More on Tropes: The Personal Twist

Source: Carole & Tuesday

I’ve been thinking a bit more about using tropes in my writing. As I’ve posted previously, using well-worn tropes can be a good thing, especially when I’m starting out on a new project. I’ve tried building up new stories organically in the past, but to be honest it really is like trying to reinvent the wheel sometimes, and perhaps I don’t need to put myself through that much toil. I can just as easily build the foundation and framing of the story I want to write based on well-used and well-trusted ideas, then make it my own.

It took me some time to learn how to do it successfully when I was just starting out, though. A lot of my trunked stories were 100% pantsed and suffer from having little to no sense of that foundation; I just had a vague idea of where I wanted the story to go, but none about how I was going to get there. There’s a reason those are still trunked.

One way I learned was to watch anime. I’ve stated many times before that my obsession with the form is not on the otaku level but more on the creative. My favorite anime series and movies have always been the ones that took a well-used idea and gave it a unique and often non-Western spin. The ‘star-crossed lovers’ trope of Your Name inserts not just the Asian ‘red string of fate’ mythology but skews with the idea of time as well. The ‘army of misfits’ trope in Dragon Pilot is subverted by their flights being, well, dragons (which ready themselves for flight by literally swallowing their pilots). The ‘young adults finding their way in the world’ of Carole and Tuesday has the extra twist of taking place on a semi-terraformed present-day Mars, where all popular music is literally created via algorithms and little to no human input.

It’s this kind of unconventional twist that inspires and influences my own work. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but the process is always a lot of fun. I have different ways of going about it: often I’ll be writing a scene and get to the point where, if I was going to follow the tried and true plot trope, I’d have the character act a specific way. I’ve trained myself to always be conscious of when this happens, so that when I get to that point, I can make a conscious decision: do I want them to follow this path, or do I want them to do the unexpected instead, thus taking the story in a different direction? I do this all over In My Blue World, because my aim was to show that its main characters were all unconventional women that didn’t always do what people expected of them. Sometimes it got them in trouble, but more often than not their irreverence undermined the expectations of the antagonists.

Another way I play with this setup is to take a page from Studio Ghibli: the world of my story is pretty much the same as this world, only the rules are slightly different. The world of Diwa & Kaffi is the same as real life, just that there are sentient beings other than humans living in tight knit communities. This is more tied in with the world-building side of things, but it’s equally as important, especially when it’s an integral part of the story.

I’ve learned from experience that I don’t necessarily need to go above and beyond, creating extremely detailed twists and backgrounds (perhaps like I did with the Bridgetown Trilogy, though that was done purposely due to its ‘epic’ tone I was aiming for). Sometimes all you need is just that quirky little detail that will set things going off in an intriguing direction. And not only does the reader enjoy that, the writer often does too!

On Using and Avoiding Tropes

Tropes can be your friend, especially if you’re trying to use them as a guideline for a project. Recently I’d been frustrated by my lack of fresh story ideas and decided the only way to break out of that block was to come up with a list of SF tropes that I’d enjoyed over the years and play around with them a bit. For example, I’d long had an idea about a group of young adults living on either a generation ship or a space waystation, and purposely created a list of plot tropes and characters with classic traits, just to see where it went. I let myself go much further than I usually would with the characters; rather than creating each one organically like I usually do, I came up with a list of five Classic Characters, each with the usual personalities one would expect from them. The Uplifter, The Popular One, The Misfit, and so on. I took a page from a lot of my favorite recent anime and manga series and created people I’d want to write about.

The trick here was to take those tropes and twist them a little to make them unique. For instance, the Overly Positive Character With a Dark Secret became an extrovert and the group’s ringleader not out of a need for attention, but because she’s terrified that when they do go their separate ways, there’s a good chance not all of them will ever come back; she’s desperate to keep them together for as long as she can. She’s genuinely worried about their futures.

On the other hand, tropes can also be a crutch that you might lean on far too much. I could have stayed with this Overly Positive Character and actually given her a Dark Secret, such as her having some kind of physical or mental handicap. Not that that’s inherently wrong in and of itself, of course*. What I’m saying here is that, at least for me, using that idea on a shallow surface level seems like Doing the Least Amount of Work. It would be like just labeling her as anorexic but not actually focusing on why she’s anorexic and how it would tie in with the story, if at all. Just giving her that quirk isn’t enough for me; I need it to be directly or indirectly connected to the story somehow.

[* – Speaking of handicaps, this was something I had to keep in mind when I wrote the character of Cole Caine for Diwa & Kaffi. He’s a humanoid psychic vampire with what I named Steiner-Hedraac Syndrome; essentially it’s a disorder unique to his kind where, when he’s passively feeding off the physical and psychic energies of those around him, there’s a chance it could escalate sort of like a feedback loop and he’d be unable to dislodge himself. I went through great lengths throughout the story to a) explain what the disorder is and how it affects him, b) show that he accepts that he has it and has to live with it, and that his friends are aware of it, c) show or at least mention moments where the syndrome kicks in to show how it can affect his life, and d) it is never used as a trope plot point, i.e. ‘he overcomes it and it never returns’ or ‘everyone is inspired by his strength which boosts their own success’. To me those two tropes feel like an easy out for my writing and not true to the character at all. I like my characters a lot more nuanced than that.]

Either way, I do what I can to avoid being overly dependable on tropes. They’re good as guidelines, but that’s really all they should be; what changes them to strong stories and characters is the added humanity and depth we as writers need to put into them.