Archetype, stereotype, prototype and other types
There is often confusion between these categories. Some think they have produced a archetype (or even a prototype), while they have produced a stereotype.
So, a little reminder:
- An archetype is a character we find in one form or another in all cultures (no, not just Western culture). A typical example is the hero who kills a dragon / monster / large animal / witch / villain and generally defeats evil.
- A stereotype is a character specific to a culture and a given period (e.g. the hero who kills the dragon is a tall blond with a square jaw, naive and honest).
- A prototype is a character of which nobody has thought before (or maybe someone did, but it was forgotten). Example: Conan the Barbarian in 1932: at the time, the heroes of adventure or fantasy novels were knights in shining armour, do gooders. Howard, imagining a character seekingt only his own interest and facing intrigues, warriors and magic armed with a sword and common sense, invented another type of hero. Since then, Conan has spawned a slew of clones and has become a stereotype himself.
We can already see that the three can perfectly be combined.
One has usually a negative opinion on stereotypes. However, they are so prevalent that it is difficult to get rid of them, especially in such a codified genre as Fantasy. The advantage of stereotypes is that they reassure the reader, s/he does not feel « lost » in your story. They are easy to write, they can be used as crutches if you don’t know how to characterize your characters. The downside ... is that they are incomprehensible to someone from another culture and will be incomprehensible in twenty to fifty years. In short, if you have the ambition to write books that your grandchildren could read and would be selling in Japan, it's better to avoid them as much as possible. Read the classics of popular literature which are still popular today, like the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, there are stereotypes of their time. But they are not obvious. The author has put a minimum of them.
How to know if your character is a stereotype ? Try to imagine him/her in total opposition with what you had planned : you wanted a tall blond with a black shoe(1), imagine a small black with a white shoe: will he still be the same character? Have the same way of thinking ? The same behavior? The same interactions with other characters?
Well, OK, if your plot is based on the physical prowess of the hero, you can’t imagine a physically weak character, but you got the idea. And your heroine, would she still be in distress if she was not blonde, nor cute or was a man ?
(1) The title of a French spy comedy of the 1970