Genres are largely identified by key story beats and thematic elements. But true ‘genre’ stories (swashbucklers, slasher films, sports movies) are rife with specific, identifiable characters. We rarely see cowboys outside of westerns or wizards outside of fantasy. But in their respective genres, these archetypes are as integral as the setting itself.
These archetypes have been around as long as stories have been told, evolving from legends, myths, coffee commercials. They’ve become a bastion for the familiar. Think of all the great family-friendly sports movies — Cool Runnings, The Bad News Bears, even the recent Eddie the Eagle. See how every one of them has a disgraced coach in a central role? All three of these movies feel similar — warm, comforting, upbeat. And the coaches aren’t so different from one another — in fact, two are alcoholics!
This explains the lasting value of the archetypes. They’re like old friends.
Many producers advise writers to come up with the ‘same, but different’. They want a brand new story with a familiar feel. This is the whole purpose of archetypes.
It’s why nobody goes to a Tom Cruise action movie to see Tommy-boy negotiating business deals or selling cars for two hours. We want to see Tom fight and do cool, dangerous stuff that we don’t have the money and/or bones for.
This is why archetypes exist. They ground stories in familiar territory.
Archetypes in Action Movies
Obviously, the action genre has a huge amount of subgenres and sub-subgenres that make it hard to truly ‘nail down’ archetypes other than the ‘Action Hero’. But the subgenres certainly have their own specific archetypes:
Buddy Cop: The maverick that plays by his own rules; the by-the-books cop.
Disaster: The scientist with a niche that just happens to be the exact thing that’s happening to the world; The broken family that needs to reform somehow; The ace pilot/driver/doctor that manages to avoid danger at every turn and save the day.
Spy: The spy that ignores orders; The strict handler; The wisecracking gadget-master; The tough femme fatale; The accented villain.
Superhero: Costumed Crusader (irritatingly wise-cracking type/Marvel character); Costumed Crusader (depressingly serious type/DC character); The one wisecracking friend that knows the secret identity; The annoying sidekick; The good-hearted girlfriend that doesn’t really do anything.
Just like it’s hard to figure out the archetypes, it’s even harder to explain why they’re still around. For some genres, this is easy: the disaster movie is all about disunity and chaos so it makes perfect sense to have a disunited family in the middle of it. It’s interesting that very few action movies have actually tried to subvert these archetypes, but then, the action movie is such a simple concept that it doesn’t really matter.
Unlike the other ‘mainstream genres’, the action genre is more focused on entertainment than narrative purpose. The archetypes are there purely to entertain audiences, not to make a 'thematic point'. For that reason, action movies don’t really need to alter the archetypes. Of course, it makes a story much more interesting. But how many people seriously complain about two-dimensional characters in a Fast & Furious movie? Nobody expects complex characters in a movie that goes against the laws of physics.
Archetypes in Comedy
Comedy is very different. The main character in a good comedy (e.g. not Entourage) is there to say something, and almost always fits into one of three archetypes: the eternal fool — a bumbling character that seems incapable of avoiding trouble (Inspector Clouseau; The Little Tramp; Mr Bean); the liar that must learn to be honest (Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin; Fletcher in Liar Liar; Michael in Tootsie); or the selfish jerk that has to learn to care for others (Neal in Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Melvin in As Good as It Gets; Phil in Groundhog Day).
The reason these comedy archetypes survive above all others is because they perfectly exemplify the golden rule that lies beneath all mainstream comedy: bad behavior must be punished until the sinner learns the error of their ways.
The true appeal of comedy is that ‘nothing hurts and nobody dies’ — characters can be punished mercilessly for their bad behavior and we aren’t horrified as we would be in a World War Two drama. Two of these archetypes (the liar and the selfish hero) of comedy purely exist to say: this behavior will not be tolerated. By comparison, the eternal fool (who is so good-hearted that he is ultimately rewarded for being so) exists to say that the good-hearted hero will always triumph.
You’ll often find that comedy fails when the bad behavior is rewarded, or when the good guy loses out. Good comedy is, ultimately, a morality tale. Honesty/morality/good-heartedness wins. Lies, hatred, and negativity lose every time.
Archetypes in Horror
Possibly the most famous genre for archetypes, horror movies have long had a pile of ‘stock characters’ that are practically shorthand now. The masculine jock; the bookish nerd; the alcoholic/stoner kid; the weird redneck gas station owners; the good girl (often the last to survive, and therefore the ‘final girl’); the bad girl; and the unstoppable killer.
The problem with these archetypes — and the risk that comes with all archetypes — was overuse.
Because there was so little change in the scenario (a group of kids pursued by a killer), the characters became predictable and cliche, just another cog of a genre formula. Audiences became aware of the ‘token black guy that dies first’, and subversive movies like Scream and Cabin in the Woods made even the most unaware audience member realize just how predictable horror movies had become.
Like comedy, the horror archetypes have a specific underlying moral purpose for their existence. Often, the characters that survived the terror were the ones that didn’t partake in ‘immoral’ activities like partying, sex, drugs, alcohol. The ‘final girl’ archetype is almost always a virginal ‘good girl’.
It’s interesting that modern horror has all but abandoned these moral underpinnings, opting instead for unpredictable rollercoaster rides of fear. Look no further than the Paranormal Activity franchise to see the modern horror archetypes — the innocent, wide-eyed newlywed couple.
Classic horror archetypes were simple characters being punished for their bad morals.
Modern horror archetypes are slightly more complex characters being punished for seemingly nothing.
The Argument for Archetypes
Many writers view archetypes as formulaic molds to be ignored at all costs. I don’t necessarily see it that way. Archetypes are there to create a familiarity with an audience, but in many ways are there for other reasons. It would be a mistake for writers to completely avoid genre archetypes. That’s not to say that every ‘genre’ screenplay should be filled with stock characters and predictable situations. But I think that audiences want to see these familiar characters in a new situation. Find a reason to use them, then twist them to make them unique for your story.
Archetypes are, ultimately, old friends inhabiting your new world. Even if you only use them in the first draft and discard them later, you’ll find that your screenplay immediately feels more familiar. If you study your genre, find the archetypes and understand why they exist, you will immediately be ahead of the game in your field. Because you’ll be creating the same feeling as (insert your favorite movie here) in a whole new story.
And producers LOVE that.