Welcome to the second part of my three-part series on why and how we should treat writing rules as generalized guidelines, rather than carved-in-stone, signed-in-blood, only-one-way-to-do-it methods for English literature. The first part of this series discussed grammar as a rule versus grammar as a tool. If you didn’t catch that article, you can find it here: http://thescriptors.com/writing-rules-theyre-more-like-guidelines-really-part-1/ .
One thing that, perhaps, I should have added to that article is the fact that part of my frustration with the English language is that it’s really a conglomerate of dozens of other languages. As such, there is no centralized, unified, international or national authority policing English to make decisions about the right and wrong ways to use it. We have certain styles that are considered standard, but if you follow AP format, you break MLA format by default. There are some rules which most, if not all, English handbooks would agree on: capitalize the first letter of your sentences, use spaces between words, learn the differences between possessives and contractions, etc. But other rules are simply preferred by certain publishers, writers, and readers … and preferences and opinions are always objective.
The thing linguists know and understand well that some fiction writers would do well to remember is that any living language is going to evolve, sometimes in a messy and unorganized manner, not by the scholars who “safeguard” it, but by the majority of people who commonly use it. This is not something to lament. It’s merely the nature of the beast. In other words, living languages laugh in the face of rules because they will inevitably mutate with each new generation. That’s why no native English speakers today sound like audio recordings of Beowulf.
I won’t break into the song from the Disney movie Frozen here, but my advice to fiction writers is to accept that linguistics and literature are flexible studies and let it go. Remember that fictional literature has always been and will always be a creative art form … not a science. Yet even a true scientist must be open to new ideas or he’s practicing dogma, not science.
So, with that little buffer between the last article and this one …
TROPES AS TOOLS
As a rule, tropes, clichés, and other “done to death” items are always to be avoided, right? Er, yes and no. On the one hand, nobody wants to read the same old predictable words or stories that have been written a million times before. In fact, people of the Interwebz love to hate repetitive memes so much that we actually have tropes based on people who hate tropes. (More on that exciting cultural phenomenon below.) On the other hand, the reality is that tropes are unavoidable … and loved.
You’re probably either guffawing at that last sentiment or ready to grab your pitchforks and torches and skewer me, so before I get into whether it’s “right” or “wrong” to write with repetitive elements, let me start by saying they exist in literature because human nature is repetitive.
There are only three conflict plots in the entire literary history of mankind. That’s right—three: man against man, man against nature, man against himself. Every plot conflict you have ever read, or will ever read, will have one or more of those themes. Writers can make themselves sick trying to create original plots, but they will still only ever be able to produce one or more of those three. Because in reality, these are our only three sources of conflict. Sorry to burst your creative bubble, but there truly is nothing new under the sun.
Yet we are taught that it’s lazy to do or say something that’s been done before. As readers we heavily criticize repeat memes. As writers we try hard to avoid them because we know they’re “wrong” by professional standards. (Although, remember there is no centralized standard for English or the arts.) But patterns are the stuff life’s made of. They’re the stuff fandoms are built on.
When I went in search of advice on writing rules regarding tropes and clichés, most of the advice was negative. In summary: don’t. And not just don’t, but “Oh my God! I absolutely hate it when …!”
This started me on the great quest of trying to figure out why haters hate what that they do. And why do they hate it with such a passion that a personal dislike can turn into a whole “don’t ever” rule about writing? That quest led me to two eye-opening answers.
First, I found this link from the TV Tropes website: Fan Hater . It’s a hoot. Go ahead and read it. Trust me, you will know someone who fits at least one of these. And be assured, you probably fit at least one of these yourself. Tropes are such a part of us that even people who hate tropes have tropes. (“You know you’re a trope when … you hate tropes?”)
So, should writers try to avoid writing the same plots or elements over and over again? Before I answer that question, let me pull you out of the existentialist rabbit hole to ask something more important. Why do you like what you like? Why do you hate what you hate?
Whatever your answer is, it probably leans heavily on terms from genres, archetypes, and other literary elements. Readers have preferences like drama, comedy, tragedy, mystery, action, romance, etc. Or they enjoy characters like anti-heroes, elves, cowboys, or vampires. Maybe some people don’t “get” fantastic escapism and can relate better to realistic stories, while other people have enough reality in their real life, so they can’t get enough of daydreams about life on other planets, or historical adventures, or magic and myth. Regardless of why you like your favourite books, chances are tropes are involved because we like what we like. If our favourite flavor of ice cream is chocolate, why shouldn’t we be okay with having it more than once? It’s fine to try different flavors, but human behavior will always go back to favourites for no better reason than we like them.
