We all know what tropes are and we all know one when we see it. It could be a vampire being destroyed by sunlight, a dragon hoarding gold or a militaristic alien race with an honour based culture. Tropes are like archetypes, recurring motifs that crop up in fiction.
A trope is not the same as a cliché, but tropes used badly can be clichés. Tropes are also not the same as lazy writing, although lazy writers rely on tropes.
They are a useful narrative shorthand and enable the reader to instantly know what they’re dealing with or what the rules of fictional situations are. Here’s a werewolf, it can be killed by silver bullets. It doesn’t need to be spelled out, which saves the writer time and removes the need for boring, lengthy exposition.
Some tropes are very well established, such as those around superheroes or elves. Audiences are very familiar with them and have seen or read many stories that involves these tropes. A writer must come up with an original take on these well-established tropes or find a way to subvert them. No one wants yet another story of an angsty teenage girl falling in love with a vampire.
Terry Pratchett was the master at subverting tropes. His wit allowed him to come up with new ways of looking at wizards, witches and questing heroes that either played around with our foreknowledge of these tropes to make humour from them or put them in an unfamiliar situation. Such as the Ankh-Morpork League of Temperance and its Black Ribboners who encourage vampires not to drink human blood, but to have hot cocoa and sing uplifting songs.
Others have done similar tricks with established tropes. In Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon took the horror trope of the blonde, teenage cheerleader and repositioned her as the protagonist of the story and not a victim. Matt Groening’s Netflix TV show Disenchantment (now in its second series) takes tropes from the fantasy genre and subverts them to create humour, much as his previous shows Futurama and The Simpsons subverted the tropes of the sci-fi and family sitcom genres.
This subversion of tropes is part of one of the main features of postmodernism: irony. During the modernist movement, when many of these tropes were established in popular consciousness, stories were taken more seriously. Postmodernism, the overarching philosophical idea of the present, values self-awareness, irony, deconstruction and differing interpretations of an idea. All of this suits the subversion of tropes.
However, postmodernism is not new, and over time there have been many shows or books that subvert tropes. We have had so many takes on some tropes, that even clever subversive ones aren’t original anymore. There is a limit to how many new takes there can be on an established idea.
Clever takes aren’t so clever anymore
This is one of the problems with Disenchantment, the show relies so heavily on the subversion of some very broad and well-established fantasy tropes. Clever takes on them aren’t so clever anymore. We have seen every joke about wizards not being as wise you might think or elvish civilization not being as perfect as Tolkien depicted it.
So, have we run out of original things to say about established tropes? Following on from Buffy, Twilight, True Blood and The Originals, it’s hard to imagine a fresh take on vampires living amongst us in the present. I am not sure if there is a fantasy trope that Prattchet left unsubverted. Certainly Disenchantment hasn’t found an original take on fantasy tropes.
Tired of irony
Does this mean we have run out of patience with postmodernism or irony? Maybe. The best fantasy novels I have read recently, such as Jen Williams’s The Copper Promise, Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire and Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight don’t use clever takes on established tropes as much as Pratchett or Whedon did. They take the fictional concepts in these novels more seriously.
I’m sure there is an audience for a clever or original take on an existing trope. Recently I enjoyed Amazon Prime’s The Boys, a cynical reimagining of the Justice League. However, clever subversions of tropes aren’t as original as when Pratchett or Whedon were starting out. We have passed peak trope subversion and it’s likely that more writers will approach fictional concepts more seriously in the future.
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