Character types, such as fairy godmothers, woodsmen, or princes all come with inherent meanings that the reader assumes just by seeing the words. For instance, in fairy tale fiction, “Mother” equals caring, “woodsmen” equals solid strength and dependability, and “prince” implies wealth, higher status, handsome, and commanding. Writers have fun with molding or challenging these conceptions, which can lead to great story twists.
However, story tropes change over time in what they represent to the audience. This fact is particularly true for those character archetypes found in urban fantasy. What ghosts or vampires represent implies a lot about how we, the readers, think about ourselves and the world around us. Because our world changes, the deeper meanings we place on these symbols change as well.
In a nutshell, readers have evolved beyond the “monster in the woods” storyline into wanting more complex characters. Many of these common monsters are now seen as misunderstood or even heroic characters just trying to get by in a human-filled world. In the modern rendition of old character types, the powers or features that make them monstrous also gives them that edge to survive. Sometimes it is better healing, the ability to take a blow, or even a superpower. This characteristic feature finds a modern voice in comic books as well, where the champion or villain has some greater-than-normal ability that allows them to survive in a world that might otherwise destroy them. For instance, although Superman is an alien in the normal storyline, he could be written as a modern day fallen angel as well.
Understanding all these archetypes gives the writer a fuller understanding of what the reader expects when certain words or phrases are used in a story. Most of the tropes evolved because the literature about them changed as well rather than sticking to accepted stereotypes. So as a writer, you can take advantage of this factor. Once you fully know what the trope means to the reader, you can mess with it in small, meaningful, and unique ways to create an original plot or a new twist to the myth. After all, since most consider these archetypes as fantasy anyway, who is going to tell you that your story is wrong?
In the coming weeks
Over the next few blogs, I’m going to present many of the character archetypes found in urban fantasy material and discuss what they were versus what writers present in today’s stories. In addition, we’ll look at what they means about society since great writing is often a product of the culture of the times. By examining the changing nature of vampires, ghosts, werewolves, and more in fiction, perhaps we’ll learn a little bit about ourselves as well.