Classic advice for new writers: Avoid cliche. Good advice, but it doesn’t discuss how cliche can be used, and what the difference between a trope and a cliche is. In essence, things become cliche because they work, and this effectively, becomes a trope.
For example: Take a hero rescuing the princess – you can probably name a hundred stories that utilize this at their core, even if there’s more to the story. The quest of “Rescuing the Princess” is a trope. Subversion of a trope would be if the princess ends up rescuing herself or if the princess orchestrated her own kidnapping and is the big bad – there’s a lot more I won’t get into. If you have a few weeks to kill, look up more information on TV Tropes – a great website, but be warned: It is a huge time sink.
This article is about utilizing stereotypes and tropes and considering how to take something that is already relatively well-known in the public eye (or at least established in some sort of credibly mythos) and making it your own in your fiction. There are some figures that remain very strong in the minds of the public that, even in their many interpretations, we see the figures as having key attributes.
Elves – Usually immortal (or at least very long-lived) slender and graceful, most easily recognizable by their pointy ears. But let’s look at a few interpretations, shall we?
Norse: earliest written record; underground metalworkers.
Tolkien: benevolent archers, champions of nature.
Fae: tricksters and more prone to cruelty.
Christmas: Create toys for a jolly fat man; some have sold out and make cookies in trees.
And those are some of the more common interpretation of elves – I could go into dark elves, space elves (Volcans!) but let’s look at something a little more straight-forward. Everyone knows what a dragon is, right?
Dragons (Western) : Up until recently associated with evil, may be intelligent or beast-like in mindset. Large, wings of unrealistic proportion, a preference toward a maidenly diet and could easily exist on those hoarder tv shows. Sometimes have magic powers, and usually more traditionally dinosaur in shape.
Dragons (Eastern) : usually intelligent, often benevolent and exist in both our world and the spirit world, usually associated with water as an element. Often can change shape, and are serpentile in form and are usually wingless but can still fly.
But wait! Eastern dragons have different traditions in Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Korean cultures. So there’s more to interpretation of these creatures then just east vs. west.
Don’t get me started on Vampires…
Even if you’re working with tropes that are relatively well-known among your potential audience, there is some variation from culture to culture. This is where research is imperative – it’s not enough that you’re going to be working with ‘dragons’; you need to look at what kind of dragon you’re using for inspiration, and see what others have done to interpret them. Even if you’re going in an original world and you want to make your dragons furry or plant-based, it’s a good idea to read up multiple interpretations of dragons for inspiration, and so that your dragons remain dragons, rather then strange plant-monsters that 1) Don’t fly 2) Don’t Breathe Fire/anything else 3) Don’t look like dragons. There’s nothing wrong with taking a dragon as a stepping stone and coming up with a completely different kind of creature, however, it ‘s also important to stop calling them dragons, or at least come up with your own name for them.
Unless you’re doing parody, it’s best to usually take an idea about say, an elf or a dragon and run with audience expectation to some degree. For some people they’ll find that if you go against the grain too much, they’ll say, “But that’s not an elf!” Other times, you can take a familiar trope and stick it outside it’s usual environment, and people will generally catch up on this, and this trope is called Recycled in Space. This can be a great thing – one of my favorite guilty pleasures, “The Chronicles of Riddick” is effectively Conan the Barbarian with spaceships.
The straddling line is difficult when you’re working with tropes and audience expectation – if you’re too stereotyped, you’ll hear claims of ripping off. If you’re too out there and go against audience expectation, you’ll hear readers complain that your characters aren’t ‘true elves’. My main advice is that if you decide to use a classic character archetype, to think about an interpretation of that character, and run with it – be consistent in your story, and consider your themes and making the attributes of your elf or dragon essential for the storyline.
There’s more to an elf then just pointy ears; if you want to make your character essentially immortal or tied to nature and any other trope, and examine how they would differ from human. I find that it’s usually easiest to assume your audience is human, so using them as the base and consider how an immortal would be different then we are.
I don’t need to explain to the average human how important it is to drink water, or that death is part of life. If I were to take a species that can’t die unless they are killed, they might have a very different reaction to death then we would.
For example: I used draugr in my novel, Tower of Obsidian. Now, a purist will take one look at my draugr and say, “That is not a draugr!” And I’ll agree – I did my research and I loved the idea of a draugr, but I was writing a novel about interpretation of story – it wasn’t essential for me to show a classic draugr because I wasn’t writing a novel about classic Norse mythology –I was doing an original novel inspired by Norse and Celtic mythology, so because one of my themes was interpretation, I felt that it worked to have a very different interpretation of the classic established creature.
For those of you who don’t know your Norse Mythology, in a nutshell:
Draugr – Nordic ghost. The animated corpse of the dead, said to haunt their grave, often with treasure, and may have magical powers such as changing size.
Now, I was still in the developing phase of the novel when I decided to include them, so I thought about using demythification. Dymythification is essentially when you take a story that has fantastical elements, and go about taking away the magic from it, explaining it by natural means – take for example the movie “Troy” with Brad Pitt as Achilles – I haven’t seen it in a while, but bear with me – the gods are absent in that movie – and Achilles dies with the only arrow left in his body is the one sticking out of his ankle. He had previously removed the other arrows, but the idea was that his legend came from the arrow that killed him was his ankle – that he was invincible save for his ankle, not that his mortality was burned away, except for his one ankle, which was the one place he could be injured and die. Another good example is “Ever After” with Drew Barrymore.
I made it a point in my novel for the people cursed to serve the tower to never actually call themselves draugr. The novel is told in third-person limited, so it’s done subtly. I made the cursed warriors pale and ghoulish looking, and basically I made them a subsect of the Norse colonists of Greenland, with their shamaness utilizing some Norse magic, while using others to show that they weren’t exactly the same as Vikings. I gave the attributes of magic and changing shape/size to their guardian dragons. Why dragons? Well, Viking longships had them, so I thought I would run with that mythology and see where it would take me.
Because I was working with an established history and mythology, I didn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining things to the reader – and I was able to to explore my themes, among which was interpretation. Even though the interpretation was about story (how one story can have multiple endings) I was able to utilize this theme by using a loose interpretation of draugr. In other stories, taking draugr and not giving their attributes as ghouls and haunting graves would have fallen totally flat.
In short – there’s a lot to consider when you’re working with classic tropes, and it’s not a bad thing to take an old idea and try to make it your own. You can’t please everyone, but you can utilize tropes and help introduce a reader to your work by giving them something they think they’re familiar with, provided you don’t get lazy. Utilize stereotypes when you’re drafting ideas, but examine how these creatures would think and react in the world you’re creating, and you might be able to go beyond the stereotype and make a new interpretation of something we readers thought we knew. Who knows – maybe your interpretation will be the new stereotype people base their fiction on.