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[GUEST POST] Jeff Salyards on Avoiding Tired Tropes When World Building

Jeff Salyards grew up in a small town north of Chicago. While it wasn’t Mayberry, it was quiet and sleepy, so he got started early imagining his way into other worlds that were loud, chaotic, and full of irrepressible characters. While he ultimately moved away, he never lost his fascination for the fantastic. Though his tastes have grown a bit darker over the years. Jeff lives near Chicago with his wife and three daughters. By day, he is a book editor for the American Bar Association; by night, he will continue to crank out novels as long as there are readers willing to read them. His debut novel, Scourge of the Betrayer, will be published by Night Shade Books in May.

Avoiding Tired Tropes When World Building

All writers play demigods-it’s part of the job description. We invent out of the ether, populate our worlds and stories with characters we create and control. However, readers still expect the author not to be a sloppy or lazy deity.

If a thriller writer sets a novel in Cleveland, she better know the ground, because without fail, Clevelanders will cry bloody murder on blogs far and wide if so much as a street name is off. If a highbrow literary writer crafts a scene in the Texas badlands, same dealio-he better not claim peyote was legalized there for religious ceremonies in 1960 when it was actually 1970. Someone somewhere will delight in pointing out the discrepancy. Get messy or apathetic with the facts and you better have some thick skin to survive the backlash, especially if you’re a routine offender.

But this is where being a science fiction or fantasy writer is so dang fun. Sure, most secondary worlds still obey the laws of physics (unless some wacky magic or technology trumps them). Yes, if you write at great length about how a catapult works and most of the details spring out of your Mountain-Dew fueled imagination, chances are good you’ll get a lot wrong and some military historian is going to get very ticked and take you to task. And that’s not good, because they often have a lot of weapons lying around.

At the end of the day, though, most readers are willing to suspend a pretty hefty amount of disbelief in science fiction or fantasy, provided the author does enough research to ground things and doesn’t screw around with internal consistency-if magic operates one way on page 5, it shouldn’t suddenly do something completely different on page 105, not unless the writer establishes a damn good reason for it, anyway.

But otherwise, the sky is the limit.

Some sf/fantasy writers play the role of mad inventor to the hilt. China Miéville, Jeff Vandermeer and a host of adventurous, ambitious writers demonstrate just how far you can depart from the comfortable and well-known into quirky, bizarre, rich lands never seen or even dreamed of before. They don’t recycle old tired tropes and their work is exhilarating because of it.

Some writers, like Joe Abercrombie, purposely include all-too-familiar archetypes expressly for the purpose of viciously disemboweling them and then laughing at the archetype’s awful agony.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a wizard when it comes to taking a familiar historical setting or milieu (the Byzantine Empire, Moorish Spain, Renaissance Italy, whatever), and tweaking it enough that it still echoes but maintains its own interesting, compelling identity.

What they all have in common is they don’t lazily rely on established motifs or character types. Can you still write about elves? Sure. I guess. But if they are sing-songy, lyrical, tree-dwelling hippies, then you’re missing the grand creative freedom of being a fantasy writer. Make them terrifying cannibals, or disenfranchised revolutionaries. In fact, somebody’s probably done both of those already. Tread carefully.

Can you write a scene where your arch villain has captured the intrepid heroes, has them bound and lined up for certain torture or execution, and then, instead of taking this golden opportunity of wiping them out and bathing in their blood, decides instead to polish his nails as he explains to the heroes not only his plans in excruciating detail, but also the previously unknown means of defeating him, before getting up and leaving his criminally underpaid henchmen (or worse, automated torture/death machine) to do the dirty work while he goes to get a facial or a Frappuccino?

No. Hell no. Don’t do that. Ever. Even the ironic mockery of it is old hat. Stay far away.
So by now you might be thinking, “You made it clear science fiction and fantasy writers should break new ground, defamiliarize, or put their own personal stamp on the existing conventions. OK, tough guy, what makes your work different at all?”

Great question-glad you asked!

