Tropes, Cliches, Stereotypes, and Archetypes

There was an interesting article on io9 today about whether or not avoiding tropes is the same thing as telling a fresh story.  The conclusion they come to is basically “Not necessarily.”

I find this topic interesting because a lot of the stories that I find to be the most original are often swirling cesspools of ideas that have been done before… a lot. It’s hard to name any character from J.K. Rowling, Joss Whedon, or C.S. Lewis (my 3 favorite storytellers) who doesn’t fall into one stereotype or another. So what is it that keeps them from becoming tired?

My theory has 2 parts. Firstly, stereotypes often exist for a reason. People and ideas often do separate themselves into easily-identifiable categories. Those categories rarely tell the whole story and are often exaggerated, but they are based on something real. Thus, I think it is possible to use tropes, cliches, etc. in a way that is true to life. This is, more or less, the idea behind archetypes, is it not? That there are certain standard, common roles that mean something?

Secondly, one thing that I think J.K. Rowling, Joss Whedon, and C.S. Lewis are all brilliant at is using a stereotype or a trope against the audience; they know that the people reading/watching will be expecting x, so they either flip x on its head or use that expectation to mislead the audience. This not only leads to some great head-slapping “I should have guessed that” moments, but it helps to further explore why we label things the way we do. Think of the vampire-hunting cheerleader, the greasy-haired potions master, the warrior mouse, the space-western, the tale of Psyche, the sacrificial death, the superhero…

So I suppose that the value of tropes, cliches, and stereotypes really depends on how they are used: either as an exploration of who we are and what we expect, or as a way of sidestepping the issue.

Now that I think of it, subverting stereotypes really is what makes parodies so brilliant, isn’t it? (um…duh. *smacks head*)

I know this isn’t the deepest deep think I have ever thunk, but that’s what you’re for: let me know your thoughts, give examples of well used or poorly used stereotypes, etc.

Hat tip to whedonesque.

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~ by ntertanedangel on July 17, 2010.

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