Genre Archetypes

The quote I posted above is great. But its author, David Kingsbury, spent his life ploddingly rewriting Dune. This is the strange thing about the clumsily called “genre literature.” It attaches to a single plot, and recreates it endlessly, sometimes for centuries.

Romance literature, for example, is hung up on the plot where the male character treats the female heroine horribly but then it’s revealed he was doing it out of love. This trend can be traced from Pride and Prejudice to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca to Gone with the Wind to 50 Shades and on and on into infinity. I was once forced to read nothing but Harlequin romance books because there was nothing else, and pretty much every book was a variation on this plot. I guess women are desperate to believe that shitty men are actually in love with them. This is what a psychologist would call an archetype. It’s an idea or a story that humans are use over centuries to grapple with difficult things in life.

In sci-fi there seems to be a fixation on re-possessing the human body by either drinking its fluids or eating its flesh. There’s also a trope of women with secret knowledge of the “mommy knows best” type. These are clearly male archetypes, and I don’t understand them well.


19 thoughts on “Genre Archetypes

  1. I’m not sure the archetype there is “shitty men are actually in love with them” so much as “I can make this shitty man into a decent man just by being pretty and female”. Which is perhaps just as dumb, but it’s been around at least as long as Beauty and the Beast was set to paper (yeah, I know, Cupid and Psyche… but in that version he was invisible not monstrous).

    I think it’s just a really convoluted way of saying… if you wind up with a shitty man it’s your own fault for not being pretty/feminine enough to civilize the poor beast. :/


    1. “as long as Beauty and the Beast was set to paper”

      I thought Beauty and the Beast was about arranged marriages pretty much the norm for big parts of the world and big parts of human history and the idea that if the bride is nice enough for long enough the better, hidden (sometimes wayyyyy hidden) side of the husband will break through.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ” about arranged marriages”

        What I remember of the romance novels I’ve read…. the hero and heroine finding themselves in some kind of forced pseudo-intimate proximity is also very common and probably related to the idea of arranged marriages…
        Even Pamela (which I haven’t read) seems to be based on that.


        1. Perhaps arranged marriages are just deeply embedded in our human psyche. I mean, has there ever been a time apart from the modern age, where it was normal for women to get a free choice/veto in sexual partners? It may have happened at other times, but I’d think it was more the exception than the rule.


          1. Among lower classes, more common than you might think. I know in the middle ages in Britain, arranged marriage was really just for the rich

            Liked by 1 person

            1. …like, in its modern romance-novel form, maybe that story is, you could pick a decent guy from your own social/income class, OR you could take this shitty higher-class fellow that circumstances have thrown you together with, and make him a decent guy.

              I admit my exposure to the broader genre of romance is limited, so there may be some themes I am missing. Regency has its own tropes that may not apply to the broader genre. Tell me if I’m wrong.


  2. There are common tropes in all genre fiction, and each genre has many more than a single trope. Conventions have definitely changed for the better in all genre fiction since I was a teen, with many more subgenres and better writing overall.

    You could say there are tropes in literary fiction, too. Bored middle-aged intellectuals having affairs and feeling all film noir about them remains a popular one.

    I get salty when people crap on genre fiction, especially if they don’t read much of a particular genre. Sure, there is insufferably bad genre fiction, usually for reasons of unoriginal plot or poor characterization. However, genre writers usually understand that stuff has to happen, there has to be forward momentum of some kind in their books, and they understand their readers usually want to escape or be entertained (hence the over-reliance on common tropes — they are comforting because they reliably work).

    I’d say there’s far more insufferable, unreadable literary fiction than genre fiction, usually because lit-fic authors take themselves far too seriously. The writer populates the novel with self-absorbed dullards who do nothing because there’s not real story (a real story with a plot would make the book slip into genre or commercial fiction, so we can’t have that!) . They treat the characters’ garden-variety boredom or very low-level depravity as indicative of unusual depth. The insights into the human condition that we’re supposed to get from literary fiction often turn out to be trivial because the self-important author doesn’t realize they have nothing original to offer.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I would like to point out that I love genre fiction. Murder mysteries, regency romances, space opera, epic fantasy, swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, dystopian noir cyberpunk, cyberpunk time-travel for library nerds, Noir detective murder mystery space opera (Oh, I loved Leviathan Wakes so much!) the works.

