Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Go Home, Tropes; You're Tired

Mike's newest release in The Gryphon Clerks Series

This morning, I turn over the Once in a Blue Muse Blog to my G+ friend and writer, Mike Reeves-McMillan. Mike is the author of several books, including City of Masks, a delightful alternate-world fantasy with Shakespearean leanings, and several volumes in The Gryphon Clerks series, including the most recent release, Hope and the Clever Man. His novels are available in eBook and print editions in all the usual places, links to purchase venues can be found on his website.

The Gryphon Clerks books have been described as Steampunk-esque Fantasy. I enjoy them because of the strong and well-drawn characters and the solid worldbuilding. In Mike's books, the heros/heroines are not the 'chosen ones'; rather they have been forced by circumstances and their own moral codes to act and along the way, they give us a wonderful adventure. 

Mike has generously given me a signed trade paperback edition of Realmgolds, the first book in the series, to give away, so please comment with your favorite example of a trope used well or used poorly for a chance to win. Giveaway is open to all and the winner will be chosen on Sunday, December 12th, 9 pm, est. 

So without further ado, here's Mike's excellent post:

Go Home, Tropes; You're Tired
Mike Reeves-McMillan

I grow weary of overused tropes. More than that, though; I think some of these tired tropes are actually harmful.

I'm going to define a trope as neutrally as I can: a plot device or story element that has become familiar through frequent use. That leaves me space to say that tropes aren't always bad. Tropes provide a degree of familiarity, help us locate ourselves in story-space, allow authors to drop unimportant things into the background without overexplaining them because we already know how they work.

For every tired, overused trope that I'm sick of, I can think of at least one story I've loved that has used them. The thing about these stories, though, is that they're not just constructed out of a bunch of tropes laid end-to-end. They have something fresh about them.

When I've criticized the use of tired tropes in the past (I review a lot of books), fans or authors have sometimes responded by citing these good examples, as if the fact that the tropes were used in a popular or well-regarded story meant that using them is never a bad thing. I believe they're mistaken.

Using tropes is useful when you're doing it consciously, when you're aware of their effect, when you're maybe playing with them a little, subverting them, freshening them up.

It's acceptable when you're using them as a shorthand to get to what you really want to say.
It's a problem when they're all you have. It's especially a problem if you're oblivious to their implications.

So, what are some tired tropes that I wish we could get beyond?

I read a lot of fantasy fiction, so I'll concentrate on some tropes that are particularly common in that genre, although some of these come up in other genres too.

The Chosen One

I am so tired of the bloody Chosen One I can't even tell you.

Why the trope's a problem

Firstly, the Chosen One can't fail. The Prophecy (often written in bad verse) guarantees his success. What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail? Apparently, you would be a whiny little snot, not work hard on your training, make stupid decisions, get people around you killed and treat your surviving friends badly, and then get rescued by the author in time to defeat the Dark Lord.

Secondly, with the Chosen One around, nobody else can be the hero. Nobody else is as interesting as the Chosen One (even if they totally are). Everyone else is, by definition, a secondary character. You can't tell the story in which the faithful sidekick, or the love interest, or the minor antagonist, or the elderly mentor is the main character, because they get all of their significance from the Chosen One. I mean, Ginnie Weasley and the Chamber of Secrets would be a terrific story (if she was a bit more proactive, at least), but we're never getting it, because she's not the Chosen One. So would Hermione Grainger and the Deathly Hallows, for that matter. Albus Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix. Draco Malfoy and the Half-Blood Prince.

And thirdly, as much as we might wish to be the Chosen One, we're not. None of us are. We just have to get along as best we can without the help of an ancient prophecy, magic sword, birthmark that when recognized gets us assistance from highly-trained warriors at a key moment, or last-minute deus ex machina. If fiction is training our minds to deal with life - and I believe that is one of its functions - then the Chosen One story is training them extremely poorly.

How it can be OK

I've seen the Chosen One done in a way I don't mind just recently. Morgan Alreth's series The Unfortunate Woods (starting with Athame) has a (possible) Chosen One of Prophecy who's even a prince, but he's a decent guy, doesn't get above himself, whine or complain, is capable of being nasty like a real person and then feeling bad about it and doing something that costs him to make it right... He's a character, not just a trope, and so by the time I discovered he might be the Chosen One I already liked him and didn't mind.

