Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Archetypes

"Dale" left an intriguing comment on my last post, which I'm going to quote on this one because it very much concerns something that's been rattling around in my mind:

"Also, question: How do you avoid being considered "derivative"? You mentioned that an author's premise was the same as I Am Legend, Omega Man, etc. Aren't all stories an emulation? Aren't there a limited amount of stories to tell? The difference should come in the author's ability to write great characters, emotions, and adventures yes? It's especially important to me as a fantasy writer. Isn't all fantasy Tolkien? Isn't all SF Asimov/Clark? "

I think there are, indeed, a "limited number of stories to tell" and "the difference comes in the author's...characters, emotions," etc. But I also think that Peeps is too close to I Am Legend. Here, to my mind, is the distinction, which also explains why all SF is not Asimov and all fantasy not Tolkien: There are a limited number of plots in literature, but an infinite number of settings, characters, emotions, ideas. The plots are archetypical and pre-date both Asimov and Tolken by several thousand years.

An archetypical plot, for instance, is the child who grows up ignorant of his true idntity and must discover it through a series of adventures in which he conquers foes and takes his rightful place in the world. This is the plot of King Arthur, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. Another is the man who is tempted to evil for greed, rises, and falls: Cain and Abel, Macbeth, and There Will Be Blood. So the question becomes not, is this plot too similar to what I've read before? Rather, the question is, is everything else different enough from what I've read before? I thought Peeps didn't differ enough from its predecessors in setting, character, idea, etc. I also thought the other Westerfeld novel I read last Sunday, So Yesterday, did.

How many archetypical plots are there? People have fun with this. In the 1930's a literary critic named Georges Polti came up with (if memory serves me here) something like 32. Robert Silverberg asserts that there are 3. The house brand at chez Kress is 12, which I once detailed in my now defunct column for Writers Digest magazine. Sometimes when I'm thinking about a novel (as I am now), I consult my own list -- not to pick out one and follow it slavishly, but to see if it jolts anything in my mind.

I will, in fact, do that today. Thanks, Dale!

9 comments:

Mike Flynn said...

Polti's 36 dramatic situations. He noted that a "plot" might contain more than one such situation.

http://www.timsheppard.co.uk/story/articles/36drama.html

Mike Flynn said...

Wait. This is a better site:

http://changingminds.org/disciplines/storytelling/plots/polti_situations/polti_situations.htm

Nancy Kress said...

36, not 32! Thanks, Mike -- I misremembered.

Wealthedge said...

Alright .. good word! Thanks!

See? Your list has 12 archetypes on it. There are 12 notes in a chromatic scale. It's music!

:)

What happened to your WD gig? I subscribed to that magazine forever and your column was the highlight.

Dale

Mike Flynn said...

36, not 32! Thanks, Mike -- I misremembered.

Hmm. I'm thinking of writing 36 novels.....

Yeah, what happened to the WD column? (Not that I read WD anymore.)

BuffySquirrel said...

Fantasy is a lot older than Tolkien, and SF...well, it's a bit older than Clarke and Asimov :).

Wealthedge said...

Right Squirrel .. I agree. Fantasy is very old. I was talking about MODERN fantasy being a shadow of Tolkien (or at least that's the general criticism.)

No one accuses bad fantasy of being a hack job of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Beowulf. It's "your wizard is too much like Gandalf" or "your archer is too much like Legolas" and not Merlin or Robin Hood.

Now all I have to do is find a cool analog for Tolkien's elves and dwarves ..

:)

Dale

Nancy Kress said...

WD fired all its columnists on the same day. They wanted to try a new format. I don't know if that's been a success or not.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Ahem. I believe it's HEINLEIN/Asimov/Clarke. (smiling smiley here.)

A not unrelated point: Paul Simon once said, "Well, we have only 12 notes to work with. And we're dealing with untrained voices here, so maybe popular music melodies have about been played out."

And the great Jimmy Webb replied, "Paul, all the melodies have =not= been found."

Bravo, Jimmy! What hubris to imagine human creativity has reached its peak and is going downhill!

But I imagine the early bards heard the same: "Homer did it all, give your brain a rest."