Do you reach for a fantasy book hoping to find a cowboy exploring the wild west? Of course not. If you reach for fantasy genre, you probably want to read about magic and dragons. That’s not to say you can’t have a cowboy finding a magical dragon in the wild west. It just means that when you’re in a mood to read about dragons, a book about cowboys won’t do. Having repeat elements does not prevent us from trying new elements or stop us from creating new elements. Lords, have you seen how many sub-genres we have these days? Once upon a time all happy endings were comedy and all unhappy endings were tragedy. That’s it. Take a look at this Wikipedia list of literary genres and sub-genres to see how far we’ve evolved using only three plots and the same old boring literary elements.
The reason we label genres, have the same old archetype characters, and use repeat themes and elements is because those “familiars” make it easy for us to find what we like—what we enjoy. And it’s okay for human beings to enjoy the same things twice. Or … possibly even
obsess over admire something multiple times. (We will make no mention of how many books about dark elves and vampires are in my current collection behind the vampire skull and dragons.)
The second article I found regarding tropes that made me rethink how relate to them was this: “Story Tropes: Should We Avoid Them?” by author Jami Gold. Tropes are actually more common than we think.
How many war veterans really do have PTSD? How many kids from severely dysfunctional families really do end up psychologically scarred for life? How many rich kids really do get so bored with a life of ease that they end up looking for trouble? How many couples really do believe they’ve found THE ONE after just one meeting? How many drug addicts want to turn their lives around, but really do have to struggle with their inner demons … and lose the battles … repeatedly? How many people hate other people just because of something or someone they love? How many of these situations have been done over and over ad nauseam in fiction? Do you really think writers should completely avoid these themes, when they are so common to human nature? The goal is to relate to the reader … right?
Okay, so … back to the important question. Should we avoid story elements that have been done before?
Exactly how bad is it to write a story about elves for the fantasy genre, knowing it’s been done thousands of times before? Should we try to avoid showing yet another orphaned kid who becomes a hero, or another cancer victim demonstrating great personal strength? Do we need yet another pretty boy vampire when the market is flooded with them? For that matter, do we really need another grotesque vampire when there’s just as many of them on the market, if not more? After all, grotesque vampires have been the standard repeat stuff of horror stories for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
The key is not to avoid what’s been done before. The key is to know when and how to transform what’s been done before into something that has its own distinct personality. How do we do that? By first and foremost recognizing that readers need to be able to relate to the characters. Archetypes can become unique in the way the sum of their experiences and personalities combine to create new, whole, believable “people”. You can’t do away with anti-heroes. Too many people love them, even if they’ve been done to death. But you can create an anti-hero that’s like no other: a dark elf vampire who has the ability to change skin colors like a chameleon, hates being stared at, loves spicy noodles, is more ticklish than he likes to admit, and has a mischievous streak for cheating at darts by abruptly blinding the person doing the throw. … Well, okay, actually, you can’t do that particular anti-hero. He’s mine. But give your characters enough “fleshing out” that they are individuals because there’s no way to create a character that doesn’t fit an archetype.
Or give the readers a familiar setting (because that’s probably why they reached for your book in the first place), but then throw in something a little different and unexpected. My series is a dark fantasy tale about elves. So, it’s … elvish … with magic and nature and ancient wisdom, etc. But I also gave my elves science. Outrageous? Maybe. But why should creatures of magic be stuck in the Middle Ages while creatures without magic progressed? To me, it’s not logical that humanity would progress, but creatures capable of much more to begin with wouldn’t. My goal was to not recreate Tolkien, even though I adore his works and they inspired me. Like samurai during the Meiji Restoration, these elves are coping with how to bring a new way of life into old traditions. I broke a trope! Yay me! Some people won’t like this change because steampunk-ish/ modern-ish elves won’t fit their folklore-ish expectations, but when we expect things like elves to be done a certain way, what are we really asking for? Tropes! Why are so many people so upset about sparkling vampires? The author broke a trope!
So … make up your minds, readers and writers. Do we love our tropes, or do we hate them? Should we use them, or avoid them? What’s the point of avoiding tropes if we’re only going to be blasted for straying from what’s all-too familiar? Fairly fickle rules and markets, if you ask me.
As a rule, throwing all tropes out the window is impossible. Don’t try to avoid them. Instead, embrace patterns in literature and life as a tool to twist stories and characters into individual experiences. Because familiarity is how we relate to our favorite characters, genres, and reality itself. It is enough to change a few unexpected things here and there to create the illusion of originality.
Next time: cover art! Books have to look a certain way to sell, right? … Eh, I think you know where I’m heading with this by now.