The Dark Lord

Tolkien gave us the Dark Lord Sauron, who's kind of a blend of medieval Christian ideas about Satan (heavily influenced by Manicheism, which got dragged into Christian thought by Augustine, don't get me started on Augustine, that's another whole rant) and Norse figures like Surtur the Fire Demon. Well, thanks, Tolkien, because everyone who's imitated you has set up a Dark Lord more or less without thinking about it, and now they're everywhere.

Why the trope's a problem

The Dark Lord, most of the time, has no depth to him. He's just Evil, for no real reason. He wants to rule the world, for no real reason. He kicks puppies and slaughters his own servants, for no real reason. He's the unexamined Other.

What's more, the Dark Lord trope trains us to believe not only that there are people who are just unmitigated Evil with no redeeming qualities and no humanity, but that if we could only kill them everything would be all right and there would be puppies (unkicked) and rainbows and flowers, because everything wrong is their fault (and nothing to do with us at all in any way).

I genuinely believe that the prevalence of the Dark Lord trope in popular culture contributed to the second Gulf War. Not, perhaps, to the course of events, which would probably have gone much the same way regardless, but to the ease with which the idea could be sold that removing Saddam Hussein would more or less automatically usher in an era of peace and prosperity to Iraq, and the world in general. Before that, the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, with which there could be no negotiation, from which there was nothing to learn. These tropes aren't harmless, or restricted just to the realm of art. There are important political implications, which authors who use them without thought miss entirely.

How it can be (a bit more) OK

Brandon Sanderson in his Mistborn books does some fun things with the Chosen One/Dark Lord tropes, playing off them and taking them in directions you don't expect, and it only works because those tropes are so familiar.

And Harry Potter's Dark Lord at least has a believable motivation: he wants to overcome death.
In general, though, if you're thinking about what to write and your first thought is a Chosen One and a Dark Lord, please, please keep thinking until you come up with something else.

The One Who Hides Magic

Another huge fantasy trope goes like this: In a society where magic is forbidden, the heroine has magic, and must hide it while at the same time using it to resolve some burning plot issue, usually to do with her entire family being wiped out in Chapter 1. Often a cruel empire and its barbarian enemies are involved, and the protagonist is of low station (but may be a hidden princess!).

Sometimes it's a boy, but more often the One Who Hides Magic is a girl, because girls have to hide the fact that they can do things or they'll get in trouble. So this is, at least, a more realistic trope than the Chosen One, and it does, at least, come from the viewpoint of the oppressed - a viewpoint that has tended to be underrepresented in fantasy.

I'm mainly sick of it because it's just so overdone. I'm sure a lot of authors who use it don't seriously think about the oppression involved or the power of the metaphor; they just use it because it's familiar. Of course, that doesn't mean that their work can't empower people who are in the position of having to hide something about themselves. We can get out of fiction things that the author never put in there.

Lesser tired tropes

The tropes I've discussed are large-scale, structural tropes, even though they are about characters. They shape the story. There are other, lesser tropes, though, that I'm also tired of, plot shortcuts and non-characters that I groan at whenever I see them. For example:

  • The Convenient Eavesdrop, wherein the hero happens to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to overhear some key information that he couldn't otherwise obtain;
  • The Couple Who Hate Each Other who will Totally End Up Together (I will admit I have seen this in real life exactly once);
  • The Damsel in Distress, whose sole role is to be a McGuffin (she might as well be a Maltese falcon as a woman, since she isn't a character);
  • Women in Refrigerators, which is like a damsel in distress but her past death, not her future rescue, is what drives the male protagonist, and so she's not a character either;;
  • The Kickass Heroine, who's exactly like a violent, erratic and rather stupid man, except more emotionally unstable and interested in shoes (especially painful if she turns into a Damsel in Distress, which many of them do);
  • The Spoiled Protagonist, who's a Chosen One by stealth - as soon as they arrive anywhere, serious people with serious responsibilities drop everything to give them anything they ask for, despite the fact that they have no official standing;
  • Questing all over the map collecting power-ups for a final boss fight;
  • The Surprise Relationship, or Luke I Am Your Father.

How to use tropes responsibly

Anyone who writes genre fiction is going to use some tropes. That's how we recognize our genre fiction. Just as you can recognize a photo of a train station or a hotel foyer, even one you've never been to, so you can recognize a fantasy or a mystery, because they have certain factors in common.

If your fiction is going to be fresh and interesting, though, you can't just build it out of prefabricated parts. Think about your tropes, give them a twist, subvert them, play with them, take them in unexpected directions, or at least use them to convey something you believe in. Base who your characters are and what they do on real people that you've met, instead of on characters in other books.

