Stereotypes, Tropes, Archetypes and Norse Mythology
In today’s writing world there is nothing so maligned as tropes, stereotypes and archetypes. It is very fashionable to laugh at or point out the so-called outdated writing techniques. Series like Women vs. Tropes in video games and sites like TV tropes often go after what they think of as tired or overused archetypes, and there is nothing wrong with that in itself. Stereotypes need to change as culture changes, so criticisms are normally valid.
As of late, however, there has been a very disturbing trend of removing all archetypes and making top 10 lists of what are the most tired tropes in various genres. This can be because we have been entirely oversaturated with stories. A hundred years ago it’s easy to imagine that less than a hundred films were released worldwide, but we now live in a veritable ocean of films. So many, in fact, that we would be hard-pressed to come up with a definitive number.
So it’s easy to believe that a lot of people get tired of the same old archetypes being presented to us ad infinitum. I have on more than a few occasions released an exasperated sigh over the fact that a new hero is just a copy of the last. So, I get it, but there is something important worthy of addressing if we make the choice to leave these stereotypes behind.
Our brains have limits to the amount of information we can digest from day to day. We cannot possibly handle remembering every experience, tidbit of knowledge, or visual and audio information we take in, so it does some elemental sorting. The things that exist in our peripheries get stored away, unless they seem to be indicating some kind of threat. This mental process helps us to sort out what really concerns us.
A perfect way of seeing this is in stereotypes about people. This is a very touchy subject, but it is still true that we all hold certain ideas, based on impressions or things we have been told by others we trust, about how people from various groups act. This can vary depending on your personality. If you have a more open-minded view of the world, you might reject a number of stereotypes, particularly for your in-group or groups you may wish to protect from harm. You may also be more willing to allow your views to change based on what your experiences with the people that you meet.
Your brain creates road maps for you throughout the course of your life and stereotypes and archetypes in storytelling appear to mimic this process. In addition to being tools for the author to help him or her to write more relatable characters. They are also there for you to more easily understand why the hero might do different things. Even though storytelling is often about surprising the reader, those surprises shouldn’t break the illusion of this being a real person, and to be able to believe this you need to have something to hang on to.
Cultural touchstones are incredibly important in storytelling and sometimes stories lose their original meaning because they are no longer told to those who understand their original meaning. Take for instance the Norse god Loki. No, not Marvel-Loki, but the god from Norse mythology. For a long time, scholars have generally understood his name to mean something like fire, because the Norse word for fire was logi. In fact, Loki once had an eating competition against an Ettin or giant called Logi. As of late however, a lot of Norse scholars believe that his name means something like “locked away” as he was locked away as punishment for the death of Balder.
This loss of meaning in the word may mean that a lot of the original meaning of the stories have been lost to us. Was the god Loki an example set forth to make the Norse people understand that these personality traits were something that should be avoided? We may never understand the truth of that, but this is another one of those cultural touchstones that makes it easier for our brains to understand the story.
In my humble opinion stereotypes are just something we need to make it easier to understand the choices and the actions of our heroes and heroines. They are not always endemic to cheap or lazy writing. They are there to grasp the reader’s attention and encourage them to quickly understand what is happening.
That does not mean that we cannot evolve them, as creative and open-minded people often do when they present old ideas in new ways, but as cultural touchstones they are extremely important. The loss of these formulas them might mean the loss of readers in general, at least the ones who might not have the time to read an entire tome describing the backstory to an inconsequential character.