WHATS IN A WORD: TROPES

There are two main strands – camps? – that pop up whenever tropes get dropped into the conversation: Those who regard them as clichés and those who are very keen to remind us that they aren’t clichés.

And both have at their heart a fundamental flaw. The first being obvious – a trope and a cliché are not the same thing. The second – chances are if someone is talking about them, it’s because they’re clichéd.

On first pass the dictionary seems to be a little useless in helping untangle this. They still predominately define trope as ‘ a word or expression used in a figurative sense’ ie a literary device. In the sophisticated world of Tinternet we’ve come to mostly bypass this use, seeing no particular issue with just saying figure of speech or the overused, motif. In the age of TV Tropes as Wiki is wise to, we regard tropes as the common elements; the garden variety spices and meats of our entertainment. The wise old sage, the orphaned farm boy, the evil conglomerates and epic journeys of the hairy little everyman destined to save us all. They’re the bits we recognise and the bits we repeat. The only concern we seem to have is whether this is to be expected or clichéd.

The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works. – Wikipaedia

TV Tropes seems to sit somewhere in the middle, stating they believe that ‘tropes are more about conveying a concept to the audience without needing to spell out all the details.’ Story has undoubtedly developed its own inherent shorthand that infuses and informs language, even life. There are the obvious references like someone being referred to as a ‘Robin Hood’ to suggest they have strong philanthropic tendencies, and we can even consider the notion of air quotes as a direct almost avant-guarde influence of the narrative on our perception. I’m sure some clever little hipster somewhere has thrown out the line, ‘she said with italics in her voice’. I can only hope someone dumped their chai-mocha-chocha latte all over her..

Chai-mocha-chocha latte by the reckoning of TV Tropes could also be considered a trope. It’s symbolic of a type of person – hipster – a type of life – urban, professional – a type of attitude – the desire to be ‘in’. Its a symbol, a motif, a metonymic literary device. But regardless of the literal accuracy many would argue that it’s very different in nature from something such as the orphaned farm boy or the chosen one, hairy-toed or otherwise.

We can regard this s as a simple matter of sub-division, much as storytelling itself can be broken into categories, plot, character, world, theme etc. And the possible list is as endless as the debates on what makes a great story. Certainly if you read any list of tropes, browse a little on TV Tropes, it’ll seem like virtually anything you’ve read or seen can be considered one. As someone who appreciates an obscure name, just a few mentioned on there include, Prophecies Rhyme all the Time, Pardon my Klingon, My hovercraft is full of Eels and possibly my favourite, Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma.

On the Grand list of fantasy clichés street planning and good eyesight in the dark get a mention. Not sure they’d make it on to my Grand list, actually I’m not sure they’d make it on to my small and unimpressive list. The Grand list of sci-fi clichés did top even my weird attention to detail by noting ‘ the vast number of aliens who consider 20C to be room temperature,’ as an issue, and the inclusion of ‘intelligent confident women who can be bribed with a dress’ did make me wonder what sci-fi they were reading. However, apart from these couple of oddities, the rest of the list, as an avid sci-fi fan, read like a Name Your Favourite Sci-fi Movie quiz. And in almost each entry there were multiple answers..

An alien: Is stranded on Earth; (ET)(CONEHEADS)
Befriends a human child or falls in love with an Earth gal; (STARMAN) (EXPLORERS)

A virtual reality program is activated, and the distinction between reality and the program becomes confused or indistinguishable.  (TRON, THE MATRIX, WAR GAMES)

A human falls in love with a robot. (WEIRD SCIENCE, AI, BICENTENNIAL MAN, EX-MACHINA, BLADE RUNNER, HER)

A robot falls in love with a human. (FLUBBER, BICENTENTIAL MAN, D.A.R.R.Y.L, BLADE RUNNER)

Aliens travel a zillion miles to loot the Earth of resources which exist in far greater and much more easily exploitable quantities on the many uninhabited bodies they pass on the way to Earth. (INDEPENDENCE DAY, FIFTH WAVE, THE FACULTY, SIGNS, WAR OF THE WORLD)

A complex computer system spontaneously becomes self-aware. (THE MATRIX, D.A.R.R.Y.L, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, EX-MACHINA, I,ROBOT)

An amended version of the original list puts checks against each item including a Star Fleet insignia for those that have appeared on the show – which is a lot. It does allow some leeway between those that are beyond redemption and those merely requiring some interesting inversion, however, all fall very much under cliché, making it quite clear there are no room for Trope Supporters here.