Be original

Thank you, Mike! Now I'm off to check all my stories against your list of tropes. . . 


  1. Brilliant analysis. I think the one I find irksome is the Dwarves/Elves/Men characterization. Since Tolkien Dwarves are short grumpy people good with axes and not particularly attractive, Elves are beautiful and perfect at everything, especially archery, and Men are idiots who -- despite being less competent than either of the previous two "races" somehow wind up the savior.

  2. Strongly and wholeheartedly agree. Another trope that we need less of is the Ironic Limitation: A critical ability or possession that has an unexpected limitation or side-effect. If done well and in small doses can be humorous, or even black-comic; if not it's like a cheesy Saturday morning cartoon.

    One thing you don't touch on though, is the role of the market. Just to cite one case, Kickass-Heroine books seems to sell, at least judging by the endless array of impractically clad sword-, knife-, staff-, and gun-wielding women you see on covers on bookstore shelves. Authors are serving this up, but surely Editors are complicit?

  3. Love this list, and the reading list of writers who manage to use the conventions in new ways. I would like to challenge the trope of the One Perfect Teacher and the related notion of the One Lesson, Suddenly Learned (Enlightenment, Suddenly Achieved?) but they're such frequent elements of the hero's journey (heroine's journey, too?) that I wonder whether they can be remade or eliminated. As a teacher of young adults, I think our culture doesn't do a very good job generally of reassuring students that there's nothing wrong w/ them if learning (or becoming a great athlete, etc.) takes years, is full of painful trial and error, and sometimes feels like a grind beset with failure and uncertainty. The grind doesn't always make good reading / good cinema, however. I wonder: how can we write fantasy or other speculative genres -- can we? -- without Campbell's Hero standing behind our desks? (For the record, I'm a huge fan of the hero's journey as a way of understanding what I read.)

  4. I agree with these, particularly Chosen One stories. A trope that drives me crazy is A cousin to the Convenient Eavesdrop is the Serendipitous Comment Clue. The hero has to figure something out, and someone says some random thing and it makes no sense but it solves the problem in one fell swoop.

    Example: Our hero needs to figure out how the killer snuck into the room.
    Overheard: Man, I sure do hate how mice are always sneaking into my cellar to eat my cheese.
    Hero: Of course! He must be a shape shifter who turned into a mouse and snuck in through a hole in the wall!

    I feel like investigation should involve more effort and developing theories and then investigating those theories. Instead, it often comes across as Step 1) stumble across clues then Step 2) hang out waiting for someone to accidentally give you an epiphany. Step 3) Congratulations! You are a master mystery solver!

  5. Morgan Alreth12/04/2013 12:31 PM

    Your mention of watching the characters being run all over the map collecting powerups reminded me of something. One trope you didn't mention, that really irritates me, is what I call the Obligatory Labyrinth. It grits my teeth when I see the hero/heroine forced to fight their way through a series of unnecessary obstacles for no particular purpose. It's fine if there's a reason for the obstacles. I'm talking about a case where it is obvious that the only purpose is to stretch out the story and give the author time and room to insert something.

    For example, it might conceivably be necessary for a character to break into an old tomb to steal an artifact. Right offhand, I can't see the point. Most times, people don't bury useful things with the dead. They keep the useful things outside and continue using them. Grave goods are ceremonial and decorative. But whatever. If the hero breaks into a tomb, it's possible that their might be trap. Or even two. But an entire buried necropolis? Lined with precision crafted machinery that must have cost the ancient nation twice its entire yearly budget? Plus enough magic defenses to protect the kingdom's borders from a barbarian invasion? Please. If it was that valuable, Why isn't it in the palace vault?

    Same for wading through the twisted maze of an ancient city. People who lived in ancient cities were still people. They laid out their city streets to get from home, to market, to temple, to home again. They seldom if ever deliberately forced common citizens to fight their way past enchanted guardians in order to reach the greengorcer. I can see danger from falling buildings, or wild animals that moved in. Or even ghosts. But why would anyone get lost in a maze? It's a city street! Scratch a mark on a wall!

