Ari Marmell is a fantasy and horror novelist of both original and tie-in fiction, as well as a freelance writer for role-playing games. For those of you who are paying attention, yes, his newest novel, The Goblin Corps, makes substantial use of the tropes of traditional fantasy. This was both deliberate and integral, and Ari will happily feed anyone who says otherwise to the kobolds.
I am, even as I type this, currently taking a break from the daily grind—which, in this case, is defined as producing word count for my novel-in-progress. Said break was not so much deliberate or willing as it was enforced by the fact that I appear to have written myself into a corner. The fact that I’m a diehard outliner is supposed to prevent this sort of thing, dang it!
But, uh, that’s not really the sort of “pet peeve in writing” you came here to read about, is it?
Yep, “pet peeves in writing” is the topic for this week’s Night Bazaar blog entries, and I’ve been invited to participate. And while I’m told I was welcome to come up with my own subject, using a pre-assigned topic requires substantially less mental effort.
It also happens to be something I’m actually interested in talking about, so we all got lucky this time around.
I’ve written a few columns and blogs on writing here and there across the Internet, and if I’m known for anything—which, honestly, I’m probably not—it would be for my defense of tropes. See, I don’t believe tropes should be avoided by writers, or shunned by readers. I don’t think that a given trope is ever “over,” be it something as broad as steampunk or as narrow as vampires. A trope can be overused, yes, but that doesn’t mean the next author in line can’t use it; it just means he or she needs to do something particularly interesting with it. Lots of novels—and I include several of my own in this list—get a lot of mileage out of taking classic tropes of fantasy and then doing something different with them. Whether it’s a minor tweak or completely turning the potential cliché on its head, some of the best fantasy out there results, not from running away from what’s come before, but from taking what’s come before and saying “What if we did X with this, instead of the more traditional Y?”
All of which I say by way of lead-up, of course. Because when asked “What’s your biggest pet peeve (or at least one of them) in writing?” I answer with “The overuse of tropes and clichés.”
Wait, what? Ari, didn’t you just spend a stupid amount of word count explaining that you are the ordained champion of tropes? Are you sick, or drunk? Maybe crazy? Are you a crazy person who should not be allowed to operate anything as mechanically complex as a chair, let alone a computer?
Well, maybe. (And you wouldn’t be the first to ask.) But at least in this case, there’s no conflict. See, there are many fantasy writers who, as I said above, use tropes (or at least try to use tropes) in new and interesting ways. There are many other writers who don’t do anything particularly new or innovative with them, but whose stories are written to take advantage of those tropes, to use them to the fullest extent, to make them integral parts of the story. (As an example of the latter, I would point to Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. There’s nothing inherently new in the notion of a kingdom of elves who treat the humans in their midst as lesser, inferior beings. But Steven embraces and delves into that setup, using it as the basis for a variety of stories that enrich not only his own work, but that particular tradition in fantasy. And yes, I know that Steven began that series a few decades ago, when many of fantasy’s tropes weren’t yet established as tropes. My point still stands. And stop interrupting me.) Neither of these are the sorts of authors I’m talking about.
No, where I cease my defense of tropes—where they instantly not only cross the line between “useful tool” into “pet peeve” for me, but leap over it like an atomic-powered gazelle—is when the author uses such details, not because the story calls for them, or because the book was written to make a statement that involves them, but because of some ingrained idea that “That’s what fantasy is supposed to have.”
Take, for instance, dwarves. And not just any dwarves, but the Tolkien/Dungeons & Dragons staple of dwarves who dwell in mines, and love gold, and are gruff but loyal, and cherish their beards, and are often but not always blatant analogues for the Scotts, the Vikings, or both. They may be stereotypes, even clichés, but if there’s a reason for them to appear in your book—either because you want to throw them into a sort of plot that you haven’t seen those characters/culture tackle before, or even just because your story requires them for whatever reason—then go ahead. More power to you.
But if they’re just there because? If you feel like you’re “supposed to”? If you include them because Tolkien and Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson did? If the only purpose they serve is to hold up a sign to the reader saying “Look! This book is a real fantasy novel! See, it has dwarves!”?
That’s lazy writing. And believe me, it shows, at least to some readers. No, there’s no hard and fast rule to apply. No way to read a book and say “Well, if X happens, it justifies the dwarves, but if Y happens, it doesn’t.” Like art or pornography, you know it when you see it. It shines through the writing, no matter what. It doesn’t automatically mean the book is bad, or the writer untalented; but it stands out as a flat note. The unintentional eye-roll which is the last reaction an author ever wants from a reader? Yeah, that’s a good way to get it.
Because what it says, at least to me, is that the author either wasn’t skilled enough, or couldn’t be bothered, to think the story and the world through. Why have the dwarves? Heck, why have multiple “good” races at all? Could another culture serve just as well? Or a new race that we haven’t seen before? No, not always—but sometimes, yes. I’m not going to name specific examples in this instance, but I think almost every one reading this can think of at least a few fantasy books they’ve read that really just seemed to be nothing but a rehash of Tolkien, or Conan, or something else that’s come before. And I’m willing to bet, even if you weren’t aware of it, that the use of fantasy tropes and clichés without good reason was one of the major reasons for that reaction.
And yes, it’s possible to go too far in the other direction. Making something different purely for the sake of difference is just as irritating. If you have a race in your book that are very obviously traditional dwarves, don’t add some blatant difference just so you can say, “No, they’re not dwarves! Look, they have hedgehog quills instead of beards, and they only eat foods that begin with the letter Q!” Originality should be a tool for telling good stories, not a goal in and of itself. Forcing something to be different just because is no better than going with the same-old, same-old just because.
How do you know when to go one way and when the other? Well, that’s what I meant about thinking things through, and doing what’s best for the book you’re writing. But then, maybe one could argue that the failure to do so is at the heart of nearly all pet peeves in writing.