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Story Tropes Can Be Our Friends

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help-me-mr-wizard.jpg?resize=525%2C394&sThat title probably feels like an obvious concept to most of us. But lately I’ve been seeing a lot of scorn for tropes in the bookish communities online. The term trope is often thrown around in a pejorative way. It seems as though the word becomes all the more condemning when it’s used in reference to genres of fiction that are commonly disdained—particularly SFF and romance, but occasionally regarding mysteries and thrillers, as well.

I’ve been hearing folks refer to genre tropes as cliched, to their use as lazy writing, and I’ve sensed that some consider them to be purposely formulaic—like a shortcut to pandering to a fandom that demands slavish adherence. Of course each of these characterizations can hold an element of truth. But to say any of them are true of all stories that utilize tropes is painting a nuanced topic with a ridiculously broad brush.

As usual, we should start with a definition, just to keep us on the same page:

trope (as it pertains to literature & art): a common or recurring motif or theme

I happen to lean fairly heavily on tropes in my storytelling, some of them common to the epic fantasy genre. Considering those tropes for this piece had me wondering exactly how aware I was of fantasy tropes when I started. I honestly don’t remember. In my defense, it was fifteen-plus years ago and I’m a guy who occasionally has trouble recalling his own street address (hey, we have a P.O. box, so I rarely need to know the actual street number). Of course I knew what the term meant, and I knew that fantasy was full of quests and prophecies and wizards and stuff. All I’m sure of is that I did not begin with a plan to utilize certain tropes. Nor did I consider that some genre readers expect them, or even that an audience might like or dislike certain ones.

As I’ve said in regard to so many aspects of my writing journey, I’m grateful for my ignorance at the onset. I’m also grateful that my primary driving force was to write something that I wanted to read. Because of it I ended up stumbling into the use of several fantasy tropes. Tropes that obviously had already spoken to me in various ways. I honestly consider their inclusion to be a benefit. Let’s discuss.

The Lord of the Tropes

Ha, gotcha! You thought I was going to talk about Tolkien here, didn’t you? Well, in spite of the fact that LOTR might be a veritable fount of tropes for the genre, this segment is about another, more recent, inspiration of mine.

As I mentioned, trope talk has been pinging on my radar lately, particularly in the fantasy communities online. Not all of it is disparaging, but enough of it was negative to spur me to take stock of my own inventory. In the meantime, I began reading an epic fantasy series that I’m really enjoying: The Faithful and the Fallen, by John Gwynne. I’m only about halfway through book two (of four), but when I stumbled on a video (to which I won’t provide a link here) enumerating the “10 Most Overdone Tropes in Fantasy (That Agents Are Tired of Seeing),” I realized not only that I’ve used several of them, but that Gwynne had in some way utilized every last one. Among others. [Warning: Mild spoilers on the list ahead for The Faithful & the Fallen.]Gwynne-The-Faithful-the-Fallen.jpg?resiz

As I said, I’m not quite halfway through the series, but I can already see that Gwynne has:

1—A Chosen One: yep, quite prominently (me too).

2—A Dark Lord: both a dark god and his earthly minion lordling.

3—Orphaned Protagonists/Death of Parent(s): nodding in a non-spoilerly way (for both of us)

4—Forgotten Heir/Hidden Lineage: another nod (again, for both of us)

5—A Wise Wizard/Mentor Figure: check (duh, right?).

6—A European-Inspired Setting: I’m getting a Celtish feel from his world (mine is Germanic).

7—Black & White Morality: Well, there’s a creator god and a Satan-like fallen god, each choosing players like rival jocks at a pickup game.

8—Summoning an Evil Entity to Make a Contract: In the prologue of book one, in fact.

9—Magical Artifact(s): Several, all used splendidly as McGuffins.

10—A Quest: Puh-leez. Most every great epic fantasy has at least one (both J.G. and I have several).

I find it amusing that the gatekeepers are supposedly so tired of particular tropes. Especially since I’m not the only one who clearly adores The Faithful and the Fallen, which utilizes all of those the video asserts are the most overdone. Malice, book one of the series, debuted in 2011, and the series is still much-discussed and oft-recommended in online fantasy communities such as Reddit Fantasy, tor.com, and Fantasy BookTube. Not to mention the huge buzz surrounding Gwynne’s new series, The Bloodsworn Trilogy (set in a historical alt-Norse world), which debuted (checks notes) yesterday.

