Writing: Tropes and Archetypes Won’t Kill You

Archetypes and Tropes: The Futility of Writing ‘Original’

It is ridiculous–RIDICULOUS–that I’m doing this many blogs when my novel comes out in less than two weeks, and I am behind, behind, behind.

But I came across a ‘how to write’ sort of article today that generated deep, deep feelings of disagreement, and I think I need to share it with you. Not the article, of course, as that would be somewhat rude. Besides, there are a million others like it out there–which is, in and of itself, very funny and a little sad.

But you know these articles. One #amwriting search on Twitter will get you like fifty of them: The Ten (or Five, or Three, or Twenty) Tropes We’re So Very Tired of Seeing in Writing. The Ten (or Seven, or Four) Plot Devices You NEED to stop using. Etc., etc., ad infinitum. It brings to mind a few questions:

1) Who died and made you the King of Preferences?

And, two:

2) Okay, so I SHOULDN’T be doing any of this. What, then, as long as I’m listening to you, SHOULD I do?

The response, of course, is: ‘be original’. Which, considering you just expended more breath telling me what not to do than God expended on the Ten Commandments, I find a little amusing.

This preoccupation with the original idea is the result, in my opinion, of a me, me, me culture. It isn’t the same as write a good story, write a story that will move people at all. It is: write something that people will admire you for, because you’re just so new and fresh and creative. Spend several years coming up with an idea–the ONE idea, that for some reason, no one has employed before. Because a fantasy hero fighting half-bat, half-fruit fly demons isn’t essentially the same thing as a fantasy hero fighting dragons at all. In that sort of story, a fly-swatter/harpoon doesn’t serve the same purpose as a sword at all.

It’s a story of man vs. nature, vs. the monstrous Other, either way. What matters in the story is how the man fights the strange creatures, what the strange creatures mean, why he’s fighting them. It helps, sure, if the trappings are cool. But it’s the same basic story either way.

Do you think Romeo and Juliet was the first tragicomic love story ever penned? Look at the Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare sure did.

Here’s the thing. If you write a story with only the idea of avoiding a character looking into a mirror, a doomsday prophecy, a vampire who sleeps in a coffin, a magic sword that only speaks to its appointed bearer, you will. Write. A horrible. Fucking. Story.

Not because convention is always good. But because in focusing on the trappings, your ignoring the consequences these things have for your story. Sometimes, it’s good to have a vampire who sleeps in a coffin. He might need to, for one reason or another. Maybe vampires really only can sleep in coffins, because, you know, that’s what we expect from dead people. Maybe this common archetype inspires you to write a story about a vampire who was cremated, and drifts across the country in the form of a barely-sentient blood draining ash cloud. I don’t know. But remember, he’s still a vampire. Don’t shy away from that. His vampirosity is what the story is about, not whether or not he sleeps in a coffin. If him sleeping in the bathtub instead gives you an opportunity to display something about his character or his condition, go for it. If it doesn’t really matter, it’s coffin city. People know where they stand with a vampire in a coffin, and it doesn’t distract.

If you want to write a story about half-bat half-fruit fly monsters, you absolutely can. It’s pretty cool as an idea. But this isn’t original. What makes your story original, again, is tailoring that very traditional story– man vs. monster–and making it a story about bats and fruit flies. It’s up to you to decide how much of your story focus needs to be on explaining and detailing that idea. If you want it to really be a love story, maybe stick to dragons.

Look at Ender’s Game, that classic of sci-fi. Are the Buggers a particularly original concept? Is the alien invasion? No. But Orson Scott Card’s story isn’t really about an alien invasion, about the Buggers as a race. It’s a story about a sensitive young boy who is drawn into doing something that goes against a good part of his nature. And in this–in his depiction of Battle School, of the way older people train and warp these children simultaneously into something almost monstrous themselves–he is very original. Because this is the part of the story that matters to him. Because Ender’s story is the story, and not just trappings.

So next time you’re rereading your draft and you see your character looking into a mirror and raise your finger to the delete button, stop for a second. Think about it. Can you convey more–can you gain more–by having your character look into this mirror and think about themselves than you will lose by having a few snotty readers groan? Would having your character look into an Anzelpuff-Snurtz Reflectionator take up far, FAR more story space than you’re willing to give it? The ‘trope’ of the mirror exists because people do look into them occasionally. Actually, that’s why mirrors exist. Don’t reach, and fail, in trying to ignore that.

At some point in your story, your character is going to have some thoughts about himself. We all do. It might as well be in front of a mirror–then you can concentrate on what moves the story forward. You can concentrate on the thoughts.

If you do this, your story will become original all on its own. I promise you. Your brain will take you to some funky, funky logical conclusions, when you just let the story matter. And if someone rolls their eyes because oh how dare you, I don’t know where commas go but your character looked into a mirror and that makes me smarter, fuck ’em.

Take back your own story. Do what you want to do with it, and do what you think is appropriate, what you think matters. You’ll be surprised at just how original the results will be.

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5 thoughts on “Writing: Tropes and Archetypes Won’t Kill You

  1. ONE WORD! AGREED! There is no such thing as a bad trope, or a bad archetype! Only busted stories. Rowling is VASTLY successful incorporating so many of these “overdone” tropes it’s silly to think otherwise.

    I mean, Soren’s fourth book starts out with him in a huge crumbling mansion, alone, with only an Oculus-type mirror to keep him company. Yes. I’m going there.

    I hear you. Boys and girls: write what you want. You’ll love yourself all the more for it.

  2. Yes, the overused tropes argument is, well, overused. It also perpetuates the false belief that “all the good ideas are taken” and that if you do happen to decide you really want to write that cool vampire story you’ve been dying to write you are stupid because vampires are sooo overdone. Ugh.

    1. I think it’s bad to start writers–especially now that there’re a bunch of independents, who may not have access to professional advice and editing–out in a state of fear, and that’s essentially what all this tropes stuff encourages. Nothing more damaging to getting writing done than telling someone not to put pen to paper until they’ve had an aaaabsolutely original idea. Plus, some of those old tropes exist because they have deep cultural, sometimes even mythological, meaning.

      Thanks for stopping by, glad to see folks agreeing. 🙂

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