Monday, March 23, 2015

To Trope, Or Not To Trope


Tropes is another word for cliches. Know why cliches exist? Because they have an element of truth to them. Lots of stories involve the Nerd: male or female, very studious, often shy, almost guaranteed to be skinny and bespectacled or pudgy and wearing braces. Know why? Because every person who has gone to school in any area that is even moderately civilized has run across a nerd. (Moderate civility could be considered an important aspect here, because without that civilization and a touch of technology, we are left without the glasses or the braces, and because nerds are, by the nature the Outsider and Outsiders often die quickly or are crushed beneath the heels of the strong in areas without civility.)

You know why so many writers include a nerd? because they can relate. We are, by and large, book nerds. if we were not, we would n to be writing and reading as voraciously as we do.

Now that we know what tropes are (by my personal definition), let's move on, shall we?

Sword and Sorcery Tropes:

Swords--Weird, huh? Swords show up in most Sword and Sorcery and do so prevalently. The type of sword often varies, and in a few cases there ARE no swords. Instead we get axes, spears and the occasional mace. But the idea is the same. There are large bladed weapons, normally wielded by the sort of guy you never, ever want to meet in a dark alley and most often would cross the street to get away from.

Sorcery--Well, come on now! If you're gonna have a mean fighter, now and then there has to be a challenge. The average dude with an axe has no chance, so now we need a sorcerer or two. They are, as a rule. dark and sinister and full of hatred and greed. If not, what good are they?

Damsels--of COURSE there are damsels. Depending on who you talk to the Sword & Sorcery genre is loaded with the most stereotypes. Every cover has a scantily clad woman cringing at the edge of the cover and the Big Dude With The Sword standing between her and the monster/demon/dark knight summoned by the Sorcerous Bad Guy.

There. three tropes.

Except, like most every other genre, those three still exist but have changed over the years.

Damsels-Mark Two: A handful of names come to mind for most people and chief among them is Red Sonya. Despite her tendency to run around in a metal bikini, she's tough as nails and a superior warrior. Note please, that I did not say Robert E. Howard's Red Sonja, because the man who created Conan did not, in fact, create that most popular of female sword-wielding bad asses. In fact, comic book writer Roy Thomas created her. But because she was created as a part of the Conan Comics and those comics are owned by the licensors, she was swallowed into the Howard Estate. Howard himself created Red Sonya )Note the difference in spelling) and Valeria and the pirate Belit, three tough customers, but did not create the red-maned menace of a thousand men.

Fun article on the notion of S &S Damsels can be found here.

A few you should look up if you want to see well-done female leads in Sword & Sorcery include C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry. Very likely the first ever main female character in a S & S setting, which is fitting as C.L. Moore was a female writer who wanted a strong female lead.

Marsheila Rockwell's Shaala. Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Tomoe Gozen (A samurai), Andrew J. Offutt and Richard K. Lyon's Captain Tiana of Reme (another redhead, this time a pirate but decidedly a tough one) from the War of the Wizards series. Joe Abercrombie's Monza Murcatto is one of the darkest heroines I've ever read and the story is not cheerful, but, damn, that is a fabulous character. There are plenty more and I can even throw myself a bone because several readers have told me how much they like Swech of the Sa'ba Taalor from my Seven forgers series. There is nothing of distress when it comes to that particular damsel. There are plenty more, of course. That is quite literally just the tip of the iceberg and I can safely say a few of my floor attendees at the here brothel could chime in with a character or two (and are encouraged to do so!).

Sorcery-Mark One: Sorcery is, by the standard tradition of the books, evil in nature. Remarkably few wizards in most Sword & Sorcery books are on the side of good. Why? because they must make sacrifices to the dark powers in order to gain  their power, and that means they are, by their nature, rather on they selfish side and a bit greedy with whatever power they can achieve. There are exceptions, of course, but not all that many.

But, Jim, what about Gandalf? What of Merlin?

I said Sword & Sorcery, that's slightly different from most fantasy (excluding only Grimdark, which is like S & S on crack and with a very negative attitude.). We're talking the sort of bad guys that Conan ran across, and Solomon Kane, and Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. Those guys NEVER ran across happy,c cheerful magic wielders. They ran across megalomaniacs bent on revenge, power and ending entire nations in a seething tide of blood, fire and disease.

Swords-Mark Two: There are swords and then there are SWORDS. One of the tropes played with most often involves WEAPONS OF POWER. Anyone can wield a sword. Some better than others. And then, we have weapons of power. Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone was a powerful sorcerer in his own right, but he was also a man born with a few health issues. His albinism was one sign of the troubles he suffered and in order to win back his empire from his cousin, he sought and found a powerful weapon, a short sword called Stormbringer, which quite literally ripped the souls out of the people it killed and fed part of the power it stole into its weirder. Suddenly, Elric the meek became Elric the feared. His sorcery and his skill with a sword were impressive before but after claiming the sword he became a true terror. Not at all surprisingly, his story ends unhappily. Great fun for the readers, not so much for Elric.

The One Ring: Like I said, the Lord of the Rings is not Sword & Sorcery, per se. It does NOT follow all of the tropes, and in fact the most powerful weapon in the whole of Middle Earth is a ring meant to bind all under the servitude of the Dark Lord Sauron. If you don't know that story by now, you should just go to the store right now and either rent the movies or better still read the amazing books by J. R.R. Tolkien. from this wellspring most of the waters fantastic do flow.

David Gemmell's seminal character Druss does not weird a sword. he swings an axe called Snaga the Sender, and wields it very well indeed. One of the fun parts of the tales is the question of exactly whether or not Snaga is truly a mystical weapon or Druss is really that fierce in combat.

Three tropes, all with different takes. My favorite thing about chinches are as follow: 1) They are shorthand for elemental truths. 2) The truth, however solid it might seem, is more than mere fact. By that I mean a nerd in a story is a nerd, but that doesn't mean said character cannot be strong, brave and heroic. A sword officially only exists to kill (or possibly coronate) but the reason that sword is wielded and how well it is handled can make or break a story and a world. Damsels might be female, but that does not mean they are delicate.

Ultimately tropes are starting points, short cuts, if you will, to help the writer shape a tale and to help a reader identify with the same. Take away each and every trope and what you get for your trouble is a longer story that likely will not meet expectations.

James A. Moore

And here we have three tropes for the price of one: Sword, Sorcery (I feel safe in assuming that background implies same) and Damsel.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, Jim...I so want to sit down with you, buy you a drink and pick through your brain and conjure up a fresh stack of To-Be-Read books!