The word trope is defined in most dictionaries as “a word or expression used in a figurative sense,” but trope has become reinterpreted in today’s vernacular to refer to an often overused plot device.
The conflict inherent in tropes as they apply to genre literature is that many of these selfsame conventions are the elements that define the genre. Tropes only become a problem for readers after they’ve delved extensively into the genre and have become inured to—let’s use fantasy tropes for this example—tall, ethereal elves, mountain-dwelling dwarves, wizened hermetic sorcerers, and innocent farm boys born to save the world from the ultimate-evil Dark Lord. After reading a dozen or four such series comprising these elements, the reader may tire of them.
Or not. Ultimately, the tropes play a significant role in why we love the genre. Can romance fans ever get enough of the strong man saves maiden? And would we enjoy reading a mystery if the explanation wasn’t gradually revealed by the investigation/protagonist’s journey? The tropes make the genre what it is.
The conflict genre fiction authors struggle with then is whether or not to be true to these conventions, revise them in some way, or defy them altogether. But if you intend to go against the tropes, you’d better be well-read in the genre, else you walk the knife-edge of rejection by the genre’s loyal fans.
George RR Martin did this brilliantly with his Song of Ice and Fire series. How can you have a fantasy with basically no magic, no sorcerers, and just a shadowed hint of monstrous creatures? Martin’s monsters lurk in the men and women of Westeros. Game of Thrones is a reinvention of the fantasy genre, even as Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World changed the face of fantasy forever, overturning Tolkienian stereotypes and establishing new ones to be emulated by fantasy writers for decades thereafter.
In planning A Pattern of Shadow & Light, I wanted to move away from the Ultimate-Evil-versus-Ultimate-Good model. It’s been done many times, and well, and I didn’t have much else to add to that discussion.
I am, however, fascinated by the idea of treason being so much a matter of perspective, or sedition an issue of dates. Men rarely set out to be evil; more often they feel justified in their actions. How interesting would a story be if it showed all sides of a conflict! And what a challenge to write such a tale. I’m also intrigued to imagine the viewpoint of a god. How does an immortal really think? How does your viewpoint change when time is of no consequence? Following this line, what if you had a being of godly power who knew only one purpose and followed it religiously—yet that purpose was contrary to someone else’s existence? Or an entire realm’s? How is that different from the soulless interplay of capitalism or civil war in an impoverished nation?
I see the fantasy genre as an ever-shifting metaphor for life in this world, an innocuous medium that allows the author to examine difficult, even controversial, subjects with impunity. Honor, religion, politics, nobility, integrity, greed—we’ve an endless list of ideals to be dissected and explored. And maybe learned from.
Cephrael’s Hand is in some way a treatise on conflict, on the inclinations of men, of the way confusion leads to condemnation and greed opens a dark path to tragedy. It’s an exploration of multiple points of view and the ideals that drove each character’s choices. There’s no omniscient narrator offering subtle opinion. The story shows the reader a variety of perspectives, many in conflict with each other—as ever they are in life. By their actions, the characters declare their allegiances; the reader must place the mantle of good or evil upon their shoulders, or not.
And if you reach the end of Cephrael’s Hand and find yourself still unsure who should wear which mantle, perhaps that is the safer choice still. You can walk a mile in a man’s shoes and still not understand him. As in any battle between omniscient entities—like life between friends, priests or nations—who are we mortals to judge?
What’s your take on tropes? Should we be true to them, defy them, reinterpret them? Do they define the genre or limit it?
I loved reading your thoughts on this. As I read, I relived the reading of your book and rekindled my impatience for the release of the next one in the series! I have not figured out good vs. evil for many of the key players, and that makes them so much more interesting to me. Pure good vs. pure evil has been done and, for me, falls flat. I think that comments on the subject of tropes, and explains why I tend to jump genres after 4-5 books. Change, new ideas and new viewpoints are what make reading interesting. You have done that in a way that transcends any one genre and I love reading your books for it.
Trevor, thank you so much. I definitely find excitement in exploring the shades of grey between the ultimate extremes. I’m glad that you enjoy it also. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this fantasy trope.
I enjoyed your article very much. As you yourself have expounded upon, the answers to your final questions are not black or white. Tropes both define and limit a genre. Should we be true to them, defy them, or reinterpret them? The answers are as varied as there are writers and artists, and as varied as the audience as well. We should do all of the above, as it suits our creation and our purpose. Any artist works with the media of his craft. The painter can use the “right” amount of paint, follow the conventions even within his own style. Or he can glob it on, add stark and unknown elements, break rules of usual treatment. Too random, too unconventional, and it can cease to communicate and be rejected–at least by some. Too vapid and it ends up wall dressing in a bland hotel–and yet, even then, someone bought it, didn’t they?
Movies are similar–some are works of art by which we feel and learn, some are pure and somewhat predictable escapism, but not any less entertaining in their own way. In writings, I for one love texture in the weaving, admire imagination, and appreciate difference of viewpoint. Generally. These are some of the things I love about books. I tend to like more complex characters because they are more relatable and real and interesting. Man and life and choices are not simple. I like that you write in that way. Yet even I can occasionally enjoy a simple tale of pure knight on a white steed riding successfully off into the sunset. Occasionally. I know many people that do not want a story with a bad ending, no matter how good the tale. I know many people who don’t want complexity, they want the escape and enjoyment of something that IS simple, if unreal and somewhat flat. Thankfully, there are writers for those stories too. For my part, I am glad of authors that push the envelope, challenge convention, and find their own voice–wherever it results in a tale well told. I look forward to your next book.
Stephanie, you’re quite right and you make an important point – we can’t separate the tropes from the genre. The best we can do is interpret them in a way that gives voice to our own perceptions and appreciation of them and hope some readers out there share our interests and curiosity. Thank you for sharing your eloquent thoughts on the subject.