“These people feel like human beings who just happen to live in a universe where the scenarios of superhero and soap opera fiction unfold, as opposed to coming across as characters who only do things because, well, that’s how characters in those sorts of genre stories are supposed to act.” -review of Arrow, “The Crucible” by Alasdair Wilkins on http://www.avclub.com on October 30, 2013
Most of us who love genre fiction have a love/hate relationship with the tropes of each genre and subgenre. Some are great when done well, some cause us to fling the book/e-reader/tablet across the room when done poorly (an expensive proposition these days), all test the limits of believability on occasion. And yet, in the hands of an expert writer, they can be as juicy and delicious as a ripe peach (speaking of cliché).
While there may be only seven different story templates in existence, the cannon of literature (and trashy books) has given us enough variation on each of these seven narrative constructions that it shouldn’t be too hard for writers to come up with their own spin. Or so you would think. Having recently dipped my toe into the werewolf genre in answer to a publisher’s open call, I was surprised by how hard it was to exorcize myself of all my clichéd notions of the supernatural, pushing beyond what has already been done to create something new. Problem is, sometimes it’s fun to play with someone else’s toys (see: fanfiction). It can also be fun to see a good trope done well (as on Arrow). I’ve always believed that well-written characters set in a compelling world will do 90% of the work for you, no matter how basic your plot.
In romance, for instance, the whole point of the genre is to read a subtle variation on the basic “Person A meets Person B + obstacles = love” scenario. Readers of romance seek out certain tropes over and over again, until it becomes a kind of spiritual comfort food (I mean this without judgment: I am such a reader and use these books for that purpose). But they are also among the most knowledgeable about their likes and dislikes. Lurk awhile in any romance forum, and with a few deft clicks, you will find out in specific and vociferous detail what a given poster likes, hates, will tolerate, and can’t abide. They are also among the most accepting of other people’s likes and dislikes, never judging another reader’s love for, say, evil twin stories, and often taking a chance on books that contain the tropes they dislike if recommended by a friend. “I normally don’t like such and such, but…” is a common refrain.
Still, writing shouldn’t be about accepting the status quo. Doing what has been done before. Filling in the blanks. Whether you’re twisting a well-worn trope into some M.C. Escher-esque design or deconstructing it into something unrecognizable, you need to know the basics, the nitty and the gritty of what came before.
I conducted an informal survey of my writer and rabid-reader friends to find out which tropes they found maddening, infuriating, and fire-breathing-gorgoning. Caution: use at your own risk.
-Twins, especially with special powers
-Fish out of water
-Small town life = good; big city life = bad
-Creating blurred worlds between dream and “reality”
-Using a “crazy” character just to brouiller les cartes, i.e. to create chaos or confusion, or use as a red herring
-Setting the action in remote, old, worn-out places
-Creating a character that will, in the end, be revealed to be the alter ego of the main character
-Having a character getting lost in a cemetery or in the forest or jungle, or having to endure storms (snow, thunderstorm or heavy rain, at sea…). [I would add: using the weather as a metaphor for the character’s state of mind. Of which every writer is guilty, including me!]
-Chosen one fights their destiny until they finally have a revelation and give in
-A blind/deaf/handicapped character who has premonitions or insights
Which brings us to an aspect of tropes that I particularly loathe, i.e. those that play on “stereotypes and racial/sexual/physical differences as shorthand for character/conflict,” as my friend put it. Here are a few they mentioned:
-Homemaker=good; working woman=bad, also working woman who can only be completed by having a previously unwanted child (aka Miranda from Sex in the City)
-Using an angelic-looking girl as the villain
-Evil wife, girlfriend, ex (always female)
-Use of rape tropes, sexual assault as a motivation for the female character (or, in M/M, the weaker, fey male character)
-Use of person of color as the brute/macho/wild aggressor
-“Magical” token person of color
What’s dangerous about the use of these particular tropes is their lack of originality and complexity. I would challenge writers to see beyond labels, stereotypes, and social norms to try and create characters who can be some of these things, but who are so much more.
Since my focus – and focus group – traffics mainly in M/M romances, here are a few tropes that are somewhat unique to that genre (though some of them can be applied to romance as a whole).
-Naive virgin paired with male slut
-Person falls in love with dude who used to bully him
-Gay for you (not to be confused with “out for you,” which is more realistic)
-Rent boy with a heart of gold
-Person who left a small town and returns to rekindle a long-lost flame from their teenage years
-Use of sexual assault as a way to delay the sex act
-True love fixes everything
While scouring the Internet for information on tropes to add to this post, I came across some wild and wonderful things. For instance: A Periodic Table of Storytelling, created by the good folks at TV Tropes. If you want to waste some serious hours of your life, fall down that rabbit hole one weekend. Don’t be surprised if you don’t find your way out for a few days!
In true geek fashion, the folks at the now-defunct Strange Horizons compiled some submission guidelines to be reckoned with, “Stories We’ve Seen Too Often”. After reading that, my only question was: “What stories are there left to tell?” Seriously, I think they covered everything.
The message of all this is: don’t take shortcuts in your writing. Make characters flawed, multi-faceted, complex. Defy cliché and stereotype. Take something we all know and love, dismantle it, and build it back up again into something new. Set the world on fire with your insight, your skill, and your imagination! And don’t forget the most important equation: writing = fun.