Five Neglected Fiction Archetypes

Connect with the people most stories ignore

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

The Fiction Highway

We all know the kind of stories that people flock to. We seek fiction that fulfills our cravings for love, excitement, and adventure. It’s not surprising that most fiction faithfully responds to these commonly-held desires.

Cruise any bookstore or movie collection and all our old friends are there — romance, horror, adventure (including science fiction and fantasy adventure), and crime, They are fiction’s interstate highway. Inside its lanes, we can be free, for just a time, from our boring existence. This is where our heroes often start — losers mired in mundanity and destined to wallow in miserable struggle and anonymity. Then they happen upon Interstate Fiction, where they enjoy the romance of their dreams, catch killers, battle with monsters and supernatural forces, and engage in international intrigue with the fate of mankind hanging in the balance.

Interstate Fiction is a reliable road that connects hoards of viewers with characters and stories. But it has its limitations — not on the road itself, but in what it ignores and bypasses. It is the property of an exclusive club that only admits certain archetypes. Yet it assumes itself to be all-encompassing, to embody the only set of desires and archetypes that motivate us to seek out stories.

This is so wrong. For we don’t just long for adventure and excitement. We also crave acknowledgment and validation. We like to see ourselves in stories — not just the selves we wish we were, but the selves we actually are — in settings we recognize. Though we love Interstate Fiction, it’s stories in which people like us survive and triumph that affect us most profoundly. These are the stories in which we are heroes, not just pathetic losers left behind by a chosen few.

The people left out

Academics

I have always wondered why academe is such a rare setting for all types of fiction. In just four years as a student at a state university, I witnessed bitter tenure battles that pushed out the best professor, snobbery and toxic culture at its best and worst, romantic triangles with the department head, and a Jewish professor sharing an office with a Nazi sympathizer. The soil here is rich with soap and drama, ripe for stories of scandal, competition, toxic culture, bullying, revenge, failure, and self-discovery. This is the stew that fuels the creative imagination.

People leaving their religion

Non-fiction has had to create a whole new genre to accommodate the deluge of books and autobiographies by people who have “deconstructed” their faith and left or re-evaluated their religion. Given the ubiquitous phenomenon of dying churches and high-profile sex abuse scandals in organized religion of every stripe, fiction writers’ dismissal of this new territory confuses me. Granted, some stories may require an author’s personal experience, but the abuse scandals? This is an untapped well.

Intact families

I know how common divorce is in real life, but it doesn’t even begin to compare to fiction. It’s hard to find any fictional character who has not received the standard issue of exes and steps before setting foot in any story. Writers and the entertainment industry seem to consider happily married people boring, or just a device to produce suspense when one partner is put in danger. But we are in fact a huge portion of readers and viewers, and we do not consider ourselves boring. Our lives are not boring just because we are happy. Characters like us in any kind of story would bond us to them more tightly than we bond with all the exes and steps that we currently find in fiction.

People working ordinary jobs

We all know who we have to be to see ourselves in fiction: lawyers, detectives, scientists, doctors, journalists, advertising executives, celebrities, writers, actors, astronauts, Wall Street predators, and every species of glitterati and glamorati in the arts and media. But who are the vast majority of fiction readers and viewers? We are actuaries, administrative assistants, archivists, auditors, and accountants. And that’s just the A’s. We are the masses of people who get up every morning at the crack of dawn and go to work, whether that involves driving a truck or processing insurance claims. Just imagine how many of us could get truly excited about stories that portray us as heroes and survivors rather than as losers.

New thinkers

We are currently experiencing an enormous social upheaval in values and morality. Who are all these people lying flat and quiet quitting? What happened to all those kids whose childhoods were sacrificed on the altar of elite college admission? What a rich source of drama and story!

The Inconvenient Truth

One reason these characters and archetypes are panned in fiction is that they are inconvenient to writers. How does our hero find his soulmate in his quest to save the world when he’s already happily married to a spouse back home? How does a dental hygienist get off work to go chasing aliens, monsters, or serial killers? And aren’t college professors equal to accountants and librarians on the boring meter? How are they ever going to do anything interesting?

The result of this line of thinking is a sameness and predictability in the fiction universe that has become quite stale. Many people can cite a list of cliches in various genres just off the top of their heads. And while plots can be quite creative and intriguing, the archetypes in which they unfold are conspicuously mass-produced.

Moreover, sales and viewing statistics cannot show us what they cannot count. Our continued patronage of fiction’s standard fare only counts how much we read and watch what we are offered. The popularity of what is not on offer, or only rarely on offer,cannot be measured. It doesn’t reflect how tired we are of the same old story molds. To gauge the scale what is being missed, we would have to first actually produce it.

We would have to open the gates and let more and different heroes and archetypes into fiction.

Untold Stories

Of course, greater inclusion may require some changes to the standard plot generator. Might we not cheer just as loudly for a hero or heroine who, in their quest to save the world, rebuffs the advances of others and comes home to their faithful spouse? Must every romance and relationship story be between interior designers, lawyers, journalists, and advertising executives? Might we not more readily identify with nutritionists, bookkeepers, security guards, and office workers?

My favorite genre is mystery, and it’s a timeless one that will never lose its appeal. But must it always be about a murder? What about all the smaller crimes? Might we not also like stories where our heroes bust con artists bilking the elderly with phony insurance schemes, crooked car dealers selling defective cars refurbished from floods, a youth pastor grooming and abusing kids, or companies pushing pyramid schemes to unsuspecting immigrants? Crimes against the community could be investigated either by detectives or an endless variety of ordinary citizens, opening up the hero/heroine role to people we identify with.

How many of us would respond to heroes who look like us and live like us, saving the day? How many readers and viewers would flock to stories about ourselves, our world, and the dramas we experience in our lives?

Of course, we can’t predict the future. Corporate gatekeepers are unlikely to embrace any shifting of Interstate Fiction’s lanes. Innovation usually comes from self-publishing, which implies a small start. But risk is inherent in all creative endeavors. And in this age of stale archetypes and social upheaval, I’m betting on a win.

Five Neglected Fiction Archetypes was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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