet. This is why you… There’s that joke about “Oh, Shakespeare. Everything he wrote was a cliché.” Because he wrote it first, and people started using it. There’s a thing that will happen over the lifecycle of an idea, which is that someone will have the rare original idea. It’s like, “Oh, that’s so fresh and new.” Like Dracula. Although Dracula was not…
[Brandon] See, here’s where I’m going to argue with you. Because I think that during Shakespeare’s time, those things were already all tropes.
[Mary] Yeah… Well, that’s… Yes. What I’m saying is that to go from trope to cliché… That cliché is the canned thing.
[Brandon] Right. So what is…
[Mary] Trope is the building block.
[Brandon] How do you make this happen? How do you… Like I’m worried that our listeners are going to be like, “All right, so I need to find the original idea. I need to do things no one else has done.” Without understanding that’s just not humanly possible. Now what you can do is you can take something, and you can say, “All right, I’m going to recontextualize this.” I’m going to use it in an interesting way, or I’m going to be well aware that this is a trope and dig down as we talked about a couple years ago, the difference between a cook and a chef… Right? The cook uses the trope as it is, just because it is a trope, where the chef says, “All right, what does this trope do to the reader? What… Why is this trope interesting? How can I properly incorporate this into my story?” If you want to take an example of this, Firefly, the television show. It is a series of very, very time-worn tropes. You’ve got the prostitute with a heart of gold, you’ve got the preacher, you’ve got the mysterious stranger, you’ve got… I mean, everyone…
[Mary] You’ve got the cowboy.
[Brandon] On that ship is a very… They’re cliché. They’re straight up cliché. That, in the context of that story, they are all delightful, interesting, fun, and feel very fresh and original characters. Despite the fact that he’s changed them only a little bit from the cliché.
[Howard] Several years ago, we recorded and it was just the three of us. The three dudes. We recorded What Did the Dark Knight Get Right? One of the things we said is that the dialogue was always unpredictable. It didn’t have comic book dialogue. You didn’t have somebody say, “I’m going to get you for this.” You didn’t have Batman in a gravelly voice, but even when he was doing that, you didn’t know what he was going to say. You contrast that with, I think it was Hellboy 2, which had cliché throwaway line after throwaway line. For me, that is the flavor of the can, and that is one of the easiest things to pluck out of your work. You look at something that someone has just said. For instance, “What did you do?” Well, “What did you do?” has been uttered by actors thousands and thousands of times. It’s not something that’s technically cliché, but if you’re trying to throw it as something that’s really strong, you might have trouble. Is there another way for that character to ask that question?
[Mary] Jane Espenson says that new writers will often write things and go, “Oh, this is right,” and it’s right because it’s familiar. I think that that’s one of the things that happens to us a lot. You are absolutely right that there is not an original… That going out and finding original idea is not the answer. It’s the combining of…
[Brandon] There are… It does happen. You’re right. But I worry about writers feeling like they have to find that rather than learning to do what we’re talking about.
[Dan] So, the example that keeps coming to mind while we’re talking about this is the TV show Atlanta by Donald Glover, which I’ve started watching, belatedly. What is fascinating to me is that it feels incredibly fresh… Everything in it. Like, my jaw’s on the floor a lot of it, because I’ve never seen this before and I think they found something new. They found something I’ve never seen before. What’s going on is that they are using a lot of these well-worn tropes. A lot of the events and situations and the relationships are the same as in every other sitcom. But they are combined with a very specific life experience and an incredible sense of place that I’m not personally familiar with. That gives these tropes a freshness that really shines through.
[Brandon] I think that’s a really salient way to put it, Dan. I’m glad you mentioned that.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for the book of the week, which is actually my book, The Apocalypse Guard.
[Howard] You sound so worried.
[Brandon] Yeah, well, I’m worried because I don’t know if it’s out yet. Because we’re recording this a year ahead and the publisher has not exactly committed to a release date. It might be September, it might be October.
[Howard] That’s so cliché.
[Brandon] Yeah. But I’m going to just run with it and assume it’s out or is coming out very soon.
[Mary] You can preorder it, if it’s not out, which also helps.
[Howard] By the way, preorders are very good for authors.
[Brandon] They are very good. And I did just submit it to my editor, so we’re hoping that they’ll like it.
[Mary] Well, what’s your book about, Brandon?
