For a month now I’ve been tearing my way through a website called TV Tropes. It is an immense wiki listing of popular ’tropes’ used by popular fiction: that is, all the clichés, weak plot vehicles, stopgaps and character archetypes you can shake a vegetative fangirl at, all in a rather addictively bow-tied rose-by-any-other-name hyperlink listing. Enjoyable.
With the subject matter in mind, the single maliciously funniest, consistent thing that keeps kicking me in the eye there is the obvious intent of pussyfooting around the whole issue of these ’tropes’ often being clichés at best and hackneyed, repulsively dismal fucking shotgun blasts of bullshit at worst. This discussion is overtly avoided, and whenever things might get hectic – and the occasional defensive fan hurt over this matter of taste – a tag line of ”tropes are not a bad thing”, along with ”your mileage may vary” is wielded much like a blunt instrument upon the critical viewer: if not in an attempt to dull the critical mindset, then at least to dull the potential conflict of taste and the almost inconceivable questions of judgment and value. No discussion.
Oh, yes. The taste, which is perhaps the single thing turned sacrosanct in the modern world, must not be derided. I find that in our modern memetic convergent bombardment, we are actively guided, suggested and prompted to lose all critical sight – and to treat everything we come across as being at an equal standing. Every piece of information, so says the paradigm, is equally relevant and there is no true quality. It is to be reduced to a moot ”matter of taste”, subjective and certainly nothing to be placed upon any crucible.
It is quite so that one can say that it is not bad to ’trope’ your way through storytelling, to brandish and regurgitate the same story elements over and over again in permutations of minuscule variation. One can say such a thing, that is, if one inclined to believe nothing shines, or more accurately outshines. Because that would make someone feel bad, and we do not ever want that.
Many of us use entertainment for social fodder; to feel happy with our chosen pieces of fiction providing us with all those narcissistic favourite stock characters and situations that we can always reliably root for. We want wholesome, agreeable and only moderately edgy (even then in a controlled manner) cardboard characters so as to congratulate ourselves over for having selected them as our virtual friends – some of us desperately appear to crave having these imaginary friends in their entertainment. Worse yet, we tend to be entertained only by something we already fucking well obviously know, from top to bottom. This results in the same stories over and over again, even if it can be weakly argued the story product is always technically a new one.
What really freaks me out is that often, when a work of storytelling finds some of its most-loved characters killed, it is screamed out loud that the author hates the fans. Therefore, when the author does absolutely nothing to rock the proverbial boat, the author loves the fans? This notion of love is thoroughly alien to me, because by definition love then means one shan’t emotionally challenge this object of love, ever, much less intellectually. With a heavy heart I must admit that this is not uncommon even in real-life human interaction, but nonetheless.
We consume works of fiction the way that we consume meat and potatoes. It is for so little that many of us settle – even many of those that by all means should get it right. This world of perverse equality become rampant depresses me: In most reviews, the difference of a four-star and a five-star work is determined by whether the work namechecks something the reviewer happens to love. The difference between a two-star and a four-star work, then, is settled by observing whether the work has half the mind to make some errant wisecrack about the the clichés it still direly perpetuates, instead of discarding them quietly and with a clean break.
When said that clichés are not in themselves a bad thing, I simply find this isn’t true. Ask anyone whose primary interests lie outside those of a typical pop culture consumer that just wants paramasturbatory gratification and the love that doesn’t challenge. Ask anyone that finds worth in exciting new things, judgment and originality – a real critical bastard spirit – and you are likely to be treated to a different view on exactly how commendable and ”not bad” the use of tried and true clichés in your precious work really is.
In my eyes, it is unquestionably a bad, bad thing to perpetuate the cycle of literary atrocity by recycling mind-numbing checklist concepts in new works. Some are prone to say that clichéless works are tedious and boring, most likely because they are very unfamiliar at first. Others claim that everything has already been said and done; I find such a foundation for producing art thoroughly toxic.
In a similar note, there was a heated debate several years ago over a certain massive entertainment conglomerate passing development team notes that urged writing staff to use certain books on mythical storytelling ’tropes’ as a kleptomaniacal free-for-all basis for all their following stories. News like these make me remember concentration camps fondly as a historical phenomenon potentially retired early. I am not sure that we can afford to wait for bad writers like these to enter their just circle of hell upon dying. Especially when there is no hell to be reckoned with…
If my rant holds an important message (an anvilicious Aesop for the ’tropers’), by all means, you would do well to remember that it is not enough merely to add your own turd into the brown pile of post-modern story recycling. It is not so that everything goes – it is not so that every idea and work today is of an equal standing. Tropes can be bad; many used tropes are often direct compensation for weak storytelling or intellectual ability. That, or the complete lack of a frame of reference over the events you are telling the story about.
Tropes can be really bad. This point must not be sidestepped merely so that someone can retain a misguided peace of mind. I believe Stephen King once said that the world is full of adept technical writers, but not so with good storytellers. Be the latter.