Tropes: Friend or Enemy
I recently did a presentation for a fairly large group of people (about 300). They came to see the sci-fi writer nerd guy talk about science fiction and suspension of disbelief. I did a lot of research and noodling to come up with an hour of material interspersed with popular references for humorous effect. As I was preparing for this nerve wracking public speaking event, the dichotomy of it struck me. Here I was poking fun at tropes, meanwhile using them to get audience buy-in. More, as I emphasized in my slides, the suspension of disbelief breaks down when the genre precedents aren’t represented strongly enough.
The line between trite cliche trope and familiar genre trappings is perilously thin. How many references do you need to establish your world / milieu’s credibility in your target genre? That is a really excellent question. If I had a definitive answer, I wouldn’t be writing this article.
Like anything else subjective, opinions vary– a lot. When it comes to tropes or cliches, it really comes down to tolerance and audience. The more well-read the audience, the more original they tend to want you to be. The frustrating thing is it’s not even approaching a good rule of thumb. In comic books, anime, and manga, it’s the tropes people are looking to consume. The lolicon or superheroes busting each other in the face on first meeting, and all the other inevitable things the fans of those mediums salivate over. There’s no intersection between the two extremes.
There’s a deep rabbit hole if you follow this whole line of reasoning. The internet is rife with memes, pithy little parodies, one liners and images. Memes wouldn’t exist if we didn’t find them funny. It’s the repetition and irony that makes it funny. I think. It’s one of those acquired tastes because certainly not all of them will be funny to you or me. Sometimes it just seems stupid. Humor itself is one of those ephemeral ideas that we intuit but have trouble elucidating. There are people who are masters of that craft, but it’s not really something that can be taught, you either have that gift or you don’t.
There’s nothing new under the sun, it’s been said. We crave newness but cling to familiarity. So it boils down to new twists on old ideas. In that is a glimmering of the answer. If you love fantasy or cyberpunk or military science fiction or whatever genre, you will have the things you loved about those stories. Inevitably, your own stories will take or rehash the ideas that grabbed you. Whether or not a reader feels your take is new or a rip-off of the other writer is purely random chance. Ultimately, my thought is that the milieu and concepts of your predecessors are your allies. Your knowledge and love of your niche and its conventions will be felt in the sincerity of your story. Your characters are reflections and distortions of you. You are the most unique thing about your work. Your voice, personal backstory and perspective are the only truly new things in the world. More, as you write and experience life, you will change and your understanding will evolve.
So, do I have a point to all this? Yes. Respect what came before you and know the conventions. People neither want nor need to see the 454th ripoff of Lord of the Rings, but they will always like a good quest story. Theory is there are only nine plots, and that everything is derivative. Yet, new movies entertain us each year. That is what you hold onto. A good tale, sincerely created that is mindful of precedence but attempts add your unique perspective will find acceptance. Knowing memes and tropes and knowingly twisting them for effect will buy you points with knowledgeable audience members. If there is an enemy in all of this, it’s ignorance. It’s writing an end of the world story oblivious to the 30,000 other such works. Write what you know, they say. I add to that… make sure you know something.