Archetypes vs Cliche


My husband, Mr. Al, and I were discussing the plot line of a TV show recently when the topic turned to the differences between Archetypes and Cliche. Seems like a lot of writers confuse
the two, especially when angsting over their own work. I’ve stumbled across a very simple way to tell the difference.

The archetype is the underlying idea.
Cliche comes from how the idea is handled.

This sounds a bit like I think cliche is limited to wording while anything on an idea level is an archetype. Not so. It’s quite possible to have a plot line be cliche.

For instance, you might expect a book with the title The Greek Millionaire’s Secret Baby to have a stereotypical plot. You may even be right, but not necessarily. Chances are, though, that the story will be about a child that a Greek millionaire didn’t know he had, or hadn’t planned on having. In other words, it’s probably a secret baby story.

Is a secret baby cliche? No! Actually, in and of itself, a story about a baby the father didn’t know about is an archetype. However, if it’s played straight with no twists or new insights, then it becomes cliche.

Do any of us really want to read yet another book in which the old flame of some rich guy turns up with his child and causes him to get angry because he didn’t know? I do if it turns out the baby in question is psychic and predicts the father’s business meetings, or if the father still doesn’t want the child but learns to love him or her over ice cream bars and old tire swings the father had never once been allowed to indulge in before, or if the baby turns out to be a surprise to the mother instead of the father.

Why? Because archetypes are powerful. As long as they are handled from a fresh point of view, they can rivet an audience.

Consider the moment Darth Vader said, “Luke, I am your father.” Imagine, someone as hard nosed as Darth Vader anyone’s father, let alone Luke Skywalker. It’s a dramatic moment. It seems like it should be cliche, but it works for me. After all, that’s one heck of a twist on the secret baby archetype.

10 Comment(s)

  1. Great Blog today Alice. I always enjoy discussing archtypes being a Carl Jung and Collective Unconscious fan. I’ve never heard of the secret baby archtype. Do you know where it orginated?

    I love the concept of death and rebirth. In every hero’s journey there is the symbolic death and rebirth (I think some might call it the black moment)—for instance dying to an old pattern of thinking and being reborn into self-insight.

    For example you could say in Gone With the Wind that Scarlett had a symbolic death in the garden when she came home to Tara after a battle had ravaged her home. In that moment of sickenss and starvation she died to the old Southern Belle of tradition and expected behavior and made a vow to God to do whatever it took to keep her and her kin from going hungry ever again. This rebirth fuled the next half of the book taking her through two more marriages and another rise to wealth.

    Again, fun blog.

    terri | Jun 22, 2010 | Reply

  2. I love this topic too! :)

    Archetypes are the foundation of all stories. Every story has a hero and a villain, though in modern writing the clear-cut definitions are often blurred. Carl Jung would say that these are inherent in all people–that’s why every culture understands the concept of hero and villain, though the descriptions may be different for each.

    I think in each genre of literature there are archetypes that become cliches because of overuse, but as you’ve said, just because a secret-baby story “could” be a cliche doesn’t mean it will be. If we approached stories with that attitude, we could say all stories are cliches and that’s simply not true.

    And to pick up from Christiana’s post from last week, this is the reason I don’t worry too much if someone else’s story is similar to mine. My thoughts and ideas and experiences and voice will make it different enough every time. :)

    Brynna | Jun 22, 2010 | Reply

  3. Terri, I only trace it as far as Harlequin. :) However I’m sure if we wanted to go mucking around in Greek mythology we’d find a few.

    The first time I saw “secret baby” referred to as an archetype was in and Romance Writers Review article in which an Harlequin editor referred to it that way. It made me look at both archetypes and Harlequin differently.

    Alice | Jun 22, 2010 | Reply

  4. “My thoughts and ideas and experiences and voice will make it different enough every time. :)” Exactly, Brynna. If it is new and fresh to ourselves, it will come across and new and fresh to others.

    I say that, but then I also naturally gravitate to things that are different. Given a smorgasbord I’ll take the alligator stew and leave the potato salad. At the department store I’ll take the one skirt with a weird little tuck. At a party I’ll head for the person crawling under tables. When I reach for a plot, I naturally fall for the elements that leave an impression.

    Alice | Jun 22, 2010 | Reply

  5. Alice said: “I say that, but then I also naturally gravitate to things that are different. Given a smorgasbord I’ll take the alligator stew and leave the potato salad. At the department store I’ll take the one skirt with a weird little tuck. At a party I’ll head for the person crawling under tables. When I reach for a plot, I naturally fall for the elements that leave an impression.”

    I tend toward the things I like and don’t often stray into uncharted territory, but I ALWAYS, ALWAYS feel like there’s no one out there like me. LOL. The way I think, my view of the world, my expectations–the dh comes the closest, but he gives me strange looks sometimes too.

    As for the party–I’ll tend toward the one who seems to be the most uncomfortable, the wallflower type. I hate to see anyone left out.

    Brynna | Jun 22, 2010 | Reply

  6. Wonderful blog! BUT the fact that the baby was secret to himself makes it a wonder idea. I mean, Darth knew he was Luke’s father. Luke, on the other hand, was the one in for the shock of his life!

    This one makes me think. That’s always a good thing!

    Christiana | Jun 22, 2010 | Reply

  7. Awesome article, Alice. You know I’m winging this whole writing thing, so when you put things in this kind of perspective a little light bulb goes off.

    Renee | Jun 22, 2010 | Reply

  8. I love this post, Alice, because so many people dismiss romance as cliche. What makes it so wonderful is the twists the writer gives to the premise and the individual voice. We have all read stories which have been done to death but there are so many wonderful stories out there which are fresh and original just because of the talent and creativity of the one who wrote it.

    Excellent blog!

    Laurie Faelan | Jun 22, 2010 | Reply

  9. Great post, Alice! I love the picture too. LOL

    Arianna/Sidney | Jun 22, 2010 | Reply

  10. I think every single person out there has a unique and valuable perspective. However, I’ve met some writers who gravitate toward the mundane. I watched a few CPs struggle hard against cliche. I only wish I could have told them about this insight into archetype vs cliche back then, because I think it might have helped. And most of you here I think can relax a bit, knowing you are working with archetypes.

    Alice | Jun 23, 2010 | Reply

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