I’m going to go ahead and guess that what most agents and editors are actually tired of is poorly utilized tropes in poorly crafted stories.

Tropes Ahoy!

Now that Gwynne has so ably proven to me that there really is no such thing as an overdone trope, I thought I’d discuss how even commonly employed tropes can be used as story levers—as a means to writerly exploration and–hopefully–illumination (for writer and reader alike). Please forgive the indulgence of my use of a few examples from my own perspective as a storyteller. (Please also forgive the fact that I can’t yet claim that these examples have achieved any success from an audience’s perspective.)

The Chosen One—I wanted to explore this trope as an imposition to my protagonist. It’s thrust upon him by ambitious players in the political/religious hierarchy surrounding him. This trope offers the chance to explore nature versus nurture; fate versus freewill; the burden of external expectation; the lure of societal dogma.

For me the Chosen One trope provides a window to the universal questions: Are we born for a purpose? If so, what role does choice play in our lives?

Guardian and Subject To Lovers—It’s a variation on the Friends To Lovers trope that’s ubiquitous across genres, but it’s not an uncommon variant. The guardian is usually a Powerhouse (another character trope), and the subject innocent or uninitiated (often weak or helpless in the setting)—think True Grit. I didn’t exactly subvert this one, but I did add a twist to an outmoded norm by making the guardian a female warrior and the subject a younger and less experienced male.

This trope helped me to explore how relationships can change as power dynamics shift. It reinforced my belief in the power of friendship as the basis for a coupling. My characters showed me how, no matter the damage caused by the storms of time, a house can always be rebuilt on the sound foundation of a deeply-held belief in one’s dearest friend.

The Corrupt Empire—This trope happened to be one of the inciting elements for my writing journey. Mine is based on the Roman Empire, which definitely had its bureaucratic bloat and entitled decadence during its crumbling.

The trope presented an opportunity to explore how history is written by the victors, as almost everything we know about the Goths of my cast was written by their Roman foes. It taught me to better perceive how hatred is manufactured from the raw ingredients of resentment and fear. And how that hatred can be leveraged for political power. (Applicable much?)

Animals As Heroes—I’m certainly not the first to recognize that horses are the unsung heroes, as well as the unmourned victims, of pre-mechanized warfare. The hit play War Horse earned a movie adaption, after all. It seems like most animal characters and sidekicks in SFF are dogs/wolves, predatory cats, birds (hawks, owls, ravens, etc.), and of course dragons. I wanted to feature horses not just as transportation, but as bonded companions—particularly with my Skolani characters (members of my female warrior sect). No one can deny, when it comes to warriors and their horses, their very lives depend on one another.

I swear, the older I get, the more amazed I am by the animals in my life. Animals love so unselfishly, forgive so readily, suffer pain so stoically, trust so unconditionally. Some of my most moving and life-changing moments have revolved around my own dogs. My use of this trope continues to deepen my appreciation of this special relationship.

Throw Me A Trope

I hope I’ve at least made the point that tropes aren’t a default negative addition to a story. (Should I call it my trope hope? Nope? Okie-doke.) But I also hope that I’ve gotten you to consider how tropes can be used in inventive and surprising ways. Maybe you’ve realized that you’ve been utilizing—even twisting or subverting—tropes in your own storytelling.

Tropes are universal by definition. Most of us begin learning them before we can speak. When you think about it, genre itself is like a meta-version of trope. After all, both tropes and genres are commonly shared sets of symbols and metaphors, like ground-rules or broadly understood circumstances from which to proceed. They can incite anticipation, trigger expectation, even be bait for misdirection. Tropes provide a basis from which to begin a more nuanced conversation between storyteller and audience.

I believe that tropes help us to connect. And isn’t that the goal of every story?

How about you, WU? Are you a trope fan? A trope disdainer? Do you employ tropes? Which ones? Did you set out to use them, or stumble into it?


About Vaughn Roycroft

Vaughn Roycroft's (he/him) teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit in the 6th grade, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.


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