Monday, February 25, 2019

The Difference Between Archetypes, Tropes, and Clichés

making writing feel fresh
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Understanding archetypes, tropes, and clichés makes writing original stories a lot easier.

Before we dive in today, just a little heads up that I’m also guest posting on The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, with 4 Things Every Novel Should Strive For. Come on by and say hello!

A lot of elements in writing are either interconnected or used interchangeably, and archetypes, tropes, and clichés are three of them. What one writer views as an archetype, another might consider a cliché, and how they use them in their writing can differ. Some writers can wield a trope like a master, others can sneak cliches in so they feel germane to the scene, and some write such nuanced archetypes readers don’t even realize they are archetypes.

As a writer—especially as a genre writer—it’s vital to understand the differences between these terms and how they work in fiction.

Archetypes Are the Roles Characters Play in a Novel

In the general sense, an archetype is a pattern, model, or mold. In the story sense, it’s a common behavior or representation of universal truths. From a practical writing standpoint, it’s the general role a character plays in the story, such as protagonist and antagonist. Just like story structure provides a plot framework to craft a multitude of stories, archetypes provide the character framework.

creating characters
Characters play their story parts.
Roles vary per character and book, so they’re not “the same” even though they are. Every story is going to have a hero and villain, and you usually see sidekicks, love interests, mentors, caregivers, and characters for comic relief. While there are often similarities to these characters—heroes have heroic traits, sidekicks are supportive of the hero, mentors offer wisdom and advice—the characters themselves are unique people from book to book.

Many genres have expected archetypes that provide a base of character types to build from. A good example here is the romance novel. Love interests, best friends, and meddlesome outsiders are three archetypes you’ll find in every single one. Two people to fall in love, support characters to help them along the way, and those who want to keep these two lovebirds apart. But there’s a vast selection of romance novels out there, with deep subgenres and categories for readers to choose from, and though the archetypes are the same, the characters are not.

Roles provide story anchors that make it easier to develop characters and plot. Knowing the role the character plays makes it easier to know what tasks that character might have in the novel. The hero has to drive the plot, the villain has to try to stop them, the sidekick is the support character, the mentor is there with wisdom and advice when the hero most needs it, etc. If your story has no romance, there won’t be a love interest. But if you add a love interest, then you know you also need to add a romance subplot to give that archetype character something more to do (and hopefully be more than just “be the love interest,” but that’s an entirely different post).

(Here’s more on using archetypes)

Tropes Are the Common Elements Readers Expect to See in a Story

In the general sense, tropes are words used in a figurative way. In the story sense, they’re ways to present situations readers should already recognize and be familiar with. From a practical writing standpoint, they’re the common elements that typically make a genre a genre and what readers have come to expect from that genre or type of story.

genres, types of novels
What is your quest?  

Familiar tropes are often the reason a reader picks that genre to read. The buddy cop, the Happily Ever After, the underdog, rags to riches, coming of age, the quest for whatever—these are all common tropes that define the story and let readers know what they’re about to read. For example, I love the sports underdog trope, and I’ll see any movie with this plot. It doesn’t matter that I know how the story will turn out, I love seeing how it’ll turn out. That’s a trope I enjoy and return to again and again.

Tropes can help writers understand the type of story they want to tell. Especially if you’re writing genre, since those stories rely on their tropes to define them. If you want to write a YA novel, odds are there’s a coming of age trope in there somewhere. Romance will need a Happily Ever After, or at least a Happy for Now. Fantasy draws deep from the quest trope.

Knowing the tropes of a genre helps writers identify or categorize their stories. While you certainly don’t have to adhere to the common tropes or even use them, they are helpful when you’re trying to tell an agent or readers the type of book you’ve written. It allows you to know where in the market your book will fit, and how you’ll market and sell that book.

Tropes can be both positive and negative aspects of a story. Most of the time, the trope is one reason why we pick up the book, but some tropes are so common and overdone they’re verging on cliche—or they draw from harmful stereotypes, such as the noble savage, the nagging wife, or the dumb dad. Social values and cultural norms change as society evolves, and so do our tropes.

(Here’s more on relying on tropes) 

Clichés Are Specific Traits, Details, or Actions Commonly Seen

In the general sense, cliché are things that have become so overused they’ve lost originality. In the story sense, they’re phrases and details that get used over and over and don’t have the impact the writer hoped. From a practical writing standpoint, they’re rehashing what others have done and not doing the work to create a fresh alternative. Using clichés is a lot like making dinner with leftovers. Sure, this dish is new, but it uses stuff we’ve already had.

avoiding bad writing, writing mistakes
Avoid cliches like, um, bad stuff.
Clichés can make writing feel familiar in a bad, “I’ve read this before” way. Since clichés are phrases or concepts other people have come up with and used countless times, readers have seen them before—a lot. So a story full of clichés becomes a story that doesn’t offer anything fresh or original, and sounds like any number of other stories. They’re forgettable, because there’s nothing unique to differentiate them (or the writing) from other novels out there.

Clichés rely on the reader to provide context and understanding. They make readers do all the work instead of putting in the effort to craft something that will enhance the story. If for some reason the reader doesn’t understand the reference due to cultural or regional differences, then they have no idea what you’re talking about.

Clichés are social and cultural shorthand, and they can be used effectively. They’re not all bad, and like everything in writing, if it works, it works. A cliché can be a useful way to identify a theme or insert a concept into the story. They can also be used to show a character who has a lack of originality.

(Here’s more on why cliches hurt our writing) 

Yes, There Is Some Crossover with All Three of These Elements

Since common use is central to all three, it is possible for one to slip over into the other category. Some tropes are also cliched in one genre, yet not in another where they aren’t used as often. This is why it’s a good idea to know the archetypes, tropes, and clichés of the genres you write in.

Archetypes with similar traits can become clichéd. The “strong female character” is tipping over to cliché these days, because far too many writers are writing the exact same character with the same traits. Not all mentors are gray-beaded old men, not all heroes are handsome, well-built dudes with square jaws, and not all sidekicks are funny and self-deprecating.

Some tropes have shifted from expected to clichéd. They become so overused (often on TV), that when readers see them, they draw an expected conclusion, even if it’s wrong. We can spot the friend who will go on to betray the hero, the nice guy who turns out to be the killer, the bad apple who is actually a sweetheart, the Chosen One to save the world.

Some clichés have become the foundation for the archetype and tropes of a genre. Happily Ever After is a cliché, yet it’s what nearly every single romance novel is all about. When a cliché steps into enough social awareness that it becomes thematic, it often crosses back into archetype or trope status.

Archetypes, tropes, and clichés can be both helpful tools and harmful crutches in our writing. It’s important to understand what they are and how they differ, so each writer can make an informed choice on whether or not to use them. Don’t be afraid of them, but make sure they’re the right tool for what you need and not just an easy way out.

There’s a lot more to cover on these, so I’ll dive into each one more thoroughly in the coming weeks.

What are some of your favorite archetypes, tropes, and cliché? Which ones do you wish writers would stop using?

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. My favorite trope is inner struggles, psychological dilemmas.
    My favorite archetype is the protagonist who tries to cope with a mental illness.
    I try to avoid cliches.

    1. What's cool, is that I can already get a sense of what you write just from hearing that. :)

  2. I love underdog tropes - there's something so reaffirming about reading or watching a story with an underdog character! I think one cliche I'm not fond of is having a minority character (often best friend) thrown in as a token attempt to provide diversity.

  3. Ironically, a little typo “ guesting posting”

    1. I do speak fluent typo :) Thanks for letting me know! It's fixed now.