A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to an old Writing Excuses podcast (I tend to save them up and listen to them in bulk). This one was exploring unconscious bias in books, especially gender bias. The hosts of the podcast argued that having characters (especially female characters) fulfilling stereotypical roles could be damaging, reinforcing negative norms, even (or especially) when this stereotyping was not a conscious decision of the writer. At one point Brandon Sanderson (one of the podcast hosts) explained how he’d chosen to go against the norm by having a strong female lead in his first Mistborn book, but that he’d unconsciously written all the rest of her team as male.
Write To Market. This book details how he wrote his Void Wraith trilogy with the aim of hitting as many popular space opera tropes as he could, writing a book that would appeal to as many fans of that particular genre as possible. He initially wanted a powerful female lead, but his research indicated that most successful space opera books had a jaded, slightly older male as the main character. So he altered his character to conform to the popular trope.
Writing to market is nothing new. There has always been a strong push for writers to ‘give the readers what they want’. Popular wisdom suggests that the best way to discover what they want is to examine popular books in specific genres. And if the readers seem to want a male lead, then there is pressure on the writer to provide this.
Yet, as the Writing Excuses team argued, this could easily strengthen a gender bias that is not particularly healthy. So is it wrong to follow all the tropes?
Of course, not all genres lean towards male leads. Romance, for example, is predominantly written by and for females, and tends to focus on the female characters. But there are tropes in romance that are possibly unhealthy too. One of the strong tropes is the happily-ever-after—despite all the misunderstandings and anguish throughout the story, the couple get together at the end, and all is well.
Does this really matter? After all, this is fiction. It’s escapism. If it makes readers feel warm and fuzzy inside when they reach a nice happily-ever-after, where’s the harm?
But fiction can be powerful. Stories stick with us in a way simple facts don’t. Stories settle deep in our minds. We use stories to understand the world, and to justify our actions.
There are many who argue that there is a link between violence in the arts and violence in real life. There are those who argue that what you see leads you to think and act in a certain way. There are those who feel that erotica and pornography (and yes, I do realise there is a distinction between these two) are unhealthy because of how they change the viewer/reader’s viewpoint and attitudes.
I’m not going spend time on these arguments here. Personally, I think most of them are far too simplistic. I can recall when there was a furore over an Ozzy Osbourne song back in the late eighties. Supposedly, the song was responsible for a teenager taking their own life, and there was a vocal minority who denounced the song as a danger to young minds (ignoring the fact that the song, ‘Suicide Solution’, was actually a song warning of the dangers of drink). But when I saw Ozzy perform this song live, as far as I could tell everyone in the audience was enjoying themselves.
But I do believe fiction can be powerful. Not in the blunt way that those who call for certain types of books to be banned, but in more subtle ways. Reading too many happily-ever-after endings could give rise to false expectations—not in the logical part of our brain, but deeper down. An excess of ‘love conquers all’ stories might lead someone to subconsciously believe that all they have to do is meet the right person and all their troubles will be over. Likewise, someone constantly reading stories where female characters are kick-ass, attractive, feisty and confident might start believing that they have to act like that if they want to be ‘a real woman’. A constant diet of films and books where the male and female leads end up in bed together can lead to an unrealistic view of male/female dynamics. And the James Bond character who always gets the girl? Maybe that’s subconsciously reinforcing the idea that only a certain type of man can have these kinds of conquests (and that there is no repercussion from these episodes).
But this is what we have come to expect. Even if we don’t recognise these as tropes (or are even aware of the word), we have come to see them as parts of certain stories. The mysterious wizard will be an old man. The world-weary detective (so often male) will have past demons that drive him to drink. The ditzy-but-attractive female will end up winning the day. The couple who start off at each others’ throats will end up in each others’ arms.
So many tropes. So many expectations. And because we are used to them, we feel cheated if they are missing, or if they are messed around with (unless this is done really well). Those who write are as susceptible to their pull as anyone else, and the tropes rise unbidden from the subconscious. The tropes reinforce themselves, becoming stronger all the time.
Maybe we only expect them because they exist in so many of the stories that we love. Repetition can easily lead to expectation. Ask Pavlov and his dogs about that.
So are tropes bad? Should writers avoid them?
Tropes are tools. They are ways of understanding story structure. They are ways to explain why certain stories ‘work’. But they are only tools, nothing more. And a tool cannot be good or bad. It simply it.
Any value assigned to the tool comes from how it is used, and why.
And this, I believe, is why tropes can get a bad rap. It is why so many people have a bad reaction to phrases like ‘write to market’.
Yes, it is possible to follow what has been done before and craft a story that hits as many popular tropes as possible. Yes, it is possible to write a story purely with an eye to how it is going to perform financially. But doing so does not always (often?) produce a satisfying book. It might follow the tropes, but that doesn’t make it good, or worth reading.
Fox’s Void Wraith trilogy works not because he follows the tropes, but because he wrote good stories good stories. He didn’t write space opera purely because his research told him it was a fertile genre, but because he loves these kinds of stories. Yes, he altered his story to make it more market-ready. But he knew what he was doing, and he still focused on the basics, which was to write as good a story as he could. He used the tropes as a framework, and around this he wove the story he wanted to tell, and the story that excited him.
And his strong female character? She’s still there. Maybe not the central character, but still one who’s always close to the action, and pretty important to the story. Oh, and she’s a cat-based alien, and I’m pretty sure that isn’t a feature that came up in his write-to-market research. That’s pure Fox. And there are plenty of times in the book when the secondary female character is far more able than the ‘expected’ male lead.
So what’s the answer to the problem with tropes and bias? Ignore the trope and tackle issues head-on? Write books where everything is ‘perfect’, and spend more time to get that right than anything else? Or give the reader what they believe they want, because if they don’t read it from you, they’ll read it from someone else anyway?
Quick fixes and excuses.
The real answer? Don’t let tropes lead the story, or the characters. Use the tropes, don’t let them use you. When you write, question the decisions your characters make, or the choices that are thrust upon them. And when you read, question everything—maybe not enough to stop reading if you’re enjoying the book, but think about what you’ve read when you’ve finished. Don’t take everything you read lying down. Don’t take everything the author says as gospel, because they might not have been totally aware of how all their characters are acting. Question everything.
This is fiction, and it’s powerful stuff. It has the power to make us question what we believe, about the world and about ourselves. It has the power to force us to confront our own biases.
Fiction has the power to make us think, and to make us change.