Archetype vs. Stereotype

Archetype and stereotype are sometimes confused terms. But for writers, the differences between them are significant. While one can make your story stronger, the other can ruin it. Do you know the difference?

Let’s start with definitions. When creating characters, archetype is the model from which your character is created. In art terms, archetype is the medium: oils, chalk, or charcoal for example. But from that, the artist creates the masterpiece. From archetype, the writer builds an individual character.

There are some common archetypes throughout literature, such as the Unwilling Hero (Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter) or the Willing Hero (Eragon, King Arthur, Luke Skywalker). There are archetypes such as the Innocent Child (Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, or Alice from Alice in Wonderland). And frequently in storytelling, there is the Sidekick archetype (Ron Weasley, Dr. Watson, Little John), who provides counterpoint traits to the protagonist.

Stereotypes are slightly different. A stereotyped character takes a general type of person and oversimplifies their qualities into predictable or clichéd types.

Diana Wynn Jones did a fabulous book called The Tough Guide to Fantasyland that exposes many of the stereotypes found in fantasy writing. Such as the magical sword, the gruff dwarf with an ax, or that all elves must sing beautifully. Stereotype characters are stock and could be interchanged from one story to another without any major impact on plot.

Although both archetype and stereotype draw from a “type” of person to create character, the difference is that archetype will use the template as a starting place, and stereotype uses it as the end point.

For example, let’s compare Frodo Baggins with Harry Potter. They are both unwilling heroes in that neither asked for their roles in saving the world. Both would have been far happier to live out their lives without the weight and burden of being the hero. Both rely heavily on their friendships (Samfor Frodo, and Ron and Hermione for Harry), and would not have succeeded without those friends. And Frodo and Harry are both very compassionate, loyal, and determined characters.

However, despite their similarities, their authors created in each character additional traits to give them unique identities. Harry can be arrogant and bullheaded, and he often says exactly the wrong thing. Frodo, in contrast to most of his fellow Hobbits, is curious about the world. He is also unfailingly polite, thoughtful, and selfless.

Although built from the same archetype, Frodo and Harry Potter are each unique individuals who move beyond cliché. This makes them far more interesting, and gives them depth as well as a measure of unpredictability.

Authors who create stereotypes do just the opposite. They rob their readers of the chance to explore the character as an individual. If the princess is always beautiful and willful and prefers the handsome commoner to the boorish prince, then the reader has nothing to gain by investing any interest in her. If the prophecy always concerns an innocent and naïve farm boy who is destined to defeat the evil ruler/wizard/all powerful trendy creature, then the end is known from the beginning.

Great literature always begins with great characters. And great characters always rise above the stereotype to create further depth within their archetype.

This article was taken from an article posted in Enchanted Ink Spot written by Jen. I have copied the words exactly, but gotten rid of the obnoxious background.

Bob Jones

I am a recovering engineer, a programmer for over 50 years. A decade or so ago, I discovered that I also have a heart. I have spent most of the last 15 years learning how to move from head to heart and back, as the situation requires. I created this website and the ConneXions Workshop.

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