      That doesn’t mean we can’t say un-complimentary things about it 😉 I mean, we know the tropes because we’ve read at least a few, right?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. ” salty when people crap on genre fiction”

      Me too! Especially since “serious” literature is also full of tropes and archetypes…. the middle-aged crisis of people with nothing to really have a crisis over…., loveless marital infidelity, the immiserated becoming more and more miserable, an adult obsessing over and failing to overcome childhood (or teenage or young adult) trauma…

      There is no literature period without tropes and archetypes.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. “That doesn’t mean we can’t say un-complimentary things about it 😉 I mean, we know the tropes because we’ve read at least a few, right?”

          Oh, for sure! Criticizing something you love and know well is always fair game!

          I read pretty much every genre under the sun. I get particularly twitchy about romance and horror, because those are the two genres that people who don’t read them somehow still feel entitled to put down. Think of all the book releases in prominent magazines lauding something as elevated romance or elevated horror, basically equating entire genres with the campiest 1980s examples thereof and in perpetual need of saving, even though the genres are vibrant and already feature plenty of excellent writing. What particularly pisses me off are all the literary writers who look down on these genres and don’t read them, yet want access to all the sweet sweet reader moolah (especially in romance, which is a huge market), simultaneously shitting on and purporting to elevate said genres. The attitude toward horror and romance is telling of the society as a whole, as those are the two genres particularly enamored of humanity, especially carnality, but that would be a discussion for another thread. Clearly, I have opinions! LOL

          Liked by 1 person

          1. There are works of art in all these genres. Du Maurier’s Rebecca is definitely art. Sci Fi has produced a lot of real art. Bradbury, Yefremov – that’s art. Even in fantasy it’s possible to achieve greatness, like Murakami”s 1Q84.

            There was something else I recently read in fantasy that was brilliant. Does anybody remember what it was? If it’s good, the genre stops mattering.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Oh, but there are tons of perfectly readable and amusing things that aren’t exactly works of art, but are still fine things for waiting around train stations, doctors’ offices, etc.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. …and I would like to gripe, here, that I’m missing out on those delightful fluffy throwaway reads right now, because you made me read Les Miserables.

                I was like 1/3 of the way through it before I realised it was OVER 1400 PAGES and what have you done to me?? I think I must have read an abridged version in high school. I don’t remember the twenty chapters about the Battle of Waterloo that have nothing to do with the plot, from the last time I read it, and Hugo talking about Parisian neighborhoods is like my mom giving directions: “then you turn right at the old Pizza Hut that they turned into that insurance office and now it’s a vape shop, and then go past where the Sunshine grocery used to be, and remember where the Snerdmeiers used to live, before they moved to their old neighborhood? Go two houses past that and you’ll see the brick flowerbed that doesn’t have the hostas in it anymore… ” Victor, baby, I’m dying here. Can we just get on with it? How about I pretend to listen and then use my GPS to look up the address later?

                I kept checking it out from the library as an ebook, and then having to return it after a few hundred pages because there was a waitlist and I couldn’t re-check it. And then I’d have to wait for weeks to check it out again and read the next few hundred pages.

                So now I am holding it hostage by keeping my ereader in airplane mode: if the device can’t talk to the library, then the library can’t take the book back.

                But in the meantime, I can’t check out anything else. Normally, I’d have something sillier to read in the betweentimes when I’m too mad at Hugo. Sigh.

                This is all your fault.


  3. ““genre literature.” It attaches to a single plot”

    To take the conversation sideways a bit… working in a genre with lots of conventions can liberate a good storyteller.
    One of my favorite movies ever is Gosford Park, directed by Robert Altman.
    The plot is bog standard Manor House Mystery and it goes through the paces (a bit out of order but all the necessary items are there)
    The missing knife, the hidden relationships between people, the eccentric detective, the guests who aren’t who they claim they are, the motive hidden decades in the past, etc etc … all bog standard features but it’s just amazing to watch because of how everything gets stood on its head….

    I loved the first season of the Icelandic series Ófærð (Trapped) for just the same reason. All the cliches of Scandinavian mysteries are dissected and deconstructed while still being faithful to the genre….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think to do something like Gosford Park, it’s not enough to be working inside the conventions of a genre, you also have to love that genre and be very, very familiar with it, and then write for people who are also very familiar with it. That level of expertise and affection shows through, and makes a wonderful thing.

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