Tropes as simulated character development

Tropes. Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re just about everywhere we see, and there are more than a heaping shovelful in fantasy and science fiction. The farmboy saves the world, the long-lost prince, the “always chaotic-evil” bad guys, and dozens of others. They’re the old standbys, the tales that readers go back to time and again, even the very same ones who often think those tropes (by virtue of being tropes at this point) are overdone.

I can’t scoff at the idea of loving the same old story done up in a new costume. Just look at how many of the Valdemar books I’ve read, and I will tell you unabashedly that they’re all very similar stories, sometimes practically the very same story with different names and circumstances. And I love them because they’re comfortable, because they’re hopeful and inspiring and don’t give rise to any awkward feelings of grey morality or bad “good guys” or any of the stuff that requires moral judgments. You know they’re right because they’re right.

Those aren’t the only kinds of books I will read, of course, and there are plenty of arguments for or against such stories all over the Internet, so I won’t bore you by trying to defend the fact that I likes me some comfort reading now and again. That isn’t what I’m here to talk about.

It occurred to me recently that tropes in writing can be used to simulate character development where there is none. This isn’t always the case, happily, and in the hands of a good writer, even the most overdone trope can turn into a story that people won’t want to put down. But using tropes is a good way to make it seem like the character s moving when they’re actually standing as still as they were on Page 1.

Take the “farmboy saves the world” trope as an example. You start off with a guy who lives in Backwatersville at the edge of the Kingdom of Somewhere.  Adventure comes along in the form of tragedy, and he has to leave home in the care of those wiser than he. Along the way he discovers that he has a Destiny, and that he’s the one who needs to defeat some great oppressive evil and save the world.

Are you seeing reflections of many classic fantasy characters here?

Specifically, are you seeing Rand al’Thor?

Rand is probably the best example of what I’m talking about. I confess that it’s been a while since I read the series and that I hadn’t read all of it, but I think that by the time I get to book 7, I’ve got a fairly decent grasp of the characters.

And I grasped that Rand did not develop very much at all.

He’s still the very same person who left Backwatersville in the first book. He’s seen most of the world, he’s done amazing things, his Grand Destiny is creeping up on him… and he’s still full of the same prejudices he always was, seems to have gained some knowledge but no wisdom from his experiences, and the biggest way he actually changed is that he grew more arrogant.

But how could he not be? He’s traveled the world! He’s done so many things! He’s fought battles and saved people and had women throw themselves at him and learned so much and had to cope with so many difficulties! How could he not have grown?

Beats me. He had plenty of opportunities. But the author relied on the use of a trope as a cheap way of making it look like he grew when he didn’t. To an uncritical reader, it looks like Rand has become a much more awesome person, dedicated and strong and open-minded as he encounters new cultures and ways of living.

His circumstances may have changed, but I didn’t see any real character growth. The guy had 7 books in which to grow (at least, that’s how far I read before losing interest with the series), and he really didn’t. Kind of sad, that. You can give a farmboy a sword, but that doesn’t make him a hero.

This trope isn’t the only one that can be abused for simulated character growth, but it’s an awfully easy one to do it with. The long-lost prince nearly always has to fight for his rightful place on the throne and automatically becomes a great and benevolent ruler, dispensing wisdom and fairness to all, never making mistakes that will affect his people on a grand scale, even though he spent his life having no training in law or judgment or even what ruling a kingdom may involve. But giving him some trials and then having him sit on that throne and be all kingly makes it seem like he’s earned that wisdom when really, he hasn’t.

It’s not inherent to the trope that these things will happen. But it’s a path riddled with traps and pitfalls, and ones that are so easy to fall into if one is lazy and lets the trope do all the storytelling for them. Of course the farmboy will be awesome and save the world, because that’s his destiny. Of course the rightful heir will be good and just, because how could he be any other way? But it’s cheap and lazy to just let it lie like that, to not even be aware of the pitfalls you’re falling into. A skilled writer will be aware of the traps and avoid them, perhaps even turn them to an advantage in the end rather than just letting lazy storytelling advance the novel.

A character doesn’t grow just because they end up in a different physical place than where they started, or because they encountered something new. it takes more than a journey of the body to make a journey of the soul, and there are a lot of people who easily confuse one for the other. Sometimes it works and you get something familiar and comfortable out of it, something that’s fun to read even if it doesn’t get great points for originality — let’s face it, sometimes that’s exactly what we want to read! Other times, you can see the poor storytelling from miles away.

And there’s no excuse for that kind of poor storytelling.

5 comments on “Tropes as simulated character development

  1. “A character doesn’t grow just because they end up in a different physical place than where they started, or because they encountered something new. it takes more than a journey of the body to make a journey of the soul, and there are a lot of people who easily confuse one for the other. Sometimes it works and you get something familiar and comfortable out of it, something that’s fun to read even if it doesn’t get great points for originality — let’s face it, sometimes that’s exactly what we want to read! Other times, you can see the poor storytelling from miles away.

    And there’s no excuse for that kind of poor storytelling.”

    Very well said, I’ve not really got anthing to add to it other than that I agree 100%.

  2. Agreed that there needs to be more substance to a character rather than rely on tropes.

    The whole farmboy with a destiny thing I’ve kind of accepted. My logic is that there were other farmboys with equally exciting journeys ahead of them,but they chose to stay where they were or did something monumentally stupid to mess it all up. THe story we follow just happens to be the guy who saw it through to the end. That thought makes me feel better about the use of the trope :)

    • Ha, that reminds me of conversations I’ve had with friends in the past. Some people get ticked off that books follow the adventures of the protagonist and not any of the side-characters, and while that may seem obvious, I can sort of get where that argument’s coming from because often side characters can be really interesting and just as awesome as the protagonist, but they get less time in the limelight. On the other hand, the book follows the protagonist because it’s their story. If it followed someone else, it would be that person’s story, and then people would argue that someone else should have been followed instead, and round and round it all goes.

      I wonder if there’s some sort of Farmboys Anonymous for those neglected characters. I’m sensing a satirical tale in the making, here!

    • The problem with that is that with so many people trying hard to subvert classic tropes, the subversions are becoming tropes in themselves! It definitely comes down to the skill of the writer and how they carry it all out.

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