It seems no matter where you turn when addressing tropes you run up against the is it good or is it clichéd paradox. The original list offers something of a backhanded solution..

Clichés are not in themselves necessarily bad, but their overuse shows that the writer has forgotten what separates the strong tale from the hollow: “the human heart in conflict with itself,” as Faulkner said. Where there is this conflict, the tale stands; where the conflict is absent, the tale falls flat, and in neither case does it matter how many ships get blown up.

Is this simply the inescapable truth of tropes? Or perhaps even worse, as that really annoying saying goes, we’ve run out of ideas. Usually in response to someone complaining about yet another Spider-Man reboot. Are all stories simply rehashes of rehashes of rehashes? The greatest tragedy of them all, human ingenuity is not infinite, although our capacity for reruns might be.

As someone stuck in that loop between hope and lingering belief we can do more, while being thoroughly bored and fed up with the same ideas playing on repeat every time I go to the cinema or pick up a book, I’m not ready to accept that. Yet again, I kinda think we need to go back to the origins..

Trope, n. a  figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.
~ a significant or recurrent theme; a motif:

The other stuff is just the fluff it’s picked up with time. Like mindless somehow attaching itself to entertainment, the common and overused have become ground in. Time and time again we see this happen, we supplant the form with the example.

Take the trope, A robot falls in love with a human. Or its roommate, a human falls in love with a robot, or its near to roommate, A complex computer system spontaneously becomes self-aware, even its not remotely near to roommate, The bureaucratic/reactionary mindset stands in the way of scientific progress. A researcher overcomes it through ability, purity of heart, and use of the scientific method. Or not. 

All of these are the same trope.

In fact we can shift away from science fiction and into fantasy and find the same trope,  perhaps, The hero’s best friend is a member of the alien/magical race currently oppressing humanity, thereby making him and his friend the target of racism and prejudice or An immortal being falls in love with a mortal and elects to give up his/her immortality so the two of them can live together.

It all depends really on how you explore it. Because none of them are actually tropes. They are examples of how tropes are commonly expressed. The underlying forms that drive them are the tropes. In the above case we could probably define the theme as ‘What makes us human?’ The technique used contrast or as I like to call it, fish on a bicycle. We can replace robot, with alien race or elves, or coming back to reality works such as ‘Walkabout’ addressing cultural differences and the way we attempt to bridge them finding the common ground of humanity, of universal experience. Elements found in all of the above include prejudice, a caste system, reluctance to accept something new/strange, entrenchment in old existing beliefs. The plot can shape itself around falling in love, or bonding through adversity, or finding a place you belong.

The issue with this, of course, is that the trope is hidden, it lies beneath the surface text, the superficialities of the genre and period. It’s that much more difficult to grasp and to satisfactorily pin down; they can feel vague, indistinct, they are in fact the very reason we seek the concrete story in order to define them. So we latch on to the surface familiarities. The problem however, is that while tropes are universal and almost impossible to avoid, probably totally impossible to avoid, that clichéd we’ve-seen-it-all-before feeling isn’t actually being addressed when we just change the superficial elements. In fact it can lead to the even worse, well-what-was-the-point-of-that-nonsense? feeling that plagues most of Hollywood today, and increasingly a great deal of literature too.

The questions we’re asking when we conceive and write our stories are always going to be what matters most. I write and read sci-fi because I like robots and spaceships, sarcastic AI’s and oddly human fishpeople, just as fantasy writers love them there epic journeys and the hairy little men who embark upon them. These are unlikely to change, although they will evolve a little. Superficially.

The shorthand of story is always growing. Latte’s weren’t really in the lexicon back in Austen’s day, and in my great great granddaughters it might be mocha-chocha-cosmica’s. Or fishpeople’s urine.. Who knows.. but we sci-fi writers do love to speculate..

