What are the differences between stereotypes, tropes, and archetypes? What are they? How do writers use them? Let’s take a look at some vocabulary and how we define these terms to make sense of them for ourselves.

Stereotype (n): A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

To elaborate on this, stereotypes can be seen as sets of characteristics or behaviors that are commonly associated with one another, thus making it easier to intuit some of them if one or more is known. Stereotypes, though, are not literary. They refer to beliefs held about groups in reality, not types of characters. The literary cousin of the stereotype is the trope.

Trope (n): devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.

If tropes seem a little too much like to stereotypes for comfort, that’s because, technically speaking, they are stereotypes. “A Trope is a stereotype that writers find useful in communicating with readers.” (x) However, because the word stereotype has become so stigmatized in society, we prefer to think of tropes as specific to storytelling.

You use tropes in your writing. It is nearly impossible to escape them. And that is okay.

Tropes are things that pop up repeatedly in media as cultural norms in storytelling—types of characters, settings, plot lines, etc.. Stuff like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who exists to usher a male character to his higher level of emotional awareness or personal growth, or a case of Mistaken Identity where Hilarity Ensues. Tropes are culturally-based, which is what sets them apart from archetypes.

Archetype (n): a very typical example of a certain person or thing; types that fit fundamental human motifs.

An archetype is a kind of character that pops up in stories all over the place. A trope is a character that puts that archetype in a cultural context.

For instance, let’s say you have a character who is a Geek. The role of a Geek in literature is a trope, because it is common in a certain culture (i.e. Western, though depictions of the Geek will vary within Western Civilization as well). Broadly and therefore in terms of an archetype, the Geek is the Scholar, a person who is constantly in search of knowledge. Various stereotypes about the Geek (like poor social skills) might then be inferred by characters or readers based on their understanding of the society in which they live.

It’s important to mention that none of these things are necessarily clichés.

Cliché (n):

  1. A trite or overused expression or idea; often a vivid depiction of an abstraction that relies upon analogy or exaggeration for effect, often drawn from everyday experience.
  2. A person or character whose behavior is predictable or superficial.

For more about clichés, mosey over to this post. Essentially, clichés are boring and overdone by definition, but tropes and archetypes can be useful. Yes, this is a subjective distinction.

So here’s the breakdown:

Let’s focus on tropes and archetypes now as these terms are often used as a sort of shorthand when writing. Once you have firmly introduced a character as one type of archetype and/or a trope within that archetype, you do not have to elaborate on the character as much before moving on in the storyline.

While this can be useful and can help keep a section moving, it can also be very lazy, can help to perpetuate unhealthy stereotypes that carry over into the real world, and can make for one-dimensional characters. All of this forces the readers to focus on the way the story is being told instead of the story itself. Not good.

Here are some questions to keep in mind when using trope and archetypes in writing:

All in all, archetypes and tropes can be a handy writing tool when used sparingly, but we have to remember that the stereotypes we perpetuate in our writing resonate with people in real life.

Speaking in terms of subject matter and not story construction, stereotypes have their place in literature, so long as the writer and the reader are completely aware of the fact that they are being used. Perhaps you are using a stereotype so you can later break it in an interesting way as a plot device, or you are driving it home as a stereotype that you feel is justified. For instance, there is the stereotype that drug dealers are dangerous and violent. The fact that anyone who is actively complicit in illegal activities is potentially dangerous is true, and it probably is best to avoid and not trust someone whose livelihood revolves around convincing you to break the law.

In Is Stereotyping Bad?, Brittney Weber said:

"Stereotypes have the potential to show a member of a particular group how to behave or how others believe they do. The latter may be apparent in the way they are treated by society at large, while the former encourages them to remain within the confines of that definition."

So think before you write, and be considerate of the effect your writing may have on others, as well as the effect that devices like tropes can have on your writing.

Further Reading: 

-Ji, O, and C


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