By Greg Hardin
I was watching a new show on television with my wife the other day. It was about a heroine with a secret life as a crime fighter. She wasn't a super hero or anything really fun like that; she just couldn't tell anyone what she did for a living, which was bumble her way through covert operations somehow remembering how to be a trained agent at just the right moment to save the day. Or whatever. I felt like I'd seen the show a thousand times. There are some ideas and story lines which are constantly being repeated. Many of these are cliches. They are repeated until we are sick of them. There is no nourishment left, and there was never really enough meat in the first place to make a meal.
Then, there are the archetype story lines and characters. These can appear to be indistinguishable from their cliche counterparts. However, in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing, they can be an endless source of inspiration. There is a thin line here. Very thin. Many of these archetype characters and plots are still overdone by unskilled hands and become tiresome. It is worth differentiating, though.
A good rule of thumb is strip away all the details. Simmer a story down to its essence. That story of the secret government agent -- it can be boiled down to a story of someone with a hidden life they cannot tell others about. That is an archetype. That can be made into good fiction. It has become a cliche because the secret life that everyone seems to want to portray is that of a sexy but bumbling crime fighter. The tv show, Weeds, is popular in part because they put a different spin on this archetypal story: a suburban mother who can't tell anyone about her secret life as a drug dealer. A unique spin on the same basic idea.
Story archetypes are everywhere. Find ones that resonate with you. Identify the current cliches coming from misuse of these and think of ways to make the plot fresh and fun again.