Writing Technique: Using Archetypes


Use familiar archetypes of known fantasy creatures, aliens, and paranormal beings to surround the unbelievable with the believable.

If you are new to this blog, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.”

For the next week or so, we will be concentrating on the first technique for helping your reader suspend disbelief: Surround the Unbelievable with the Believable. Here are a few examples of methods we can use:

Today, we will focus on the archetype example.

“What’s your book about?”

It’s usually one of the first questions someone asks an author at a book signing. Here are a few answers an author might give:

  • A girl who hunts vampires.
  • A virus that creates zombies, who try to destroy the world.
  • A detective who discovers that the serial killer terrorizing his village is a werewolf.
  • A ghost of a murder victim who haunts the house of her murder.
  • An advanced alien race that tries to take over Earth.
  • Thor, the god of thunder.
  • A scientist living in 19th century England who develops a time machine.
  • A boy who discovers he’s actually a wizard.
  • Well, it’s about this creature I made up. It’s got weird horns and the power to read the minds of its victims. It’s kind of a like a cheetah, but it can also disappear, and it’s got this really great magical ability to…

Which of these descriptions will readers least likely be willing to believe? Which of those descriptions will least likely grab you a potential buyer? The one with the unknown creature, of course.

Vampires, Zombies, werewolves, ghosts, aliens, ancient gods, and wizards are all archetypes that most readers, even mainstream readers, have heard of. They feel familiar. Although each author’s version of the archetype might be different, the reader can immediately picture what the book is about. These archetypes are so engrained in our culture that we have suspended our disbelief in them already. Using them is like cheating.

How engrained can these archetypes become in our culture? Take a look at people’s reactions to the Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. How many times have you heard someone say, “Real vampires don’t sparkle,” as though vampires actually exist?

If you ask me about my Elysian Chronicles series, I will use the terms angels and demons. I won’t mention that I call them cherubians and mornachts. I want the reader to feel like he can relate to my story immediately. I’ve also got a book in the lineup which will feature a berserker-type of character. Most people haven’t really heard of berserkers, unless they study Viking and Norse history. (Here’s a good description of them if you are interested.) Because of that, this book will be a harder sell to non-fantasy readers, which is one of the reasons I’m putting it on the back burner. I need to establish my audience before I throw a berserker at them.

J.K. Rowling has probably made the optimum use of archetypes in her Harry Potter series. She makes use of creatures that most of us recognize. We’ve all heard of goblins, elves, magic wands, dragons, witches riding brooms, ghosts, and centaurs. Even hippogriffs are mythological creatures. Rowling used creatures we all are familiar with, but she also did the work to make them her own. She also grabbed a large audience of mainstream fiction readers.

How to make your archetypal creature special (i.e. make it your own):

  • Give your creatures history and backstory. History and backstory not only make your creatures feel more real, but they also make them yours.
  • Establish a hierarchy of wealth/power/skills. Look at human society as an example. All cultures have a hierarchy of wealth and power. Your creatures should too.
  • Give your similar creatures differences. In The Elysian Chronicles: Out of the Shadows, I introduce gnomes and dragons into the series. I made sure to divide my gnomes into clans, and I made different races of dragons, patterning them off dragons from different cultures.
  • Earn the right to use the archetype by proving you have knowledge about them. Study the legends and folklore. Mention it certain aspects of it in your story. I did research on airships for my steampunk short story, “The Survivor,” which features an airship made by Great Britain. This particular ship would have been created long before Britain’s first airships—the R101 and R102. I called it the “HMS Phoenix, a dirigible class R10.” With that in mind…
  • Add in a few “Easter eggs” for readers who are in the know. I made sure to create a specific gnome clan that loved green, and I called them the Luchorpan clan—the root word for leprechaun. I created a clan called the Nibelung, which will be of interest to those who have studied Scandinavian folklore, as will the Mime clan.
  • If you break with tradition, make sure to explain it to the reader. If your werewolves can’t be killed with silver bullets, explain why.

Reasons to consider using archetypes:

  • The reader already knows about the archetypes, which increases his comfort levels.
  • In most cases, the reader has already suspended his disbelief regarding these archetypes.
  • It is much easier to write about something that is already known. You aren’t recreating the wheel, and you don’t have to use too many words to describe what you are talking about.

Problems with using archetypes:

  • The audience already has a preconceived opinion of them. Remember, according to a lot of people real vampires don’t sparkle. One of the difficulties I have encountered is dealing with people’s preconceived notions of angels, which are never the same. I try to explain that they are “Roman Soldiers with wings fighting monsters.”
  • It’s easy to get lazy with archetypes. Don’t write about a cookie-cutter werewolf. Don’t let your aliens look exactly like those from Roswell. Make sure your ghosts should special qualities. If you include an airship in your steampunk story, make it special. (See above.)
  • Some people just don’t like “vampire books.” Using archetypes has the potential to limit your audience. Some people might not like to read about zombies, werewolves or vampires. It’s a risk you will have to take. However, remember that some people will buy your books simply because they do feature your archetype, so don’t let it stop you from writing.

What to take from this: Our culture has already chosen to suspend its disbelief in certain archetypes. Take advantage of this! Using the archetypes will help the audience suspend its disbelief because, in a sense, you are surrounding the unbelievable with the believable.

Mainstream Writers: Consider throwing the potential of a speculative archetype into your plot. For instance, in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, Lord Blackwood claims to be powerful in the dark arts. While all of Blackwood’s powers are really only slight-of-hand tricks, the audience is willing to consider the Blackwood might be a wizard. Throwing in the potential of a common mythological or paranormal archetype, such as a vampire (or an alien), into your story might help move the plot forward.

Speculative Writers: Use archetypes, but don’t get lazy. Make them your own.

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.


About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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8 Responses to Writing Technique: Using Archetypes

  1. Miche Sipes says:

    Thanks, M.B. I found this post particularly interesting because I’ve written a YA novel with angels, zombies, vampires and werewolves, but they have little in common with their archetypes. I’m also writing short stories with some of the same characters, and each time I have to re-establish what “my” zombies, werewolves etc. are like compared to “typical” ones. It’s a challenge!


    • M. B. Weston says:

      Awesome! I’m so excited that you aren’t writing something cliched! I’m sure you can do it, but you’re right. It’s such a challenge. I have trouble explaining what my angels are really like compared to what people think of them.


  2. Alisa Russell says:

    I also found it interesting. When we first met and you described your book to me, the Lord of the Rings archetype you used was what encouraged me to buy it for my son. And now it’s history, and he’s read your second book and wants to know when the third one is coming out. For my book, I am working on how to make my main characters different from humans (Their parents were born on a different planet.) although they look similar to humans. It is quite the challenge.


    • M. B. Weston says:

      It definitely sounds like a challenge, but I know you can do it. I think Friday’s post is going to be about how we can break any rule as long as we prove it. 🙂 The “Like Humans” is a good enough archetype to use, and you will be able to get people to relate to it.


  3. Great post. I like that you point out both sides to using archetypes. Generally, I feel that they have to be done just right, since the same creatures and ideas have been done to death. For instance, if I live to be a hundred, only then would I consider writing a vampire love story, since it’s been done, and done again, and over done, and still done some more (Can someone stick a fork in it please?). But I love how you detailed how you’ve used archetypes in your own writing, successfully. Thanks again for the advice.


    • M. B. Weston says:

      Great point on how some things have been done over and over again. It’s such a balancing act to do something the reader is familiar with but to do it just right and make it different. I’m still learning…


  4. Pingback: The Wizard of OZ and Archetypes | I do Book Reviews

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