[Dan] At this stage in its revision, the book is about…
[Brandon] The book is about… It’s the story of… I wanted to tell the story of the person who fetches Superman’s coffee. It’s a story of an intern from Iona, Idaho, where my father is from, who gets a job being the clerical intern/coffee girl for the Apocalypse Guard, who are basically a version of the Justice League. They save planets in the Multiverse when they are threatened with destruction. That’s their job, that’s why they were formed. Well, at the beginning of the book, the Apocalypse Guard gets attacked by a shadowy force, and Emma, our main character, ends up getting teleported to a planet they were planning to rescue but hadn’t gotten around to yet. She gets there three weeks before a flood is going to destroy the entire planet. She has no resources, no powers, and is an intern. It’s her story of trying to survive on this planet while everyone else is off fighting a greater evil and has forgotten about her.
[Howard] That is going to take a lot of coffee.
[Brandon] It is a delightful, very fun…
[Howard] Sounds like a lot of fun.
[Brandon] Action adventure book.
[Mary] I can get that book now, right?
[Brandon] Yes. You… You can get it now. You…
[Howard] You, Mary Robinette Kowal.
[Brandon] Can maybe get it now.
[Dan] We’re just rubbing this in your faces at this point.
[Brandon] We are…
[Brandon] All right. So let’s get back to…
[Mary] Move on to cliché-ism.
[Brandon] That podcast that we do.
[Howard] Let me talk tools in another specific way. The line, “What did you do?” I just used that, and it will have been months ago for readers of Schlock Mercenary, just used that where Karl Tagon walks into the room, because a thing has happened, and he thinks it’s Schlock’s fault. We’ve seen this before. Schlock is saying, “It wasn’t me. I didn’t do that.” Some sort of clever thing. Tagon says, “What did you do?” And schlock is talking to the person who did it, and is saying, “See! Angry face.” Playing up the fact that Schlock knows this is a cliché. I doubled down on it by using the… I call this the common tone transition where the opening panel of the next strip, we’ve switched scenes, and a captain is yelling at a crewmember, saying, “What did you do?” So, yeah, it’s a cliché line, it’s a throwaway line, but the way in which I’m using it, I sure hope I’m going to get away with it.
[Brandon] You’re stepping toward what we call subversion. Which is where you take the trope, you’re aware of it, and you do something to play off the fact that the reader might know about this trope. So my question for you guys is when do you subvert and when do you play it straight? For instance, it was called Atlanta? The show that you’re watching?
[Brandon] They’re playing it straight, it seems like. They’re recontextualizing the tropes, but they’re still using them. Whereas something like Deadpool is built around subverting tropes. You… We all share a context, I’m going to make a joke about it, that’s the subversion of the trope. It doesn’t always have to be a joke, by the way.
[Mary] I was going to say…
[Brandon] The character you don’t expect…
[Howard] Good subversion… One of my favorite subversion’s is the crossing of the threshold in the Hero’s Journey in How to Train Your Dragon. Where instead of killing the dragon, he frees the dragon. It’s a literal 180 degree inversion of what we expect in the Hero’s Journey. When I watched it, because I’m familiar with some of it, I watched and I got chills when it happened. Like, “Oh, my gosh. That’s a huge subversion. Can they stick this?” Throughout that film, there was subversion after subversion where moments that you expected from the Hero’s Journey were handled in ways that were different.
[Mary] So, the Hero’s Journey and archetypes… One of the… My favorite subversion’s… Flipping of an archetype is the wise old man…
[Howard] The mentor?
[Mary] The mentor figure, which is always a Gandalf kind of… It’s a tall old man, it’s a Dumbledore, tall old man, white man with a long gray beard of some variety. Yoda is that archetype, but he’s a little green toad guy. That’s, I think, one of the reasons that we love him. He’s still occupying the old, he still occupying the wise and filled with power, but he is small and green and very crotchety. And a Muppet. But I think that if you look at one of these things and you… If you go back to our casting exercise, and you flip an axis, flip one of the pieces… The hour… The power dynamics that they live in, that sometimes you can end up with a character who’s still fulfilling the archetypical roles, but is way more interesting.
[Brandon] You mentioned the Hero’s Journey. We should really do a podcast on that, someday.
[Howard] We’ve tried a couple times.
[Dan] Oh, snap.
[Dan] In-your-face, loyal listeners.
[Brandon] I’m sorry if you’re not part of the in-joke. Go listen to many, many seasons ago on that one. All right. So how do you decide? We never answered this. When do you write straight and when do you subvert?
[Dan] I don’t know.
