|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
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 OneI 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 LordTolkien 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 MagicAnother 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 tropesThe 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 responsiblyAnyone 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.
Thank you, Mike! Now I'm off to check all my stories against your list of tropes. . .