Going Over the Rainbow: The Trope Trap

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All joking aside, accountability is something that professionals of any discipline face. Even us writers.

Yes, you read that right. You, my dear writer, are accountable to your reader. Well yes, you say, I should give them the best story I can write.

Yes you should, but it goes beyond that too. If you’ve written for long you’ve probably ended up having to do some research into an unfamiliar topic. We often joke about hoping the government isn’t keeping too close an eye on our internet research history. There are many resources available online to help us flesh out our characters and our setting. One Stop For Writers is a great example. However, while we might research settings, the job our character has and where they live; sometimes we forget that other things need research too.

Jami Gold had several excellent articles about writing with diversity and the research that goes along with it.

Ask if the Story Is Ours to Tell: If we don’t have direct experience with the diverse element, a story that centers on the diverse aspect might suffer from disrespectful negative stereotypes or breathless, isn’t-it-inspirational-how-they-overcame-those-obstacles “positive” stereotypes. (Note that treating a character’s diverse element as a problem to overcome isn’t actually positive.) — Jami Gold

Sometimes when we are writing a character, even when we’ve done research, we might find ourselves slipping into stereotypes or tropes. They are like clichés. They are comfortable and familiar. Unlike clichés they can be damaging and perpetuate some very harmful thinking.

We can usually spot harmful racial stereotypes. I wrote about avoiding stereotypes in a previous post. I still recommend WritingWithColor, DiversityCrossCheck and betas to help with racial/cultural sensitivity. But tropes aren’t always stereotypes, so how do we know if we are falling into the trope trap?

Trumping the Tropes

There are a LOT of tropes out there. And they are not all bad, most exist for a reason and like popular themes don’t have to be eschewed completely and can even be used to good effect. Over the course of this series I will be addressing various tropes and how they relate to the identity or orientation I’m discussing. In case you are curious as to how many there are TV Tropes Queer as Tropes page is a good place to start.

One of the most prevalent tropes is Bury Your Gays. Queer persons never get happy endings. Ever. Often they die.

Or, more recently, they are the villain.

This doesn’t mean that your queer character has to survive and not be evil. However, it does mean that you need to be very careful about how you approach each of those circumstances. Just as careful as you’d be about casting a black man as a street thug.

Tropes at their most basic are indeed stereotypes and thus need to be very carefully considered. Many common romance themes are tropes in disguise.

  • Stereotypes: Not literary. We avoid using this term to talk about classifying characters, settings, plot points, etc..
  • Archetypes: The broad, all-encompassing norms of the stories humanity tells. The same archetypes can be found in all or nearly all cultures.
  • Tropes: Culturally-specific norms in storytelling. Tropes are cultural classifications of archetypes. There can be many tropes found under the umbrella of one archetype. Literary devices are not tropes (i.e. narrators, foreshadowing, flashbacks, etc.).
  • Clichés: Overused and hackneyed phrases, characters, settings, plot points, etc.. Archetypes do not become clichéd. Tropes can become clichés if they are used too often and readers get bored of them. Clichés are defined by a loss of the meaning or as a distraction from the story.

Definition list from WriteWorld.org.

If we find ourselves falling back on common tropes a lot in our writing5 Questions to Ask Yourself (1), we might need to ask ourselves why. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using tropes but we need to make sure we are giving them our own special treatment. This is easily done by combining two or more tropes or even subverting or flipping them.

Let’s look at some examples:

All Gays Are Promiscuous trope is the stereotype that a gay man is completely driven by lust and must therefore have sex all the time.

Game of Thrones: Downplayed by Ser Loras Tyrell; he is rather easily seduced by an attractive male prostitute, and exchanges significant glances with the openly bisexual Oberyn Martell not long after his lover Renly Baratheon is killed. He mostly comes across as this in comparison to his literary incarnation, who falls into a deep depression after Renly’s death, is apparently celibate, and shows signs of being a Death Seeker.

Wallace Wells, Scott Pilgrim‘s cool gay roommate, is characterized with this trope, even going so far as to hang a lampshade it when chastising Scott for infidelity.

Scott: Double standard!
Wallace: Hey, I didn’t make the gay rules. If you don’t like it, take it up with Liberace’s ghost!
Are there gay men who like to sleep around? Yes, or course, just as there are lesbians, bi-sexuals, pansexuals and straight people who do the same. But the issue comes when we perpetuate it as a defining trait of being gay. This trope is very easily subverted by letting our gay character be in a committed relationship that is not centered on sexual gratification. After all that’s the kind of relationships many of us have and enjoy.
So, do you see how a trope can be trouble? But why should you care?

Jumping the Shark

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The blockbuster movie Jaws launched a national campaign against the ‘man eaters’ and contributed to the drastic decline in the shark population. To this day, the stereotype against sharks persists.

The film’s key mistake was portraying great white sharks as vengeful predators that could remember specific human beings and go after them to settle a grudge. — How ‘Jaws’ Forever Changed Our View of Great White Sharks by Charles Q. Choi

This is just one example of how harmful a negative portrayal in our work can be on others. This is why I wanted to address the issue of accountability with you and how it relates to using tropes.

As authors we enjoy the privilege of having readers accept our words at face value (for the most part). People trust us. What we show them in our fiction, no matter what we write— paranormal, romance, thriller, mystery, literary, et cetera—has an impact on their thinking and their perception of the world around them. This is why we have to be so careful about stereotypical or negatively portrayed characters from marginalized identities/orientations/races/cultures.

This is why I say we are accountable. Our words have power. The power to create understanding and empathy or further the divide. This is why research from valid sources is so important and why we must recognize our own tendency toward common tropes and stereotypes when writing.


 

Now that I’ve got most of the preliminary issues out of the way, it’s time to start delving into the various gender identities and sexual orientations. As we move forward, I’d like to encourage you to refer back to these posts and keep these things in mind.

What are your thoughts on author accountability? Have you ever come across a negative portrayal that affected you personally? Have you read any books where certain characters were walking stereotypes? Do you have any other comments or questions for me?

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5 Comments »

  1. This is a really excellent post, and very relevant to some issues that have been floating around the M/M genre recently. I actually just reviewed a book by a very popular, award-winning author where I felt like the characters were absolutely stereotypes, and it drove me crazy! I think it’s incredibly important to carefully research if you’re writing characters that do not fall under your lifetime experience/knowledge. Thank you for this fantastic post!

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