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Trope-farming (or, Clichés and why they work)

Hi there! April was a heck of a month with four weekends out of town including ten days in Australia. Lovely time catching up with friends and family. As you can imagine, not so much writing time, but I'm back in Auckland now, feet under desk, ready to work.

The thing that's had me thinking most was a conversation with a bookshop owner in Sydney (Galaxy Bookshop, possibly the best sci-fi/fantasy specialist bookshop in the Southern Hemisphere, and really nice people). I was asking about a particular book and the owner said "it's really well-written, although the plot's fairly predictable and clichéd; but I like the familiar clichés in fantasy".

That kind of surprised me: I thought that, much like a music critic who listens to hundreds of songs a week and latches onto something different to feel refreshed, someone surrounded by books would be bored by "familiar clichés".

I've already talked about trying to avoid other people's ideas and not following the well-worn paths in fantasy. We all know them, they've been well-laid down for us, and they can be very hard to avoid. For example: The Damsel in Distress

  • ·         I'm talking about the beautiful princess who needs rescue: from Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty through to Bella in Twilight. It's arisen because, in a male-dominated world like ours, women frequently don't have power and influence, and when in distress, do need rescue.

·         While the advent recently of kick-ass heroines is great (Catniss Everden of The Hunger Games, for example), the notion that a woman (usually biologically less muscular and of smaller stature, before we even touch the sociological issues) can be the best swordfighter in a particular world (and still conform to beauty stereotypes as well!) feels forced to me, unless some factor can mitigate those weaknesses. In my fantasy world of Urte, the magic of the gnosis provides that leveller, meaning that Elena Anborn can boost her arm-strength with kinetic-gnosis to match a more physically strong male.


·         The stereotype of the Damsel in Distress works, and that's why it's so pervasive. It seems that readers LIKE to read about them; they are relatable to every day life, they feel realistic and conceivable, they are usually aspirational (i.e. someone a reader wants to be) because they're invariably pretty, often from a rich family, and everyone feels at sometime in their life it would be nice for someone to help them get ahead.

I could have chosen the Wise Mentor trope: most story plots, especially complex ones, need someone to explain the fine-print and the back-story, and that character needs to have some life experience. You still need your main protagonist to drive the story, so you can't make this wiser character too dominant - therefore they must be held in a secondary role (prevented by age or circumstances from carrying the story); and hey presto: you have just reinvented Gandalf!

Or the Hidden Prince: our hero needs to realistically have a right to rule, and in a proto-medieval fantasy world, that means royal blood, as it saves having to invent parliamentary democracy or having a potential Prince Charming start a proletariat revolution.

There are dozens or even hundreds such tropes, some obvious, some subtle, in any genre of writing, and the hard thing about them is that they kind of work, and even discerning readers like them.

I was listening to a podcast the other day, and the following quote was re-stated: "The human mind treats a new idea the way the body treats a strange protein; it rejects it." -P.B. Medawar. The context was discussion of a very innovative piece of music that was very jarring and discordant. That didn't make it bad music, just difficult to "get". Novels, I believe, work the same way. We can sink into the familiar comfortably and easily, and relax. Unusual characters, ideas and story-lines are harder to relax into. BUT we also like and need novelty, so there needs to be something new in there also. Our frame of mind when selecting a book is also important: if we read to relax, we will likely prefer the familiar: if we read for stimulus, we're more likely to want innovation.

The problem for a new writer is finding that sweet spot between the familiar and the innovative. The music podcast I mentioned above referred to a "sweet spot" between simplicity and complexity; a sweet spot that is constantly shifting and different for every person. Trying to find it could drive someone insane, so my approach will continue to be this" I'll write to please myself and my editor, and hope others like the result. We have to be in love with our own creation, or the passion won't come through and enliven it. If we don't love what we create, whatever it is, how can we expect others to love it?


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