Writing Is A Bad Habit: Our X Is Not Like Your X! a.k.a. Shading Your Tropes (For Better or Worse)

We’re back, baby!

So let’s kick this off right with some Bad Habit Writing and I think the best way to go is with some classic trope talk. In case you’ve forgotten or you never knew, tropes are common literary devices, similar to the idea of archetypes, that are commonalities through out genres, media types, and so on. As with archetypes, tropes aren’t good or bad; they are tools in the creator’s toolbox. How we use them determines their value.

Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s talk about a classic one: Our X Is Like/Not Like Your X!

What this actually means is to refer to adaptation or shading tropes. Like ‘Our Elves Are Like Your Elves!’ or ‘Our Orcs Are Not Like Your Orcs!’, this metatrope is used to pain a connection to base archetypical tropes or to paint a difference between them, most often in genre fiction and usually (but not always) referring to aliens or fantasy races. The metatrope itself is not really the topic of discussion, so much as the best ways to utilize it.

Do you want to evoke the history of a genre, to callback to a classic story, or to minimize the need for excessive exposition? Maybe you should model your aliens and races on your genre forebearers. Your elves should be tall, graceful, magical, and pointy-eared and your dwarves should be short, gruff, excellent smiths, and stubborn warriors. Playing to the strengths of your genre conventions can make a lot of aspects of the writing process easier.

However, there’s two major pitfalls here. First, it’s easy to become complacent when you use the inspiration of previous works. Just because you’re modelling off of previous media doesn’t mean you are free from doing the proper exposition in your own work. You can’t just use the proper term and expect the reader to carry on just because you’re not changing anything.

The second pitfall is that you invite direct comparison between your work and another person’s. Your readers, once they realize the connections, might start holding the two works side-by-side, even if they are otherwise not comparable works. This can lead to unfair negative criticism either way or unfounded expectations as your reader expects more and more similarities between the works no matter what.

Now you can flip the whole thing on its head if you reverse the scenario. Do you want to create a clear difference between your work and previous genre works or do you want to use talk and introduction of these different races as an opportunity for more world-building or fresh characterization? Make something seemingly familiar into something vastly different.

The pitfalls are likewise similar. If you don’t make the differences clear, then a reader might be caught off-guard and be thrown off when the trope differences become obvious, and you still can invite direct comparisons to other works, this time focused on the differences between your trope interpretation and others.

Do you use this kind of metatrope? Do you find it useful? If you have any advice, criticisms, or comments, feel free to leave them below!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

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One comment

  1. This put me in mind of having to show the differences and similarities of the vampires in my Waves of Darkness series to the most common vampire mythology; even more fun was having to point out the differences between my main character, a living vampire cursed to his vampirism, and the traditional undead he encounters or creates.

    I used both exposition and character-learns-as-he-goes to do this.

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