[Mary] so, I think one of the things is, it is useful to be aware of what these archetypes are and what these tropes are, and understand that these are already in your brain. So, for me, one of the things that I will do is I will kind of glance, because I’m a planner. I will look at my plan to make sure that I have not accidentally deployed one of the tropes that I didn’t want to, or an archetype. It’s like, “Oh, look, this character’s living in that role.” Sometimes I’ll use it as a diagnostic tool in the planning stage or in the editing stage. I kind of… I look at the… Go back to voice. The area of intention. Like, what function is this serving? If I actually need the archetype to serve a function, then I look at ways that I can subvert it in some ways… Or double down on it.
[Brandon] This is a really difficult one to talk about. You can hear us kind of talking around it because everything’s a trope. So you can’t be aware, even, of all the ones you’re doing. In fact, if you go to the websites that collect these things, it can be a really eye-opening or a really disastrous experience when you read and see all the things you’re doing. Because as a writer, you think, “Wow, this is so fresh and new,” when it’s really not. That can be very dangerous. At the same time, we should go back to the fact that some of these tropes, these clichés, are just steaming piles of poo.
[Brandon] Knowing which ones are and that you should just not use because… Next week we’ll talk about our own internal biases as writers, so we’ll dig into this quite a bit, but there’s awareness you need to have. If you don’t, people will call you on it.
[Mary] There’s a lot of things… There are tropes in our cul… Tropes and clichés that are damaging because they reinforce harmful stereotypes about people who have to live with the consequences of those stereotypes being in the world. So you’ll hear people talk about… Some examples are the magical Negro, the model minority,…
[Howard] Great white Savior.
[Mary] The great white Savior. These are examples that are rooted in colonialist background, and will… Are really very damaging. So the idea that with the magical Negro is that a black character exists only to support a white character’s journey and to dispense advice. So you may sit there and go, “Well, I put this character in because I want to make sure that black people are represented well.” But what you’ve done is you’ve put a character in that has no arc of their own and is reinforcing the idea that… From colonialism, that black people were there just to support white people, which is damaging. It’s difficult, because it is in so much media. Again, we’ll talk about this more next week. That you’ve internalized it. So it’s really important to be aware of these things, and it’s difficult to be aware of them at the same time.
[Dan] I want to talk about some other clichés. I want to preface this by saying I’m speaking of clichés that are not harmful, but just are very tired. When we get into those, I think it’s worth pointing out that who you’re writing for will move that line of which clichés work and which don’t. I remember having a conversation with Brandon years and years ago about different levels of originality in the fantasy market. There are people who will read China Miéville, and anything less weird and while than him is considered old and tired. Then, almost every level has someone who’s like this, I am all about this author and everyone who is less creative than this one or less original than this one…
[Howard] Another example…
[Dan] Is too boring for me.
[Howard] Another example of this is one that, we talked about this here, which is the cliché from the superheroes genre, which is that all of these superheroes at some point are going to fight each other. The plot is going to build… Be built so that that is going to happen. Well, here’s the thing. People who love superheroes stories want that. That’s a cliché that you are allowed to deploy. If it’s going to taste like canned green beans, it means you’ve done it wrong. If it’s going to taste fresh, it’s because when it happened, it surprised us.
[Dan] Well, the point that I want to make is that for the audience that wants that, it will taste fresh, and for an audience that doesn’t, they might not like it no matter how well you do it.
[Brandon] All right. Mary, you have our homework.
[Mary] Yes. Okay. So we’ve been talking about tropes. We did not talk about one of the best tools for learning what those tropes are, and that’s called tvtropes.com. So, here is your homework. Set a timer.
[Howard] Oh, thank goodness.
[Dan] It’s important.
[Dan] It’s important to have a timer.
[Mary] Really important. Because you can fall down the gravity well of tvtropes.com and just live there. So, set a timer. I’m going to say for half an hour. Go to tvtropes. Pick a trope. Pick a thing. Boy meets girl. Or pick a book. One of your favorite books. Type that into the search and then just follow the rabbit hole down. When your timer goes off, get out.
[Brandon] Get out.
[Mary] Get out and save yourself.
[Brandon] Get out and go type in “You just don’t get it, do you?” and watch the YouTube video of clips from television shows and movies that have used that phrase. Just to kind of rinse and repeat…
[Brandon] Rinse and wash your brain out. That’s one of the ones I want you to do, as well. TVtropes is amazing. It is also… It is also a terrible, terrible thing.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. I hope this was helpful for you. I hope you learn how to use tropes, and you are out of excuses. Now go write.