Trope-tastic Ideas

I’m on my first free morning in … weeks. Wee Dave is at a summer school day-camp function, and Wee-er Dave is out pushing over old ladies for candy money. Or something. Hard to tell, really. I’m gathering supplies for some basic automotive work, as well as continuing the build on the littles’ new beds. And planning a new hobby (how many is enough, Dave?) making picture frames for hanging the art I don’t yet have, but plan to acquire. Which will require more tools (moar tools for to act hoo-man). And continuing to plan another collaboration – we’re still working on primary characterizations – toward something to be completed this year.

This year, Dave? (So soon? Shaddap, weisenheimer. Hecklers’ gooses will be Koched.) Well, see, Mrs. Dave got some work-related news, and things are potentially very up in the air. We’ll see. More about that as developments occur. That said, my collaborator has enough drive and energy that I firmly expect you’ll see some fun things from us.


Okay, lemme step back a few. At LibertyCon, I was on the Tropes in UF panel, which was a lot of fun. Each of us panelists had a different answer to each question posed. For example, I use tropes as signposts. “This way to the magical Chosen One!” “Here be demons/dragons/pink-haired metal bands!” “Mysterious dark figures wanted; apply within.” “No Vampires, or Irish.” Others of my panelists prefer to invert their favorite tropes as a means of keeping the reader guessing, which is also fun.

Case in point, I asked a question of Mrs. Dave the other night after seeing a cartoon on the visage codex. Said sequential art told a brief story wherein a monster leaps out of a closet at a child and yells, “Got you!” The child then said, “Okay, it’s my turn to chase you!” And the last panel showed just that. My question was, what would a child who plays with monsters grow up to be?

The best part is your answer is going to be different (possibly radically) from mine. The two of us noodled around and ended up with two pages of notes and several character sketches for a pulp adventurer and her loyal batman (named Bruce, of course) who travels the inter-world-war world settling supernatural issues raised (sometimes literally) by incautious explorers. And I’ll be outlining that and somehow fitting it into a couple of other series upon which I’m also working.

Ultimately, tropes are tools. They signal genre and subgenre (you don’t tend to discuss FTL travel in hardly any kind of fantasy). They provide helpful handles to the reader so they don’t get overwhelmed by our unspeakable brilliance convoluted ideas. Tropes are a feature of genre fiction, whatever the genre, and should be treated so. Have fun with them.


  1. I have to admit, I’m never quite certain I know what a trope is. I just looked it up over at Merriam-Webster, and I’ve come away with the impression it’s a cliche, a stereotype, a commonly used device.

    I see the term used all the time by writers, especially those recommending that writers familiarize themselves with the tropes of their genre and use them. Are we saying to use cliches? I suspect not, but if not, what are we talking about?


      1. Lol. The weird thing is I knew how you meant it immediately.

        I am, however, too frightened to go there this early in the day. I still have work to do and dinner to cook.

    1. The academic in me says that a trope is a pattern of characters, actions, and/or setting that help define a genre, and that readers expect to find in a work. So if you have urban fantasy, you will have a setting of major city, main character who is aware of the supernatural to an extent, supernatural creatures – generally the anthropomorphic sort (weres, vampires, sidhe), and a conflict between 1. the protagonist and the creatures, 2. the creatures and the creatures with the MC pulled in or sent in for some reason, 3. possibly hints of romance but not always, and 4. physical conflicts. And the woman on the cover will probably be wearing black leather or other dark, form-fitting clothes.

      From there you start exploring other options, but you have to keep the basic pattern in mind or readers will complain about false advertising. If there’s more kissing and, ahem, than combat, you have Paranormal Romance. If the protagonist doesn’t know about magic and falls into it, you are moving into Dark Fantasy, which is closer to horror in many ways. But Urban Fantasy runs a huge gamut, from Charles de Lindt’s stories, to Harry Dresden (professional wizard), to the Jane Yellowrock novels (she’s a were), to Mercedes Lackey’s bard-in-the-city stuff, to Barbara Hambley’s vampires vs. secret agent (and Mrs. Secret Agent).

  2. A commonly used device.

    Like FTL in SF. You don’t have to explain it. You don’t have to explain how your space ship’s life support system works. Readers expect you to be canny enough to know it’s needed, so giving it a mention isn’t amiss.

    In fantasy the elves need a spot of description, tall and slim, or smaller than humans. Magic and pointy ears are assumed. Magic system vary wildly, so they need description, but that magic works is assumed.

    Mind you, you _can_ go into details and explain at length, if you wish. If your readers really like details of whatever.

    1. I see writers advising each other to be familiar with the tropes a genre reader expects. The way they talk, I think they mean more than just gadgets, maybe even sidekicks, betrayals, something more. (I’m being inarticulate, but that’s a function of my befuddlement.)

      1. It’s a matter of expectations.

        You need to know the rules before you break them– or you’ll just offend folks for no payoff, which just annoys everybody.

        For example, have you seen Frozen?

        The disney movie?



        There’s the standard “meet cute” with a prince.

        And a difficulty.

        Then the princess runs off.

        …and then you find out the total stranger who put the moves on the princess was not actually pure, he was kinda there to get ahead.

        And it basically goes along the “wait, your step mother actually was evil?” line from there.

        With a bonus punch-the-idiot-but-sanely scene at the end.

      2. Folks hereabouts sometimes talk about the reader cookie model. Forex, for a murder mystery, if we never find out whodunnit, and clearly no one in the cast cares a whit, murder mystery readers will throw it at the wall.