    1. Morgan, you were the lucky winner through a random number generator! Congrats and thank you for your great comment. At your convenience, please email me your snail mail address and I will send you your copy of Mike's book. (lisa at ljcohen dot net)

  6. Loving these comments.

    @Ilyanna Kreske: I should warn you (in case you win the book) that it does contain some short, grumpy dwarves, though they don't carry axes (they have people for that sort of thing), and they're more industrialists and capitalists than Nordo-Scottish warriors. My elves are a bit like the British Empire, and a bit like the Roman Empire, and a bit like the Third Reich; they're also biotechnologists, but their empire fell over 500 years ago and they've withdrawn into the forests, so they haven't been onstage yet.

    @fjsalazar: Magic does need limitations, or it destroys the plot, but you're right, the limitations should make some kind of sense.

    Kickass heroines are legion, it's true, and apparently keep selling. That's kind of why I included them as an overdone trope. On the one hand, it's great that women have more roles in fiction than "damsel in distress/woman in refrigerator", but it's not so great that those roles are often an inferior version of what was traditionally a male role. This is what I really mean towards the end about writing characters based on people, not other characters. I have met exactly zero kickass heroines (as usually written) in real life. I have met large numbers of strong women whose strengths range through intelligence, emotional insight, compassion, determination, endurance, the ability to make alliances, the ability to inspire loyalty and pride in others, competence at everyday tasks (something "kickass heroines" often lack), self-confidence (likewise), wisdom (very much likewise), and ferocity in defense of the downtrodden, all of which are, of course, also accompanied by flaws.

    Editors will publish what sells without, usually, caring too much about its other merits. As an indie author, I'd like to take the opportunity to write something with merit and then see whether it sells or not.

  7. @KMAnderson: oh, yes. The Training Montage. The Sudden Competence in a Moment of Crisis Despite Previous Shirking and Complaining About How Hard the Training Is. I really want to see more stories in which people gain competence by working hard every day for years, because that's how it actually happens. You don't have to show every moment of the grind, but at least don't pretend it didn't have to happen.

    I'm not a fan of Campbell (basically, the more I know about something he's writing about, the less convincing he sounds) and following the Hero's Journey as a formula for writing, rather than a way of understanding existing stories, leads to, well, The Phantom Menace. I think we can write arcs of development without referencing it too closely. I use Dan Wells' Seven Point Structure myself: everyday starting point, something happens to change the status quo and make the character react, something bad happens to raise the stakes, character decides to be proactive about solving the problem, something worse happens, character gets what they need to solve the problem, character resolves the problem and is in a new situation. It's generic enough that you can tell it a great many different ways.

    @Sean Cox: Good one, the Serendipitous Comment. I did a Harry Potter re-read recently, and though I love the series, it has its faults, and that's one of them. There are many subplots, but the "mystery" one goes: There's a mystery! Harry flails about with no clue! Someone (usually Hermione) hits him repeatedly with the clue stick! Mystery solved! It's not very satisfying.

    @Morgan Alreth: I think those ones come from D&D, which in turn draws on pulp adventure, often inspired by things like King Tut's tomb (excavated in the heyday of the pulps).

    Obstacles for the sake of obstacles are like action for the sake of action: they're empty story-calories. Fortunately, if I tried putting in something like that my development editor would call me on it. I know, because she did. (It was a rescue, but same principle.)

    I'd much rather see a more realistic struggle. Climbing, for example, is hard, and tiring, and you can slip, and your muscles burn, and your fingers hurt, and sometimes you're not strong enough to get where you need to go without a supreme effort. Show me that, not some nonsense maze full of traps.

    1. @Mike Reeves-McMillan: Thanks for the reference: checking out Dan Wells now.

    2. I have a text summary of his YouTube series here: http://csidemedia.com/gryphonclerks/2012/12/16/dan-wells-seven-point-story-structure/

  8. I hang out in fanfic circles which is inexperienced writer trope city, let me tell you. Seeing people actually take a trope, and turn it into something fresh and theirs, not a rehash of the same old same old is something wonderful, especially appreciated by the reader who has been hammered by cookie cutter stories.

  9. Gratuitous Indefensible Violence, in which the first thing a character does in the story is to torture, rape or murder someone for no obvious reason, just so that we know this is the Bad Guy.

    1. Oh, yes, that puts me off faster than almost anything.

  10. Other things I am personally a little tired of are Surprisingly Moral Assassins (only killing people who REALLY deserve it), and the Infinitely Caring Healer, a kind of wish fulfilment character (obviously all readers would love to have a beautiful lady care for them devotedly the whole damn time) and this is closely related to "Narrator Is Wanking?!" Maybe that one doesn't count as a "trope" exactly.