The word trope is defined in most dictionaries as “a word or expression used in a figurative sense,” but trope has become reinterpreted in today’s vernacular to refer to an often overused plot device.
The conflict inherent in tropes as they apply to genre literature is that many of these selfsame conventions are the elements that define the genre. Tropes only become a problem for readers after they’ve delved extensively into the genre and have become inured to—let’s use fantasy tropes for this example—tall, ethereal elves, mountain-dwelling dwarves, wizened hermetic sorcerers, and innocent farm boys born to save the world from the ultimate-evil Dark Lord. After reading a dozen or four such series comprising these elements, the reader may tire of them.
Or not. Ultimately, the tropes play a significant role in why we love the genre. Can romance fans ever get enough of the strong man saves maiden? And would we enjoy reading a mystery if the explanation wasn’t gradually revealed by the investigation/protagonist’s journey? The tropes make the genre what it is.
The conflict genre fiction authors struggle with then is whether or not to be true to these conventions, revise them in some way, or defy them altogether. But if you intend to go against the tropes, you’d better be well-read in the genre, else you walk the knife-edge of rejection by the genre’s loyal fans.
George RR Martin did this brilliantly with his Song of Ice and Fire series. How can you have a fantasy with basically no magic, no sorcerers, and just a shadowed hint of monstrous creatures? Martin’s monsters lurk in the men and women of Westeros. Game of Thrones is a reinvention of the fantasy genre, even as Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World changed the face of fantasy forever, overturning Tolkienian stereotypes and establishing new ones to be emulated by fantasy writers for decades thereafter.
In planning A Pattern of Shadow & Light, I wanted to move away from the Ultimate-Evil-versus-Ultimate-Good model. It’s been done many times, and well, and I didn’t have much else to add to that discussion.
I am, however, fascinated by the idea of treason being so much a matter of perspective, or sedition an issue of dates. Men rarely set out to be evil; more often they feel justified in their actions. How interesting would a story be if it showed all sides of a conflict! And what a challenge to write such a tale. I'm also intrigued to imagine the viewpoint of a god. How does an immortal really think? How does your viewpoint change when time is of no consequence? Following this line, what if you had a being of godly power who knew only one purpose and followed it religiously—yet that purpose was contrary to someone else's existence? Or an entire realm's? How is that different from the soulless interplay of capitalism or civil war in an impoverished nation?
I see the fantasy genre as an ever-shifting metaphor for life in this world, an innocuous medium that allows the author to examine difficult, even controversial, subjects with impunity. Honor, religion, politics, nobility, integrity, greed—we’ve an endless list of ideals to be dissected and explored. And maybe learned from.
Cephrael’s Hand is in some way a treatise on conflict, on the inclinations of men, of the way confusion leads to condemnation and greed opens a dark path to tragedy. It’s an exploration of multiple points of view and the ideals that drove each character’s choices. There’s no omniscient narrator offering subtle opinion. The story shows the reader a variety of perspectives, many in conflict with each other—as ever they are in life. By their actions, the characters declare their allegiances; the reader must place the mantle of good or evil upon their shoulders, or not.
And if you reach the end of Cephrael's Hand and find yourself still unsure who should wear which mantle, perhaps that is the safer choice still. You can walk a mile in a man’s shoes and still not understand him. As in any battle between omniscient entities—like life between friends, priests or nations—who are we mortals to judge?
What's your take on tropes? Should we be true to them, defy them, reinterpret them? Do they define the genre or limit it?