Archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes are about equally elusive and significant. Does it matter if you’re sure which you use? Classification’s unimportant. What matters? Lay a foundation with archetype; use trope to speed pace; avoid stereotype whenever possible.
The etymology says it all. The word comes from the mold that made identical copies of the original. In life or the novel, stereotypes feel clichéd—uninspired. Worse still, generalizations about ethnicity, religion, size, education, hair color and so on ignore individuality. Stereotypes are misleading and harmful. How useful can they be in fiction?
Stereotypes are contrived writing solutions, while archetypes are the platform that tradition offers.
The archetype is the original mold used for the stereotypes that follow it. According to Carl Jung, roles like the Hero originate in the “collective unconscious.” We’re all in it together. (For more on this, check “The 12 Common Archetypes,” by Carl Golden.)
In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler analyzes archetypes as a source of plot from inciting incident to climax. Archetype underlies the classic plot: coming of age, abuse of power, love changing identity and history. Yet without your own original twist, the situation and its characters will seem stereotypical.
If the distinction between archetype and stereotypes is a bit fluid, trope is even more so, because it’s used in several different ways.
It can be a symbol (a rose equals love), a genre convention (“once upon a time”), a shortcut conveying plot or character (a stranger came to town), or an over-used device (the bossy, bespectacled librarian). Tropes range from very, very useful and efficient to very, very the opposite. While archetypes are universal, tropes often refer to a particular genre, like YA, Horror, Cozy, Western.
What does all this boil down to?
Tip: Tradition can both bring forth the richness of allusion—or the poverty of cliché.
How to know the difference? The easy answer is to solicit feedback. A wise, objective reader will let you know if you’ve united the benefits of both convention and innovation.