Sunday, April 18, 2010

What Archetypes Can Do For You

I am, as I have stated before, a rather shameless and unabashed writer of science fiction and fantasy. The reasons for this are many and multifold but can basically be traced back to the stories that I read when I was young. In particular things like Richard Adams’ Watership Down and the Narnia books of C.S Lewis. As a teenager I moved on to books like The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, the novels of Philip K. Dick, the early Elric stories of Michael Moorcock and J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

All this was, I hasten to add, part of a varied literary diet: I have long adored the work of Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, Walter Wager, Ian Flemming, Trevanian and a host of other thriller writers. I also devoured westerns by writers such as by Jack Shaffaer, Will Henry, Louis L’amour and the pulp westerns of George G. Gilman, Joe Millard and Charles R. Pike. When it came to horror I loved James Herbert, Stephen King, Guy N. Smith, Robert McCammon and, always, the Pan Book of Horror Stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I was also reading people like Joseph Conrad, John Braine, Grahame Greene, Anthony Burgess and John Fowles but only ever really appreciated their literary worth much later on since, to my 14 year old self, the psychological horror of something like The Collector could never compete with the visceral violence of The Fog.

However, if given the choice, I would always choose a good SF or horror novel over the delights of a western or thriller: something which has stayed with me until this very day.

Although genre writing can be something of a trap for writers (Philip K. Dick, for instance, wrote brilliant realist novels but was forever seen by both his publishers and readership as a science fiction writer) it does offer a certain comfort for readers, and the old axiom of ‘never judge a book by its cover’ doesn’t always apply when it comes to genre writing.

However, if genre is a trap then it is certainly the most elastic trap of all. Even within a simple boundary definition such as ‘fantasy’ there is huge scope for writers: everything from the comic novels of Terry Pratchett to the gritty neo-sword and sorcery of Joe Abercrombie or the dark childhood nightmares of Neil Gaiman.

One of the things that genre offers a writer is the notion of archetypes: warriors, scientists, bold explorers, detectives, secret agents, wizards, starship pilots et al, archetypes who can be shaped into something more distinctive.

In terms of heroic/epic/ s & s fantasy, the most enduring archetypes of them all is Robert E. Howard’s Conan, who’s seed can be seen fairly directly in characters such as John Jakes’ Brak the barbarian or Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis, reflected in characters as diverse as Moorcock’s Elric, C.L Moore’s Jirel of Joiry or Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane and who’s more recent descendants are surely David Gemmell’s Druss or Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers.

Similarly, the greatest detective of them all – Sherlock Holmes – spawned a host of imitators but equally was the progenitor for characters as diverse as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Hammet’s Continental Op, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and many, many more. Now none of these characters could be mistaken for Holmes but, somewhere deep inside, they have the same DNA (and there is an argument to be made that Holmes himself was an avatar of Poe’s Auguste Dupin.)

The point of all this slightly disjointed rambling is to celebrate the archetypes of imaginative fiction and to see them as useful springboards or templates to use in your own fiction – not copies, mind you, but rather as a literary ‘chip off the old block’.

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