Character Archetypes Continued

In a prior post, I discuss the power of archetypes. I end by admitting that stereotypes--as opposed to archetypes--often fall flat. I've read romance novels where the characters were little more than their labels--dominating hero, sweet heroine, wide-eyed innocent, reformed rake, damsel with hutzpah, perfect gentleman . . .

So what is the difference between an archetype and a stereotype, literarily speaking?

The archetype, as opposed to the stereotype, is all of a piece.

My positive example is Buttercup and Westley from Princess Bride. She is the ultimate damsel in distress. He is the ultimate romantic hero who will rescue the heroine at all cost.

Note that chin!
Buttercup: You can't hurt me. Westley and I are joined
by the bonds of love. And you cannot track that, not
with a thousand bloodhounds. And you cannot break
it, not with a thousand swords. And when I say
you are a coward, that is only because you are
the slimiest weakling ever to crawl the earth.

Buttercup being a damsel in distress does not prevent her having a steely determination, as when she pushes "Dread Pirate Roberts" off the hill or confronts her dastardly fiance (I don't write many reviews where I get to use the word "dastardly"). Robin Wright has a low voice (as opposed to a shrill one) and she uses it to advantage. She also has "speaking" eyes as when she gives Westley a level gaze in the fire swamp that clearly says, "You're just making the best of this situation, aren't you?" (see above).

Likewise, Westley's romantic hero persona doesn't prevent him from having a delicious sense of irony delivered with panache by Cary Elwes (see below).

And yet, they never break character. Buttercup doesn't deliver any karate chops or run screaming from the palace in a fit of madness. Westley, even dead, never forsakes his mission. Likewise, Buttercup's intrinsic toughness leads her to mock her fiance even at the wedding while Westley's devastating wit allows him to deliver an entirely convincing denunciation and challenge to the evil prince/king.

I think Shakespeare intended to go for
stereotypes in Taming of the Shrew. But
he's too good: he ended up giving us
archetypes and, therefore, people, instead.
In other words, assigning archetypes doesn't start and end with a single event or adhere only to the characters' personal relationship. It washes through all aspects of their lives and dovetails with prior behavior/events. Stereotypes, on the other hand, tend to remain consistent only so long as a character needs to be DOMINANT or TRUSTING or PUSHY or . . . whatever.

Because they remain whole and consistent, characters based on archetypes--Persephone, Luke Skywalker, Darcy & Elizabeth--remain memorable. More importantly, the psychology of their behavior makes sense. They don't do things because, hey, it's time for the MENTOR to give a speech, the VILLAIN to act threatening, and the HERO to demand a kiss while the HEROINE gets nervous.

The stereotype never moves beyond the annoying assumption that the reader will accept the behavior because, well, that's what a mentor or villain or hero or heroine does. The archetype, on the other hand, becomes the character becomes the behavior which confirms the archetype.

And archetypes are powerful! Well-crafted archetypes create interesting characters who capture their fans' hearts. They become more real than any amount of "well-roundedness" could possibly manage.


Joe said...

While struggling with your two posts, I ran across this:

"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."

- Jen
Archetype vs. Stereotype - The Enchanted Inkpot.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I think that is an excellent definition! "Psychology" is a loaded term, but it occurred to me as I was writing that writers who utilize archetypes as opposed to stereotypes almost always delve into motivation/psychology. Stereotypes never get that far.

But then I get caught because I don't think it is necessary for the writers to explore that psychology within the text/film/series--that's a literary thing! Even if the writers don't tell us/show us Frank Reagan's full backstory, we sense it. He comes across as a whole person.

Agatha Christie could do this--so readers feel that they are not responding to the stereotype of a greedy murdering husband but rather the quintessence of one. And she rarely smothered readers in dark angsty Freudian stream of consciousness. So the achievement of archetype v. stereotype was reached in some other way.

Still mulling . . .