Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Rant on Stereotypes, Clichés, and Tropes

This is a bit of tricky topic because there’s a lot more there than meets the eye. I hate it when I’m reading a new story and find that it’s riddled with stereotypes and clichés, but I might admire its use of tropes.

Stereotypes are simplified, generalized, and incorrect beliefs held about a given group of people, and they’re insulting. When stereotypes are used to create characters, the characters become nothing more than two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that are carried around the story by the events. Instead of actual characters, we get bland, re-treaded ideas of what characters are: from the insulting stereotypes about gay characters or characters of color or female characters, to the bland remakes of archer elves and gold-obsessed dwarves. These characters become stock, and all their thoughts and reactions become a predictable mish-mash of the stereotypes. They don’t surprise the reader, they don’t even engage the reader, and often they just (rightly) piss off the reader.

Clichés are a bit more subjective, because included in the concept of the “cliché” is that it is overused. But what I’ve seen a hundred-thousand times and really can’t stand to wade through again, may be someone else’s beloved trope. And it’s tropes that make up a genre, that define what one expects from it and build the boundaries that are ‘genre.’ Whether it’s the farmboy-turned-prince or the chosen-one-of-prophecy-who-saves-the-world, there are certain themes that resonant with readers of any genre. This is where things get tricky. The difference between cliché and trope becomes murky, and defining them becomes harder.

A trope, in my opinion, is a shortcut, a bit of abbreviation that the writer uses in order to communicate theme, emotion, and content to the reader without having to take up pages and pages and come up with a new way of explaining really very basic concepts. One of my favorite tropes is this: the characters are sleeping, except for one who’s on guard or can’t sleep, etc. This awake character sees one of the sleeping characters is uncovered, and puts a blanket over them. It’s a classic scene. You’ve seen it many, many times. Maybe it’s a mother and son, or siblings that have spent a large part of the story arguing, or two people who insist they’re ‘just friends,’ but who you know are going to get together before the end. Although the emotion of the moment is tailored to reflect the relationship, the care and concern this simple act reflects tells the reader something. And it says it all without the writing having to dive into the reasons for it, or what it means to the character, or the motivations behind it. It’s simple, elegant, and gets the point across. It’s a trope.

However, if you take the whole ‘farmboy-turned-prince’ cliché—very popular in both fantasy and science fiction, and even outside genre fiction—and want to run with it, you’ll have to do a lot of work. We’ve seen it over and over and over, from many angles and in many ways. It’s going to take a lot of work to make that mutton taste like lamb. And what does it really say? Oh, you might be able to work in some themes about the “common person” and how one shouldn’t judge another based on their appearance or station in life, but… That’s all crap. Seriously. If the farmboy is a prince, and there’s something special about princes (which is a whole other rant, really), then he was never really ‘not a prince,’ was he? And what’s wrong with being a farmboy, damn it? What’s wrong with being one of the ‘common people?’ This cliché doesn’t speak very well for itself. It requires more: more themes, more concepts, all to direct the reader to the point. It’s not simple, nor is it elegant, and it does nothing for the story.

And, yes, I hear you out there saying, “But does a story really need a theme?” Well, let’s step away from the philosophical before we discuss that, okay? When I talk about themes, I don’t mean some grand point about the state of humanity and the world. But most stories have themes. These are the ideas and concepts which keep recurring in a story, and because most characters think about what’s happening to them in a way that reflects their life, what they think and feel become the themes. Themes don’t have to be huge and sweeping, but can be the really quite simple, such as “people will do anything to protect the ones they love,” or “love conquers all.” Now, granted, these two themes are a bit elderly and well-loved themselves, and perhaps treading toward the cliché, but that makes them great examples of common, simple themes. They’re nonthreatening (because sometimes writers hear the word ‘theme’ and hide behind the furniture like what you actually just said was ‘Dalek’) and we’ve all seen them, and we’ve all seen them done well and done badly.

Tropes are there to help communicate these concepts to the reader. They’re shorthand, revealing the characters without breaking the flow of the story. On the other hand, stereotypes and clichés can gum up the works. Stereotypes keep the writer from building deep, interesting characters, and clichés do the same for the plot. If you choose to write ‘farmboy-turned-prince,’ certain things are already set down. There’s already a tone to the story and a basic outline of how it’s going to go. Now, you can always twist the tale. Say, your farmboy gets his butt handed to him and it’s actually someone thought to be a secondary character that steps up and saves the day. Good! But that’s not writing the cliché anymore, either. Your plot is no longer held up by the cliché crutch, it just uses the cliché to direct the reader’s thoughts and feelings. It’s now a trope!

Stereotypes can be used this way as well, but it’s a lot harder and more sensitive ground. What you have to remember about stereotypes is that they’re often the funhouse mirror faux-reflection of actual people. They’re no more true than a funhouse reflection, they’re twisted and warped, and unreal, and then applied to entire groups of people, and they’re often hurtful. It’s so much easier to just create a character, rather than leaning on some established stock stereotype.

I think the reason we rely on clichés and stereotypes so often is because they’re deeply embedded in our brains. We see the same thing over and over and over and eventually it gets stuck there and—even when we know it doesn’t reflect reality—it becomes a part of our idea of reality. We watch television and, even when we know that children are rarely that bratty, or that no one wakes up in perfect make-up, we see it in front of our eyes and accept it. We read books and, even though we know better, we totally accept that the right idea will occur at the precisely right moment, or that the character always thinks of the perfect snappy comeback.

And not all of these things become thin and worn. Some of them have been around for decades—and longer—and we still write them and read them. That doesn’t mean we should. Take a moment and ask yourself whether your clichés, stereotypes, and tropes are really necessary and whether they help your story or hurt it. Are your characters actual people, or are they cutouts? Is your plot a compelling series of events, or is it held up by visible cliché crutches? Do your tropes communicate, or are they needless and confusing?

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This post is part of a blog hop organized by the very smart Chrystalla Thoma, who you should absolutely check out. And also, check out the other wonderful posts in this blog hop!

A. Merc Rustad – On Voice
Marie Dees - Building a Novel From Nothing
Krista D. Ball - Avoiding the Heroine Stupid Juice
Tomorrow: Ada Hoffmann - On Blundering
14 Febr: Amy Laurens – When Less is More

Enjoy!

1 comment:

Chrystalla Thoma said...

Thank you for this great post, Mary! I like the differentiation you make between useful tropes and annoying cliches, that makes good sense. And it does make my hackles rise when I read cardboard characters...