Way with Worlds – Tropes & worlds

This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, and has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. 

map of mordor

So last we met I discussed originality being an illusion, but I feel I do need to cover something – the use of tropes, stereotypes, and “seen-it-all-before” elements in our worldbuilding. For the sake of not having to abuse a thesaurus, I’m just going to call these “Tropes.” Plus it’s shorter to type.

I’ve talked about tropes as something that can kill a world because they’re unreal – yet at times tropes aren’t a problem. Let’s explore.

Trope As Recognizable Piece

So let us consider a trope. A trope is a common or overused theme, device, idea, and so on. We’re all familiar with them, from Yet Another Space Marine to the Aged Wizard Who Really Is Gandalf But We Say Is Not, and so on. There’s plots that are tropes, wether it’s Save Another Princess (wether in a castle or not), or Destroy The Big Weapon That Might As Well Be The Death Star.

The interesting thing with tropes is that they have a near-independent existence in cultures or subcultures. People are so aware of their cultural context and meaning that people recognize them and get them automatically. In a few cases they might even expect them, creating some interesting conflicts for worldbuilding and writers.

Tropes are a kind of communication, albeit a limiting one. You can easily toss out some tropes and people immediately “get “what’s going on, even if what’s going on is “Oh, please note another Sexy Vampire like the last ten.” A trope gets instant reaction and recognition because people know it and know what to expect from previous experience, no matter what your world or tale or game is about.

When it comes to worldbuilding,that can be the problem.

The Temptation Of The Trope

Tropes are tempting to worldbuilders. The Dungeon Of Inappropriate Traps, The Dark Lord, The Ice Planet, and so on tempt us as putting them in our settings people get them and understand them automatically. A trope saves time and effort and instantly gives people a recognition hit – and maybe even a pleasant buzz of seeing something they like.

The recognition hit and the buzz can be exceptionally tempting to worldbuilders. It gives you a chance to essentially pander to people’s desires and expectations by throwing out something you expect people to not only recognize but really like. We probably all have something that pushes our buttons that will get us reading a manga or playing a game with less consideration for quality than our usual high standards.

However giving into using tropes in our worldbuilding really just means we’re not flexing our skills as worldbuilders.  Perhaps we’re lazy, perhaps we assume we don’t have to, perhaps we’ve slipped into pandering.  Either way, it’s a problem.

The Limits Of The Tropes

Sure, tropes are easy for us to use and give us that immediate hit and provide fanservice. Yet, as tempting as they may be, we’re probably all used to calling them out. We’re used to saying “oh, that again” with a sigh of resignation and a lowering of expectation.

Why? Because a trope isn’t alive. Worldbuilding is making something alive.

Tropes have their own independent cultural existence, explaining their temptation. Easy to put in, easy to recognize, low work.

But tropes “live”, making sense and providing context, only because of our culture and assumptions and previous media.

A world “lives” because all its pieces work together. Jut as a living person is made of many working parts, just as a good story is composed of interocking parts, so must the world you make. When cause and effect make sense, when timelines make sense, when the action and reaction are relatable a world can seem alive.  A living world draws people in, gives meaning to the tales that take place in it, and makes sense to your audience – much as we can relate to a person, in a way.

When you throw tropes out you rely on them to be live independently of your worldbuilding. You don’t work to connect the elements of your world, have them make sense together, have them work together. You rely on tropes to bring life to your world in a kind of Frankensteinian chain lighting jolt, hoping to revive various parts you combined into one thing.

But it’s not alive. It’s just parts brought to life by your readers or players expectations and past experiences. For many of them, they’ll recognize that trope too much, sewn onto the world you tried to make, and feel turned off.  There’s a lack of symmetry, a lack of fit, and often a lack of life as your little jolts didn’t quite wake up your creation.

Really bad use of tropes just screams “not trying” as well as making the world not seem alive.

The Saving Graces Of Tropes

However as noted last column, tropes are not a lost cause. There are a few cases I think they’re legitimate and in a way mandatory to your goals.

  • First you can put tropes into your world in order to explore them. This can be great fun as a writer (How does a Smarmy Space Smuggler’s actual economics work?), lets you bring the world to life, and get that recognition hit as well. I frankly have a thing for exploring tropes, and admit it’s fun, often educational (as you explore the tropes), and readers or players can enjoy the ride.
  • Secondly, you can insert tropes just to subvert them by exposing them to “full worldbuilding” and figuring out how they can exist in context of a well-designed world  This would be a case of wondering how you can do a believable tale about “X Trope.”. This also can be a lot of fun frankly since most readers like a good change of pace and you get the advantage of the first benefit as well. It’s also an excellent chance for parody.
  • Third, you can use tropes as a starting point. You might use tropes consciously or unconsciously and then adapt from there, fleshing out a world and going beyond a framework built from tropes. It’s best to do this consciously just so any surprises you create are intentional and not you discovering something to feel ashamed of.
  • Fourth, maybe you’re not reaching. Maybe you’re doing a world that’s not meant to be deep, or you want to deliver the setting equivalent of a thick sloppy cheeseburger. At that point tropes let you assemble something meeting your goal easier, though I’d recommend doing good worldbuilding anyway, enough to get thngs going.  You still gotta make that burger enough of it’s own thing to be delicious.

So I’m not going to dis tropes. I’m just going to note that knowing how you’re using them keeps you from making mistakes.  Tropes are compelling things as we know them, and they can become our master if we don’t think about what we’re doing.

Conclusion

The danger of using tropes is that we don’t bring our worlds to life, connecting the pieces, making everything function. We rely on the trope and not our own worldbuiding to make things live, and the results are more a disconnected semblance of life.

Used consciously, there are good reasons to use them – and some that are just plain entertaining.

Finally, some of us may look at those using tropes with some contempt or sense of superiority. I think this is incorrect as many, many people fall into these traps – and you probably have your own cases of doing so. Let’s not get too full of ourselves.

Let’s build worlds instead.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.