The Trouble With Tropes

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.

voidwraith_chrisfoxWrite 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.

cloud-211724_1280There 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.

problemSo 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.

It doesn’t have to be true, but I have to believe it.

Can you trust what you read in fiction?

Of course, fiction is not real. Stories, be they in books or on screen, are fabrications. But to draw us in, they have to have some believability. They have to have some kind of truth.

I found myself thinking about this recently, after I’d finished reading Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code (for me, one of those ‘must read at some point, if only to decide what I think of it’ books.) It reminded me of a couple of other books. The first was something that I’m not going to identify here, as I have very few positive things to say about it. The second was the late Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I read years ago and keep on meaning to re-read.

acient-planet-1841699_640These three books are connected by the fact that they all deal with topics that could be considered religious conspiracy theories. They all use biblical passages and other quotes to back up some fairly far-out ideas.

I’m not well-read in this area, and I have not done any of my own research into any of the ideas in these books. Some of them sound vaguely plausible, and others sound far too extreme. But in reading (and thinking about) these books, I started to see a pattern in which theories I found more believable.

The book I had downloaded years ago was okay, but nothing special. There were plenty of sections that could have benefited from an edit, and I was often pulled out of the story by the writing‌—‌not necessarily bad, just not that good. And the theories came across as unresearched, as if the author had made up the ideas himself, then used a few quotes in an attempt to give them some validity.

The Dan Brown book was well-structured and, while I wasn’t drawn in to the writing or the characters, the story rattled along at a good pace. There were loads of details, not only on the wild theories but also on places and historical events. And the book came across as well researched. If the ideas were off-the-wall, it at least felt as if the author had run them past others with more knowledge. In short, I trusted the ‘facts’ in this book far more than in the first one.

And then there was the literary Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco is undoubtedly intelligent. Even though the book is tongue-in-cheek, and reads as if Eco is having fun with all his ideas, the ‘facts’ come across as far more believable, even the throwaway ones.

So what do we have here?

  • A poorly written and poorly edited book, and the ‘facts’ come across as highly questionable.
  • A book by a mainstream, popular author, clearly edited, and the arguments come across as well-researched.
  • A book by a literary and intellectual author, and I trust the research it contains almost without question, even if I don’t agree with the conclusions.

I’ll repeat again that I have very little knowledge of religious conspiracies and such like, and have no easy way of telling which theories are from reliable or semi-reliable sources and which are obvious fabrications. Yet even knowing this, I instinctively trust those ‘facts’ that come from someone with a more scholarly demeanour. I instinctively trust someone who appears as an authority.

I think this is part of our nature. If someone talks or writes well, then we are more likely to take their words at face value. If they appear educated, we automatically assume they have done their research. If they tell their tale with skill, we are more likely to be drawn in and accept it as a possible truth.

Conversely, we are less likely to trust a story told by someone who shows deficiencies in their use of language. If they do not understand how to use speech marks or commas, we are predisposed to dismiss their thoughts as poorly conceived. If their story does not flow well, we are more tempted to believe they are making it up as they go.

It’s why news reporters are generally well-spoken. It’s why so many ‘entertainment’ and ‘reality’ shows on TV still use teams of script-writers and editors. It’s why voice-overs on documentaries are done by those who enunciate clearly. If it were some geezer talkin’ common, like, we’d fink he were makin’ it all up, ‘cos he don’t understand nuffink, yeah?

alone-1869997_640Of course, once you realise this, it’s easy to question everyone‌—‌especially those who talk or write well. So maybe that poorly written book with the wild theories is closer to the truth, and Umberto Eco is simply having a clever laugh at the gullible masses. Maybe we should trust those who come across as less skilled or less intelligent, because they can’t lie as subtly or be as creative with their words.

Or maybe I should simply read these books as fictions, stop trying to analyse them, and enjoy the stories.

Yet stories, to draw us in, have to be believable. They have to be written or told in a way that makes us trust that they might be possible. If they fail to convince, they have failed as stories.

It’s the aim of all story-tellers, be they authors, after-dinner speakers, politicians or comedians, to have others believe that their tales could be true, no matter how ridiculous they are.

So, can you trust what you read in fiction?

Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. After all, a good story does not have to be true. It only has to be believable.

2016 Roundup, 2017 Aims

What Have I Achieved In 2016?

This has been the year I’ve put my writing out into the world, although I’ve been working on the Dominions books since the start of 2015, and so this is really a look back over two years. I’ve been keeping track of the time I’ve spent on writing (and other aspects of ‘getting stories out there’), and so I can see how I’ve managed to carve out more time each week, and how I’ve increased the time I’ve spent on ‘non-story’ tasks like marketing (including writing stuff for this website). I’ve kept a track of my wordcount, and I’m faster now, which is helping me get first drafts done quicker (although, in some cases, the editing is taking longer). I managed to do 50k in a week over NaNoWriMo, which isn’t too shabby.

And I’ve made a start on the whole marketing side of things. I have this website. I’ve got covers that I like for the books, and I’ve had them edited. I’ve spent time on the product descriptions. I’ve been listening to podcasts and reading up on all aspects of writing and publishing over the last couple of years, and I’m starting to put some of this knowledge to work.

