A disclaimer before we dive in: This is not a universal law. Many critics and writers love archetypes, use or analyze them effectively and appreciate how they enrich stories. But a majority of them – not necessarily a large one but a majority nonetheless – seem to despise them.
To oversimplify things, I believe this is because they see them as some kind of shackle. The curse of creativity is that it drives creators to try and do everything from scratch over and over again – assuming, of course, that creativity is your driving force. And I believe that many writers today are driven by creativity, not a desire to entertain or tell a story. The upshot of this is that writers seem to feel a need to not just ignore but actively reject all things that point to any aspect of the story than that which they desire.
I keep coming back to this notion but it’s important. A storyteller is trying to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of their audience without the audience noticing them doing it. It’s something like a magic trick. Everyone knows a trick is being played but no one cares because the wonder and mystery is the whole reason you’re there in the first place. In this analogy, archetypes are like the documentaries that explain how magicians do their tricks. Once a magician’s trick is revealed it doesn’t have the same impact.
Or so it appears at first glance. In truth, a well-executed archetype is more like a well-executed sports play or well told joke. Well versed audiences can appreciate the execution even if it isn’t quite as mysterious as it would appear to someone seeing the archetype for their first time. However many writers seem to feel a need to distance themselves from the archetypes instead. Rather than demonstrate their skills by executing on an archetype, they instead seek to subvert it. They will cut against it, diverting its natural story beats into other paths.
Now there’s nothing wrong with subversion per se. However, in the modern age so many writers are subverting archetypes that this kind of behavior has become predictable. Worse, it hasn’t even moved into the realm of archetype itself, but rather remains a very shallow, surface level way to engage with archetypes. Heroes prove to be actually cowardly or performative. Thieves turn out to be motivated entirely by circumstance. Villains are just the heroes of their own stories. None of these subversions is ever explored with the depth or breadth of their counterparts because the point isn’t the exploration, it’s the subversion itself. Archetypes can become a crutch in the hands of a lazy writer but subversion in the modern era is just as bad. In some ways it’s worse. After all, in order to subvert an archetype you are still reliant on the archetype existing. The slow subversion of all archetypes has driven them out of the public consciousness to the point where they no longer exists to support the story. This would be fine if these stories had any other point than the subversion but for the most part they don’t. That leaves us with an empty shell of a storytelling landscape we really need to move past.
Yet writers still languish in it.
Critics are on the opposite end of this spectrum, they desire to understand what a storyteller has put forward. They are interested in the nuts and bolts of a story, with execution for its own sake, and typically evaluate archetypes through one of two lenses. First, as a layer of metatextual information the author shouldn’t be constrained by. Second, as something the author must outwit. Both attitudes seem to find their origin in the same place as the writer’s disdain for archetypes – the creator must be free to create, and archetypes are a constraint they must overcome in order to accomplish this.
Like the writer, the critic is looking at the archetype as something that cripples the potential of a story. I’ve always found this perspective strange. But over the last five years or so I’ve slowly formed a theory as to why I think that it’s so common.
I’ve spend more than two decades of my life doing theater in various forms and one thing I’ve learned from that experience is the importance of being in tune with your audience. If the audience laughs, you have to wait for them. Otherwise you will train them not to laugh when you make a joke. If the theater gets loud for some reason, you have to adapt to that. I once had to crank up the volume of a line with important exposition in it because a child in the audience started crying. As soon as their parents got them out of the room I had to reduce back to normal, so as not to break the illusion. And so on and so forth. This ongoing dialog between performer and audience is a vital part of delivering a good story.
This dialog exists at a very abstract level in mediums where the audience and entertainer aren’t in direct contact. As media has expanded in scope and immediacy, and it’s gotten easier and easier for authors (or, in the case of movies and music, musicians and actors) to get more and broader feedback from their audience, to the point where it’s almost on the same level that a live performer gets from a live audience. With one exception.
Even the largest venues accommodate only a few tens of thousands of audience at any one time. The Internet allows for an audience of billions. That’s far more feedback than anyone is really equipped to handle, delivered in a way that is both more immediate and more impersonal than comes during a live performance. I think that’s somehow poisoned the healthy feedback loop that exists in a good audience-performer dynamic. The unfiltered exposure to an artist’s personal life on social media certainly hasn’t helped. The forces at play in that situation are interesting but not really the point of this discussion. I’m more interested in the way all this mass exposure galvanizes creators against their audiences.
This isn’t unique to traditional forms of entertainment or expression. YouTube and Twitch have created whole new mediums with their own massive celebrities and success stories, many of which have suffered incredibly damaging fallouts with their own audiences. The Spoony One, DarkSydePhil and Wings of Redemption are all cases of this that long time netizens are familiar with. By the same token, traditional forms of art and entertainment have produced many individuals that seem downright hostile to their own audiences. A list of comic book writers working at Marvel or DC in 2020 would be a great set of examples for that.
And yet in mainstream entertainment, and Hollywood in particular, this kind of hostility seems particularly strong. You might say the writers and directors there hold their mainstream audiences… in contempt. And that brings me to my thesis this week.
I think the modern rejection of archetypes is a rebellion against audience feedback. Audiences do not ingest stories in the way writers or critics do. They do not look at them in a vacuum and try and nuance out all the little details and dynamics the author was trying for, they add them to the vast library of existing culture already in their brains and see where they stack up. And, to stretch the analogy a little further, archetypes are how they catalog these stories. When audiences offer feedback on stories they often couch it in terms of these archetypes and the ways they didn’t get the aspects of the story they expected and desired.
Now, it’s true that you can replace one aspect of a story with another and get an equally good and enjoyable story. The thing is, when that’s done successfully, audiences still tend to appreciate that. Look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for example. That story subverted the whole dynamic of a typical horror story but still stands as a classic, beloved by critics and casual horror fans alike. But, as I’ve already said, I don’t think that’s what is happening right now. Now, we have stories subverting archetypes not out of a desire to tell a different story, but out of a desire to break free from the audience.
Again, I think writers – and to a lesser extent critics – dislike archetypes because they see them as a kind of shackle. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment, just the one they make. As a result of the sudden deluge of audience feedback writers have experienced since the dawn of the Internet, authors have become more and more hostile to the feedback they receive. And the fact that said feedback often comes couched in terms of archetypes – which are primarily created by audiences to help them process stories – makes the natural hostility of the modern writer towards archetypes increase. The further the writer strays from normal archetypes with no clear direction in mind, the more he gets feedback on it. And the loop continues forever.
The unfortunate reality underpinning this loop is simple. Entertainers cannot entertain without an audience. A creation that no one but the creator sees is not art, it is practice at best and indulgence at worst. The audience is a vital part of storytelling and artistic creation. But these are collaborative acts and as long as there is antagonism – whether born out of contempt or some other emotion – between the creator and audience then the arts will degrade, not grow. Perhaps our methods of feedback are inherently flawed. Perhaps both audience and artist need to seek a new way to reach this synthesis. But until both sides are willing to actually engage in a discussion with good will that’s going to be impossible.
And to get there, I think hatred for archetypes is one thing that has to go.