        You read a story with certain emotional expectations, and if they are not met, the experience feels bad rather than good.

        If readers share a common set of emotional expectations, a story with features that appeal to those expectations will work for that set of readers. Features that you recognize as fitting that group of readers are reader cookies.

        If you don’t look at genre as merely a marketing tool, genre is group of stories that serve some common set of emotional expectations.

        Tropes are common reader cookies, within a genre or more broadly, that are often effective, and so often used. Clusters of details to establish character, for very similar characters, for example. In anime, there are often enough characters where you could guess their story purpose from specifics of their design.

        In romance, if you start off a character in an arranged engagement, you can be fairly sure that at the end another state of affairs will prevail. Romance readers aren’t there for the existing relationships to turn out fine the way they are. Romance readers are there for the characters to feel a need to change their relationships, for the uncertainty in that specific area. So, arranged marriage, a love interest outside of the engagement, romance plotz, and then the original fiance/fiancee turns out to be evil. Something of a trope.

        Case study in incoherence/poor design choices. I’m working on a mess of a crossover fanfic. Early on, I was looking at Castlevania and some other ‘soft religion’ properties. I was reading Shadow of the Lion at the time, so I decided I wanted historical religious practices to be historically sound, that I also wanted sincere Christians, and I wanted to make a bunch of stuff plausible in the context of some theory of Christian theology. Problem is, I’m super weak on theology, /and/ “wouldn’t it be cool” has inspired borrowing from properties that are at best sketchy when it comes to Christian theology. So I am in theory aiming for a certain audience in one way, and in another way fear that I will simply disappoint that audience.

        1. Unless it’s a historical. Arranged marriages in historical romance generally indicate the main characters, and have the plot advantages of BOTH forcing the characters together AND giving them reasons to resent each other.

      3. yes, we see lots of people writing SF and fantasy who think that they are ‘first person to ever do X” because they aren’t familiar with the tropes…

        1. Even more hilarious are the ones who avoid a genre so as to be “original.” No one cares if you thought of it yourself if it’s the 9th time they’ve seen it.

          1. I heard one of those. Short version: The survivors of Atlantis settled in Britain and that’s why the magic’s there. And a secret group of women has protected the tradition.


            I didn’t have the heart to burst his bubble.

    2. “In fantasy the elves need a spot of description, tall and slim, or smaller than humans.”

      Oh yeah. Are we talking Tolkienesque elves, European mythic baby stealing vicious bastard elves, Scottish seelie or unseelie? Or Enchanted Forest trailer park elves?

      Currently working on a “short story” that’s getting kinda long, where the elves are the baby-stealing unseelie type. They’re messing with the wrong robots. We’re talking sneaky back-stabbing magic users meet cranky robot spider with 75mm rail gun down its long axis. Then there’s the scorpion with the hot-rod flame job and the plasma gun for a stinger… she’s a bit hasty on the trigger, frankly.

      It would be nice if they would stop making moomoo face and get to the shooting part though. Is it a bad sign when you’re getting impatient, and you’re the one writing it? ~:D

      1. I hate, but respect seeing in fiction, the high-class baby stealing ALMOST human kinds.

        Good and evil.

        I love the differently-human elves with magical plot armor. ^.^

        1. These ones you’re going to hate. They’re the lowest form of sneak. Immortal, very powerful, and entirely disgusting. Everything shitty I can come up with from European elf myth without working too hard, basically.

          But don’t worry. Megatons per second, wielded by Brunhilde, Queen of All Tanks Forever. And lippy spiders with guns. Lots and lots of guns.

          I’m leaving it open for the Seelie Court as well, maybe they’ll show up to take a swing at their low-life relatives. That could be a giggle.

          1. Dude, elves as a NUKE IT FROM ORBIT JUST TO BE SURE is a great idea.

            I wouldn’t ENJOY reading it, but still, that’s epic.

    3. “Like FTL in SF. You don’t have to explain it. You don’t have to explain how your space ship’s life support system works. Readers expect you to be canny enough to know it’s needed, so giving it a mention isn’t amiss.”

      Usually if I’m explaining one of those expected elements…. it’s because it broke, probably in the most inconvenient manner possible. 😀

  3. You don’t tend to discuss FTL travel in hardly any kind of fantasy

    I’ll admit that I’ve always kind of wanted to write about a fantasy world that was the standard Medieval Europe based…and then continue the series far forward enough into the future that my fantasy world developed interstellar travel and started exploring other planets.

    1. Poul Anderson wrote a book that came at it from a different direction – aliens abducted a group from medieval England in 1345. Said group, composed of a baron and his military force, wound up eventually taking over the alien civilization and remolding it into their own noble/feoff system. Which rocked along just fine for another thousand years or so…

      “… The King and the Pope dwell away off in the Seventh Heaven…. Finally the quest petered out. In past centuries, Old Earth has become little more than a tradition.” His big face beamed. “But now it’s all turned topsy-turvy. You found us! Most wonderful! Tell me at once, has the Holy Land been liberated from the paynim?”

      “Well,” said Captain Yeshu haLevy, who was a loyal citizen of the Israeli Empire, “yes.”

    2. See also Ranks of Bronze, Weber’s Excalibur Alternative, and that thing of Kate’s with the Teutonic knights.

      1. This is troubling. Why can I only find one of Kate’s books on Amazon? I hadn’t known the Teutonic knights was published and want to read it. Is she writing under a different name?

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