Likewise the tics and tricks of style and technique are trends that ebb and flow with time and the development of the medium. The only thing that will seriously impinge on this is our unwillingness to dig beneath the surface. Whenever we start assuming we have all the answers, that the question is settled and the topic closed – dude just learn the difference between clichés and tropes – that’s when we risk stagnation.

And this is where TV Tropes and I diverge a little. They believe

Tropes….reflect life. Since a lot of art, especially the popular arts, does its best to reflect life, tropes are likely to show up everywhere.

I agree art and life should be intertwined, I’m not sure that’s why tropes are so ubiquitous or that they serve this aspect of art particularly well. I think in most cases tropes serve the artifice part of art. Many are specific to the medium they evolved within, such as slow motion or shaky cam on screen, versus arms akimbo and she spun on her heel in print. They reflect our desire to master and bind any art form to do our will. But most importantly the reason so many of them have become so common, so prevalent, so as to obscure, even over write the original trope, is that artists too often draw from art when they should be drawing from life. We’re building fiction on fiction on fiction. And we end up with that sensation of watching rehash of rehash, dislocated from reality or any meaningful point. We’re not looking around and asking questions, figuring out what we see, what we feel, we’re watching the screen, wide eyed and thinking wow if only I could do that..

I like to think its what Faulkner meant when he said, the human heart in conflict with itself. Although I admit, we’re back to vague again. But maybe that’s where tropes need to reside, in the shadowy nethers of definition. The minute we try to pin it down we risk reducing it and its potential applications, we turn the potential road into the only road. As so many of these stories do. You can have a human fall in love with a robot, or an elf, or a fish-person. You can do all of it with a single tear tracking down one cheek, a slow fade to black love scene and a fourth wall breaking epilogue. And still not be either a rehash or a cliché. Because 42 didn’t clear up life, the universe and everything else..Sorry, spoiler..

Robots, you might argue, especially those we can relate to, must be constructed from fiction. Admittedly the closest I’ve ever got is a fondness for my toaster. It’s cherry red and still works. If you look at these tropes

Alien species depicted as having no ethnic, religious, cultural, philosophical or political variance, especially:

Wise mystics
Stoic warriors
Pastoral innocents
Cowardly sneaks
Amazon babes

– in fact clichés #2,3,9,10,11,12,14,19,23.. and probably more, I stopped counting –  they’re all essentially the same complaint – they don’t reflect the life we’re living, merely the life we’ve read about. Mega-corporations may indeed be run by evil soulless monsters with armies of faceless minions but my day to day problems don’t involve taking them on in virtual gladiator ring, they involve trying not to scream at the poor guy in the call centre putting me on hold again. The newspapers talk about endless waiting lists and beds in hospital hallways, but I’ve yet to read about the rash of dead homeless missing their kidneys. Rather than blending life and art- tropes – so we can connect to the big questions of life, we’ve built lego blocks out of a few stories and are using them to construct highways of ideology.

Killer robots and AI have been depicted so often as our downfall that many humans cannot conceive the idea that either could evolve and not wish our destruction, even if its under the guise of ‘for our own protection.’ The notion that they might find us as interesting as the average ant, that they might seek out something other, snub us, hell, be already existing in cyberspace contentedly, living under our noses playing bridge and not giving a fuck if we fill the planet to the brim with plastic bottles*, is not even scorned, it would have to be considered for that. And if you are thinking, well uh sure, but realistically…

 – realistically? According to which reality? The Matrix or The Terminator? We’re actually starting to let our reality be defined by our fiction. The same people who argue there is no god, argue that AI must reflect its creator, as man reflects his..

Fiction owes nothing to fact. It bears no truth that need stand up in a court of law. That doesn’t however mean it doesn’t affect our perception like a prism. Cliches and tropes can be fun, comforting, they have their function, but doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep asking questions, poking holes and if we must address the questions of fiction within fiction, let us do it through the lens of life.

*bet you’re still thinking, come on that’s never gonna happen, but Terminator…totally could..

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