A famous writer once said: “There is no such thing as a new idea.” That writer was Mark Twain, who is pretty hard to argue with (especially since he’s dead), and here’s his elaboration, which, naturally, is wise and brilliant:
“It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
If you ever took a creative writing class, you were probably taught the seven types of conflicts that can happen in stories. They are attributed to British author and academic Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, and decidedly sexist given that he wrote about them in the early twentieth century: Man vs. Man; Man vs. Nature; Man vs. Himself; Man vs. God; Man vs. Society; Man Caught in the Middle; and Man and Woman. Of course, there are a gazillion ways to write a story about say Man vs. Man, but the lesson is writers choose from a finite array of overarching conflicts to move a story forward, since without conflict, there’s no story to tell.
In his article: “On the writing of speculative fiction,” Robert Heinlein defined two principal categories: stories about gadgets and stories about people. Within the latter, he talked about three sub-categories. “Boy-Meets-Girl” are romance stories, whether they end happily-ever-after or not. “The Little Tailor” refers to stories in which your average person becomes a force to be reckoned with, like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. “The Man-Who-Learned-Better” is a story in which the main character undergoes a journey that transforms his or her way of looking at the world. Longer works like novels usually have multiple storylines from those three categories. J.K. Rawlings’ Harry Potter for instance is mainly a Little Tailor with some Boy-Meets-Girl on the side.
Genre fiction is particularly derivative in that it is typically defined by plot formulas. Epic fantasy, which has its roots in classical mythology, follows, at least in part, the monomyth or Hero’s Journey. In romance, if you don’t follow the formula: X meets Y, X loses Y, X gets Y back again, you haven’t written a romance.
Still, readers like stories that are fresh and unexpected. As Twain suggests, writers can re-arrange the puzzle pieces of theme, plot, and character archetype in infinite ways. They also have the tools of tone and world-building and point-of-view and style, to make the reader feel as though the story is like nothing they’ve ever read before.
This is perhaps a long lead-in to the subject of our monthly dispatch, which is tropes. Every genre has them, and while the term has a negative connotation, we wouldn’t say that tropes are always an indication of bad storytelling. One measure of good storytelling is that it reveals to the reader something true about the world, which when you think about it, is impossibly subjective, thus one reader’s hackneyed trope is probably another reader’s warm and fuzzy truth.
We’d say a bad trope is one that reinforces stereotypes that are already problematic in real life, and minority characters like queer people are particularly vulnerable to them. Here are some tropes we really despise:
The sassy gay sidekick
Gay-for-you, which could be re-named Anne Hechery (the gal or guy who didn’t realize they were gay until they met the perfect somebody)
Slave/master relationships that bloom into a sweet romance (eew)
The demented, androgynous villain who takes their inner turmoil out on the world (e.g. Xerxes in 300, Zuse in Tron Legacy)
We read a lot of queer fantasy, and rather than bemoaning the tropes we think are overplayed and yucky, we thought it would be fun to come up some tropes we’d like to see, not to be taken completely seriously as we think you’ll be able to tell.
The Alpha Male Who’s Just Plain an Asshole. Truth be told, we never understood the appeal of alpha leading guys. As a refreshing alternative, we suggest a big romance revelation that beneath his tough guy exterior, he’s just a bossy, self-important dope, enabling his mild-mannered (and secretly versatile) boyfriend to set his sights on more realistic choices while he’s off figuring out how to save the world.
Queer Utopia. Where the world is so safe you can stop dieting and going to the gym and wear your roomy, elasticized sweat shorts out in public.
The Straight Best-Friend Who’s Actually No Help At All. We’ve seen enough saintly straight sidekicks who lift the hero’s spirits when times are tough, or swoop onto the scene to save them. How about giving the hero a hetero bestie who is nothing but drama and bad timing?
Let’s Never Do That Again. If we’re being honest, no matter how good the chemistry and the attraction is, the first time is a crap shoot. We’d love to see awkward, futile sex on the page for a change. It could be a lead-in to another subversive trope: Lovers-to-Friends, where there’s no hard feelings or lingering sexual tension from either party. Whatsoever.
Snarkless Reluctant Hero. Where we get it that the hero’s quest is hard, and they have lots of reasons not to do it. But they’re not going to be whiny and passive-aggressive about it.
Easy-A Dumbledore. How about a wise, gay wizard who, rather than being cryptic and withholding, gives straight-forward, easy-to-follow instructions to his young apprentice?
“It’s Not You, It’s Me” Anti-Hero. Have you tried to have a functional relationship with a brutally handsome, emotionally-scarred anti-hero with no communication skills? Surprisingly, those troubled dudes do really well with the guys in MM romance. We suggest a trope with a more plausible storyline. The sex ends, the trying ends, and the ever-patient, ever-understanding boyfriend moves out and gets a rescue Pitbull as a companion while our anti-hero signs up for a support group and starts highlighting passages from The Secret.
Misunderstood Villain with Super Hot and Super Kinky Henchman. Just ‘cause it sounds interesting, huh?
The Hapless Bisexual. They just can’t get laid. Not because they’re bisexual. Because they’re being too choosy.
Whoa, She Let Herself Go. It’s the ex-girlfriend who put on extra pounds, gave up on hair products, and developed really bad skin, thereby inserting no drama into the heroine’s new relationship.
Surprise Shifter. He’s that erstwhile straight guy whose supernatural abilities get triggered when shy, forbidden feelings overcome him while he’s alone with his gay best friend. The worst part is when he shifts back to his human self, he’s completely naked and emotionally destroyed.
Elves with Benefits.
No Homo Dragon. That sexually-insecure, talking dragon who’s always pointing out how good his gay rider looks to show him he has NO problem with gay people.
Do you have tropes you’d like to see? Share them with us!