In some ways, getting a book out into the world is a major achievement, but in other ways it isn’t much at all. Many others have done just that, especially with the ease of independent publishing. One book is nothing. There are people producing a book each month. There are others making a killing with Facebook ads, and building a career from a few titles. There are independently published writers who have gone on to become not quite household names, but definitely people with strong, healthy reputations and careers.

Yet they all started from that first book. And now, with three books out, I’ve made a start. I haven’t made a great deal of money (in fact, this whole venture has cost me so far), but I didn’t expect to earn back expenses‌—‌not yet, anyway. I’m learning to split this ‘other job’ into two sides‌—‌writing and marketing. The writing is the fun, creative part‌—‌producing a story and refining it to make it the best I can. And the marketing side is what is needed to get it out into the world and help others see it. I have started to see that, at least in part, I am running a small business. Very few businesses make a profit over their first few months or years. They have start-up costs that need to be recouped (in my case, the cost of covers and editing, as well as expenses around the website and so on). They take time to grow. Many fail.

But, with writing, I have an advantage. I can do this around my day job. At the moment, anything the books bring in is a bonus. And, even if they never pay back their expenses, I can still enjoy writing.

That’s the fall-back position, though. I want to do what I can to make the business of writing work for me. I need to build on what I’ve done this year.

agenda-1458537_1280My Aims For 2017

I want to finish 2017 with more books, more readers, and a bigger platform. Obviously. But that’s far too vague to be a target, so I’ll narrow it down:

  • I will release at least two more Dominions novels. Along with this, I have a few shorter works in progress, and I will aim to have at least two of these out there, either as mailing list exclusives or on sale wide.
  • I will release three books in a new series. I’m working on this at the moment (the initial draft of the first book is done, and I have ideas for the follow-ups), and it looks like being a complete trilogy (although that might change). These books will be shorter (50-60k, whereas the Dominions novels tend to be around the 100k mark), so I think bringing out all three over the year is achievable.
  • I will explore more marketing ideas. One of the reasons for starting a second series while Dominions is still on the go is to give me more content to play with. Much as I like the idea of having my books ‘wide’ (available everywhere I can put them), being exclusive to Amazon through Kindle Unlimited does have certain benefits, and having a second series will enable me to explore this option. Also, as I release more Dominions novels, I can do more promotions on the first book. I intend to put the first three in a bundle, although I’m not sure if this will be next year or in 2018. And I will also have print versions of the Dominions books by the end of 2017.
  • I will keep this website regularly updated. I think my current schedule is sustainable, with one post and one short story every fortnight, but I might consider posting more often. I’m enjoying the short stories‌—‌they are not only fun exercises, but they also give me a break from the books. But the posts need to be tighter. I feel I tend to ramble (like I’m starting to do now), and if I focus more, they’ll read better, be shorter but to the point, and that might mean I can produce more of them.
  • I will communicate more with others. Okay, this could be (will be?) a hard one. I like writing because I can shut myself off from everything else. I’m pretty introverted, so reaching out is uncomfortable. But I realise it’s something I need to do. And so I’ll work on social media, finding out how different platforms work and which ones are the least uncomfortable. I have a mailing list set up, but I need to learn more about how to use that‌—‌when people sign up, I want them to feel that they are getting something in return for their e-mail address, beyond the free book. I realise this is vague as a target, but I don’t want to put figures on this. I don’t want to aim for so many followers or whatever, because that isn’t the point. I’d prefer a handful of people who read every e-mail or post rather than a few hundred who might run their eyes over something if I’m lucky. I want to use social media to reach both potential readers and people who can help me. I’m not aiming for quantity, but quality.
  • I will improve my writing. I know this is another vague target, and will be constantly on-going. It’s very subjective‌—‌a book that one person dismisses as badly written might be another person’s favourite. But I need to be as happy as I can be with my own writing. I need to keep reading, both craft books and fiction, in order to learn how others do things. I need to keep editing my own writing, applying the lessons I learn. And maybe there is a way to make this more specific. By the end of the year, I want to be able to look back at the books I’ve brought out so far and feel a tinge of embarrassment at some of the writing. I want to be able to see that I am improving.
  • I will be more active in my learning. Along with reading, I’ve been listening to various podcasts since the start of 2015, and the number of these that I follow has increased. I’m lucky in having a day-job that allows me to wear headphones and listen to stuff every so often. I’ve heard so many people give fantastic advice, and much of is has sunk in. But now, I need to be more pro-active in this. Over 2017, I’ll have a ‘good ideas’ list that I’ll add to whenever I hear or read something that might be useful, and I’ll make a note of what I’ve used.

Looking back over that list, there seems to be a lot to do. But that’s for the whole year‌—‌twelve months, fifty-two weeks. I’ve made a start, and I know I can find time for different tasks. I look forward to these quiet times of the mornings, with nobody else around and the sky still dark outside, and getting up early is now a habit that I can use.

I know I can achieve everything I’ve set out above, and I’m already anticipating the end of the year, when I look back on how far I’ve come. And yet, I’ll still have a long way to go.

See, this isn’t a race to the end of the year. This whole writing and independent publishing thing isn’t a case of reaching the end and stopping. There is no end. It’s a constantly evolving process. I’ve made a start, proved to myself that I can write and put that writing out into the world. Over 2017, I need to capitalise on that and improve, so that I can do even more in 2018.

And that all starts today.