I hear a lot of talk about tropes, especially in fantasy, but also in the larger body of books in general. Tropes, for any who don’t know, are basically clichéd plot devices, or at least that’s how I interpret it. I think the actual definition is that they are conventions, which is pretty different than a cliché, but 90% of the time when the word is used it is meant negatively.
But here’s the thing. Me? As a reader? I LOVE tropes. Can’t get enough of them. Because many of the tropes that other writers sneer at provide my reading experience with mythic underpinnings.
I have read books that others consider fresh and trope-free, providing a refreshing breath of fresh air into the genre. But you know what? Even though I know intellectually that I should appreciate these books for their ground-breaking ways, I usually find that I don’t connect with them emotionally, nothing about them resonates with me and I end up putting them down.
Which goes to just how many different kinds of readers there are and how many different things we look for in books. Mitali Perkins had a fabulous discussion a while back theorizing that younger readers read to expand their world while YA readers read to reinforce their world. I think there are similar, if more complex, dynamics at work in what we as adults read.
I remember once reading a quote from Ursula La Guin that stated something to the effect that all those writers who set their books in any sort of medieval or Western European setting were just lazy fantasists. And I was hurt by that—not as a writer, but as a reader. Those stories call to me. I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe because I was raised on fairy tales or because that’s where my ancestors came from or because one of my first great fantasy influences was Tolkien. I don’t know, but I also don’t think it’s something we can help, sort of like we can’t really control who we fall in love with. It strikes me as—yes, I’ll say it—elitist to claim that all these conventions are tropes. Maybe, but maybe they are conventions because they resonate with readers in some way they don’t resonate for whomever is doing the trope-calling?
The things some people call tropes, the MC being the chosen one for example, I see as being as much a part of story as the words once upon a time. They mirror important steps on every person’s journey to maturity and understanding. We all start off believing we are the chosen one, why else would our parents’ worlds revolve around us? It is a critical step in human development to recognize that either we are not “chosen” or, to come to terms with the massive amount of responsibility that comes with being chosen.
The old wise one as mentor is another trope that takes a beating but again, this totally works for me. Some of my closest, most treasured relationships when I was a kid were with my grandmothers. I loved them, and now, seeing that reflected in a book. I also think that fantasy is akin to fairy tales, which codify the behaviors we want to pass down to our young. Reinforcing for them that older people have something to offer too—wisdom—is not a bad thing.
Some people sneer at the HEA found in romance books, but there are certain dark places I simply will not go in fiction, not unless I know I’m in the hands of a writer who can bring me out again and help me land in an even better place than when I went in.
So how do we tell the difference between a tired convention (trope) or time-revered resonance? Is it a matter of execution? Does good writing elevate a trope to something resonant and mediocre writing condemn it to hackneyed cliché?