Respecting the Meaning Of An Archetype
We hate stereotypes. Fantasy elves are stereotypically beautiful, tall, intelligent, nature lovers, long lived or immortal, and endowed with magical powers. So we are going to make an elf that is stupid, short, ugly, hates nature, can’t do magic, and short lived so that we can combat stereotypes.
The irrationality of the above logic is obvious. If you don’t want elves in your story, don’t put elves in your story. Making something into the complete opposite of what an elf typically means and calling it an elf is not combating stereotypes, it is making something black and calling it orange and thinking you have accomplished something clever.
Most of the time, myth creators are not as obvious as the above example when they are misusing archetypes (although some come awful close). A more typically example would be the outrage that George Lucas inspired by trying to asset that Han Solo did not shoot first.
The outrage cries of “Han shot first” do not come about because people are concerned that it is irrational to let someone who is pointing a gun at you shoot first. If rationality was the primary concern, Star Wars would have no fans at all. And the issue is not about Mr. Lucas changing things after the fact. J.R Tolkien was able to change things in The Hobbit after the fact without fans frothing at the mouth.
The real issue is that Han Solo is an example of an archetype with a long history. Mythic stories involving outlaws who reluctantly make good have a history going back at least to the Middle Ages. As soon as you see how Han Solo is dressed, you know (if you have been exposed to any American television at all) that that he is being set up as the archetypical “outlaw”. This is further driven home by the social environment we first meet him in and the people he does business with. To say that he would not shoot first is to say that he is a boy scout. To try to say that he is a boy scout after trying to paint him as an outlaw is the same things as painting something black and calling it orange.
Star Wars was not trying to be realistic, but it was trying to use a long standing mythic language to tell a story. George Lucas’s problem is that he wants to make use of a mythic language without acknowledging that every language comes with its own rules. He fell into the common trap of myth creators in thinking that because it is not real, the creator can do whatever he wants. But to think that you can use the language and completely ignore the rules is to make yourself look like a babbling idiot.
This is not to say that everyone must slavishly follow some written code that tells you how to deal with mythic archetypes any more than poets have to follow the rules of grammar. There have always been many different takes on the same mythical archetype even back in the “good old days”.
But there is a big difference between writing a story about peaceful, flower loving, Zen practicing orcs that are being slaughtered by humans and writing a story about how a hyper masculine warrior orc is trying to rescue his hyper masculine warrior race from the control of demons. One story is simply misusing an archetype that already has an established history. The other story is using the monstrous and savage nature of arctypical orcs to talk about masculinity by means of metaphors made real.
In a successful story an archetype’s historical use serves to advance and deepened the story the author wants to tell. In an unsuccessful story, the archetype historical usage is baggage that must be overcome for an author to tell the story they want to tell. The further you depart from the historical use of an archetype the more you are turning assets into baggage.