“If we let the tropes and set-pieces of our chosen genre define and limit our work in it, then we’ve surrendered the only real power we have as writers and artists… to CREATE! The best works of fiction don’t just affirm our beliefs and awareness, they expand them.”
“Trope” is a word that has seen a major spike in usage recently. Its strict definition is “a figure of speech” but it’s taken on a much larger scope of late, expanding to encompass “theme” or “set piece” or even “cliché” and is applied to film, television, literature, and any other storytelling medium. I prefer “genre archetype” but that’s just me.
But readers have a love-hate relationship with tropes. On the one hand, you read a particular genre because you can expect to find things in it that you enjoy. When I pick up a fantasy novel, I expect there to be magic in some form or other. By the same token, if the magic is the same magic from another book I’ve read by a different author, I’m disappointed. I want to see different expressions of the archetype, not a re-hash of something that’s already been explored.
I think writers that are new to the craft and still exploring their voice in it gravitate to tropes, even rely on them. This is a valuable exercise and gives the writer a chance to explore the elements of the genre that inspire them. I distinctly remember the first story I actually started writing was dripping with every cliché in the genre… dragons, bad-ass heroes, and magic straight out of the D&D Player’s Handbook (first edition, mind you… I’m old school).
I remember the pride I felt as I read my words, the same pride I imagine that’s felt by everyone who has chosen to try their hand at writing. Most of us didn’t have a tutor or mentor to guide us through our first efforts. We just wanted to express ourselves and add to the canon of a genre that had fired our imaginations.
But time and experience have revealed that I wasn’t adding anything new, and excitement turned to disappointment when I shared it with someone (other than my mother) and received a lukewarm response.
Tropes: Handle With Care
If we let the tropes and set-pieces of our chosen genre define and limit our work in it, then we’ve surrendered the only real power we have as writers and artists… to CREATE! The best works of fiction don’t just affirm our beliefs and awareness, they expand them. They explore the foundations of an archetypal theme or concept and reveal something new about it, something that adds to our perceptions and experience.
If I see a dragon on a book cover, I get a thrill of hope followed a split-second later by trepidation and skepticism. There have been so many stories about dragons that transported me through prose and plot, allowing me to surrender for a time to the notion that these were authentic creatures. And there have been other stories that just ride on the backs of others (pardon the pun) and left me bored and unsatisfied.
As a writer, you can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid the icons and archetypes of your chosen genre. The challenge is to understand their purpose in the context of your story. Understand that your readers don’t want something they’ve already read or experienced. Reading (for me, anyway) is an exploration, an adventure to someplace I haven’t been before. It needs to be vaguely familiar (so I feel comfortable) but with the promise of unseen treasures and unexpected twists that will lead to something I didn’t have before I started reading.
Examine the things you want to write about very closely. If it’s dragons, then what is it about those creatures that has caught your attention? Maybe it’s the destructive power that fascinates you. Maybe it’s their age and wisdom. Maybe it’s their connection to ancient and powerful magics. Do your dragons speak? Why? What is it about the capacity for speech that says “dragon” to you?
Don’t settle for “It’s just cool” as an answer. Yes, we know it’s cool. We read the genre, too. Why is it cool to YOU? Dig deeply and honestly and root out the real essence of your fascination. What you find there has real value to you as a writer because THAT’S what your story will be about. If you’re fascinated by a dragon’s apocalyptic destructive power, then your story will be about survival in the face of destruction or devastating loss/sacrifice or the cruelty of capricious fate to take that which is most dear to you.
Use the tropes as they are intended: as gateways to a new understanding of your world. These archetypes awaken passion and excitement in us for a reason and that reason is different for each of us. Don’t pander to me and try to use MY reason as YOUR writing tool. I’m interested in YOUR reason… that’s what will make your story a unique expression of your craft. I may not like where you go with it, but you will have added to the canon of a genre I love, and for that, I will heartily thank you.