To Trope or Not to Trope? A Balancing Act

One of the things I’m highly aware of in my fantasy work, The Redemption of Erâth, is that there are quite a few parallels and similarities to many other fantasy novels out there. From character names to events and creatures, I’ve borrowed heavily from the great fantasy masters that came before me to craft a world that, whilst unique, might feel suspiciously familiar to those who already know well Middle-Earth, Narnia, or Westeros.

That isn’t to say that those same early fantasy writers didn’t borrow themselves; even Tolkien relied heavily on Anglo-Saxon mythology for his invented creatures and languages (though their invention is still masterfully his).

Everything in storytelling is rehashed, recycled and reused eventually, and this is of course where tropes are born. Elves, goblins, fantasy languages and healing herbs find their way into so many fantastical tales that it becomes difficult at times to know which story inspired which. Where did the concept of speaking dragons first come about? Was it Christopher Paolini who popularized them? Was it Tolkien? Was it in Beowulf?

Tropes have become so frequent in the canon of popular fantasy that even using them has, in some circles, become a trope of its own. Articles such as this one from The Toast point out so many of those frequent fantasy themes that one bows one’s head in shame to find them in one’s own work. (There may or may not be quite a few in my own.)

So when is it acceptable to use a trope?

But here’s the thing: tropes have their uses. They help to define genres, for a start; after all, what defines a fantasy novel? Typically the concepts of an alternate world or history, yet one bound strictly to a single place or planet (as opposed to sci-fi), languages that don’t really exist, and mythical tales, quests and demons, all play a part in helping the reader to establish the type of novel to expect. If one were to open to a page that contained sentences such as, “She caressed his chest, as smooth and hard as the Glock 9mm she kept in her purse,” we’d probably have a very different concept of what sort of book we were reading.

So when is it acceptable to use a trope, and when does it cross the line? Is there a difference between a loving homage and outright plagiarism? And what is the tolerance of a reader to coming across the same concepts over and over again?

In my own fantasy novels, I’ve tried hard to navigate the line between these two realms. I do not have elves, or orcs – though I do have races other than ‘men’. I do not have any ‘magic’, or at least anything along the lines of the Harry Potter universe (or even words of ‘power’, such as in The Lord of the Rings) – but I do have unexplainable phenomena. I do have a mythical weapon of legend to be found. I do have numerous languages and civilizations. Perhaps most importantly, I do have a young orphan who is taken in by his grandfather when his parents die in a fire.

I can’t argue that the world of Erâth is utterly unique or inventive, but I do find that these tropes help forward the story itself. You see, what I’m trying to achieve is really a sense of grandeur, of nostalgia, and of lost hope. By the projected end of the series (seven novels in total), the hero will have gained and lost everything – and may not make it out alive (I have yet to decide). In fact, the hero may not even end up being the true ‘hero’. I think that if I focused too hard on making the world and its inhabitants completely ‘original’, it would detract from the actual story I’m trying to tell.

And that’s where I think the balance lies: using tropes to our advantage, whilst not over-relying on them to support the plot. Is it important that a character be able to heal from a wound or illness? Then why not use some healing herbs – a staple of fantasy since time immemorial – so that you can get on with what really matters: the emotional journey of the characters.

At the end of the day, I think there are some authors who spend so much time making their world original that they forget what the story was meant to be about in the first place. I don’t need worlds I’ve never conceived of before, so long as I’m reading about characters I’ve never conceived of before. I don’t need to dream of new and fascinating creatures, so long as the emotional and spiritual journey of the people in the story rings true.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that fantasy can’t be original; it just means that to focus too narrowly on the details risks overlooking the bigger picture: the fact that every story is unique in its telling by the nature of the person telling it. So don’t worry about making your story stand out with details no one cares about; make it stand out with a compelling character arc and an exciting, fresh journey.

In other words, don’t fear the trope.

One Week To Launch!

In one week, the third book in The Redemption of Erâth series, Ancients & Death, will be released in full!* To celebrate, I’ll be hosting a week-long launch event here and on Facebook, complete with giveaways, guest authors, riddles, and more.

I really couldn’t be more excited. I started writing Ancients & Death nearly two years ago, and it’s finally done, trimmed, edited and (hopefully) ready for you all to read! It’s been over six years since I started the journey to Erâth, and there are a lot of adventures yet to come.

For now, to make it easier to dive into the world of Erâth, I’ve reduced the price of the first two novels, Consolation and Exile, to just $0.99. Additionally, you can actually get the first novel entirely free if you head over to voraciousreadersonly.com and sign up – it’ll be one of the suggested reads if you select Fantasy as a preferred genre.

So swing by Amazon or Apple Books and pick up a copy today – you never know if you might just find your new favorite epic fantasy story between the covers!

* Because of how Amazon deals with print copies, you can technically pick up a paperback copy already. If you’re interested … !

Movie Night: Ingrid Goes West

Year: 2017
Genre: Drama
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr.

An unhinged social media stalker moves to LA and insinuates herself into the life of an Instagram star.

When I first saw previews for Ingrid Goes West, I was both intrigued and put off; it wasn’t clear what kind of movie it was supposed to be, and whilst I was attracted to the idea of Aubrey Plaza, who I knew from The Little Hours, playing a somewhat deranged stalker, the whole concept of of sunny LA Instagram star-based pop culture references was somewhat disenchanting.

In the end, I’m glad I ended up watching it with Mrs. Satis, because that isn’t really what it’s about. Instead, it’s really about the psychological addition to technology, and the false personas we create when hiding behind the anonymity of online forums.

This is perhaps where things goes spectacularly right – and terribly wrong. Ingrid Goes West‘s biggest asset is also its greatest flaw, and that’s its timeliness. Set in 2017, it really couldn’t be any more 2017 if it tried, and whilst highly topical, it’s immediately dated as well. Ingrid uses an iPhone 6s Plus, which is already three years out of date, and whilst there is an in-story explanation for this, it also points to the film’s era – which will be out of date by the time you read this review.

The acting is, if not Oscar-worthy, perfect for the story and the cast; Plaza’s titular Ingrid is at its best a cringe-inducing, awkward social mess, unable to communicate outside of social media and obsessed – dangerously so – with people who give her even a modicum of attention. Olsen’s Taylor Sloane is, whilst well-played, somewhat more two-dimensional – despite this being exactly the point of the character. The supporting cast are never superfluous, even at their extremes (Billy Magnussen’s character Nicky could ostensibly be autistic, but then becomes simply sinister), but their behaviors border on the unbelievable, especially toward the end.

Speaking of the ending, it left me wanting from a moral message point of view. We watch the downfall of a socially inept twenty-something as she is one-by-one ostracized by everyone she attached herself to, and (spoiler) witness her livestream an attempted suicide. And whilst the story naturally wanted to leave us with some hope, the result is internet fame – by the time she wakes up in hospital she discovers her post as trended, and millions of people are now fans, supporting her and giving her the love and attention she always dreamed of.

To me, this is simply a poor note to end on. The insinuation is that suicide – even as a cry for help – is a justifiable action so long as it gets you what you want. And for Ingrid, it does. I’d have rather seen her saved by her would-be boyfriend but without the infamy of a viral livestream; it would have shown her that there are real people in the world who care for her, without pandering to the idea that our lives only mean something if people watch it.

In the end, though, I was satisfied by the mental anguish and drama portrayed, and the fact that it does at least attempt to show that online infatuation is not the same as real-life love. Ingrid Goes West is certainly no comedy, and at its best serves a role in highlighting the difficulty in blending the real and online worlds we immerse ourselves in daily.

8/10 would watch again.