The Truth About Tropes
Every genre has its own tropes, those signature metaphors seen time and time again across multiple unconnected books by multiple authors. Fantasy, however, has more than its fair share. So much so, there have been books written about them (such as The Tough Guide To Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones). They mean that dwarves are invariably miners who speak with Scottish accents, elves are elegant and high-minded, and the first thing any dark lord should do upon taking power is kill every farm boy in the land, especially those that live with their uncle and aunt.
However, there is something reassuring about tropes. They can be like a favourite threadbare jumper that should have been thrown away years ago. As fantasy readers we often demand something new and different of our fiction that still resembles that which we’ve read and loved before. Tropes offer readers a familiarity that has given rise to the wide-brush accusation that fantasy, is conservative and stuck in the romanticised past. Whilst our genre is wide and diverse enough that nothing is universal, there are those that would agree with the statement and argue that there is nothing wrong with it. Just as lovers of trashy romance novels embrace the Comedy of Errors before the girl finally gets her man, so lovers of fantasy will relish how the master will hand the baton to his young apprentice to go off and defeat an evil empire. And so these metaphors repeat until they are so engrained in our collective fantasy psyche that we can spot them before they happen, as familiar as the lines from our favourite cult film.
You might ask what is wrong with tropes? If they are enjoyed, why is publishing in this time of uncertainty not using them to drive up sales? The problem is that more often than not they can lead to lazy writing. Things have become tropes because they have been repeated to the point of generalisation. Good writing is honest and nuanced; tropes can often make a piece of prose both sweeping and bland. They can gloss over character motivation. If the dark lord craves power simply because that is what dark lords do, it can make our antagonist seem shallow and feel more like a cartoon villain than a real threat that will keep readers turning pages wondering how our hero will survive or triumph. If readers know that the princess will always be rescued by the knight on horseback, there will be a portion who will question why they need to read the story in the first place.
However, you might equally think that a writer should strive should to eliminate all trope from their own work. This is a personal choice and often dependent on the project. Tropes can be a shorthand, the heart of that familiarity that warms many fantasy readers like a winter fire. Lazy writing will feel derivative of a thousand nameless fantasy novels that have gone before. Clever writing will take these well-known tropes and twist them in a way that makes the reader look at them again with new eyes.
Using tropes is always a risk though. What one reader considers a new or interesting twist on an old trope, another might consider tired and boring, something they have seen a thousand times before. There’s also the problem where some tropes have been turned on their heads so many times that this new converse has also established itself as a trope. Buffy the Vampire Slayer took the horror B-Movie trope of the teenage girl being stalked by a monster and turned the hunted into the hunter. This was so successful that it spawned thousands of imitators. Urban fantasy and paranormal romance, as well as various television programmes and video games, are currently filled with kick-ass plucky young women fighting off all manner of supernatural nasty.
Buffy is just an example that when used and subverted well, tropes can be dynamite. Look at George R R Martin who took the dwarf trope and subverted it to create Tyrion in A Song of Ice and Fire. Take Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers and compare him to the barbarian archetype, or Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora and the RPG thief. Each of these are subtle plays on well-worn tropes by masters of their craft. However, there’s nothing to say that down the road, those influenced by these great writers, imitating these ideas in their own work, won’t result in new tropes being created. In twenty years time, ideas we think new and different today will, if popular, have been repeated until they themselves have become tropes.
There’s nothing wrong with this. It shows how genre is constantly growing and changing. Many a great novel has been conceived by a writer getting bored of what they see as the same idea time and time again and wondering “What if..?”.
Title image by FictionChick.