The premise of Scourge of the Betrayer is fairly simple: a young chronicler named Arkamondos is bored archiving the mundane histories of middling merchants, and agrees to join a foreign military band to record their exploits. Nothing wildly inventive on the face of it-we’re not talking New Crobuzon territory here, so if that is your bag (Bas-Lag?), then you might want to keep shopping.

But the thing that provides for some fun twists and misdirection is that Arkamondos is also the narrator. And he has no flipping clue what he’s gotten himself into. While he knows this group of Syldoon soldiers has a nasty reputation, he has no idea what their agenda is. And as it turns out, they not only have one, but it involves subterfuge, political intrigue, blackmail, and plenty of mayhem and murder.

Arkamondos does double duty here-sure, he’s his own character, but he also essentially functions as the proxy or surrogate for the reader. As Arki slowly begins to get a handle on what’s actually happening, the reader does as well. And just when Arki (and the reader) feels like he understands and knows what to expect, the ground shifts underneath his feet.

Now, this is admittedly a little dicey, because the major revelations aren’t immediate, and the novel is sort of a slow burn. I gambled that characters, dialogue, and prose will captivate the reader until the plot pieces fall in place.

It remains to be seen if this was a clever or colossally dumb move.

4 Comments on [GUEST POST] Jeff Salyards on Avoiding Tired Tropes When World Building

  1. This is a good post. Tropes are a tricky topic, you have to admit. On the one hand, there is comfort in familiarity – and it’s that comfort which allows the reader immersion, escape, into the entertainment that is reading. On the other hand, the market and experienced readers demand freshness, creativity, originality.

    It’s almost impossible anymore to write something that hasn’t been told. Even traditional fables have tons of variants on the same theme, across different cultures. Yet they persevere throughout the ages, and are retold to each generation, in one form or the other.

    I’m comfortable with the tropes, personally, and employ several. Theoretically, I make them my own, but there’s no reinventing the wheel, so why bother – it’s almost an insult to the reader. What I try to focus on is to take that wheel and put it somewhere unexpected, or go further back, and discover why the wheel is the way that it is. (Well, not literally wheels, of course.)

    There’s only so many ways that “departing from the classic tropes” can go, before they go too far and THAT becomes the new trope. For instance, ‘gritty’ is the new big thing – but that’s going to wear itself thin. Fantasy wasn’t built upon rape scenes, and readers will get tired of that, just like they grew tired of the peasant boy who becomes a king. After awhile, a good old-fashioned ‘boy becomes King’ yarn will be more popular (again) than Blackie McBlackNight the dirty rotten scoundrel’s tale.

    What’s an author to do? Write a good story: cream always rises to the top.

    Good luck with your debut! 🙂

    • Bill,

      Thanks for the well-wishes. I agree that it’s difficult to write something wholly original (lots of critics and professors subscribe to the theory that there are only a handful of types of tales out there). Writers that go to great lengths to separate themselves from anything that might have come before sometimes up drowning in the deep end of the experimental pool. Almost any story, SF or otherwise, is going to call to mind something that preceded it.

      In my mind, though, there’s a wide difference between a trope and a derivative cliché.

      Writers don’t necessarily have to try to emulate Miéville or Vandermeer or their ilk (who I would argue *are* exploring territory that, if not wholly new, is far outside what most readers experience), but I think they should be aware of what clichés crop up in that genre, and to avoid them if possible. Or failing that, if they consciously use them, to torque them or put them in a new light.

      Can you write about the farmer boy who turns out to be the long lost heir, gets mentored by a curmudgeony old coot, rescues the kingdom from the dread lord, and gets the girl? I suppose. Especially if you’re willing to play with the reader expectations that naturally come front-loaded with a storyline like that. But if you simply recycle that bit without attempting to at least try to change things up, I suppose I don’t see the point.

      If I feel like I’m anticipating every bend in the road as I read, and nothing surprises or delights me, I’m going to move on. But that cold just be me–I have three young kids and little free time, so I’m an unforgiving bastard of a reader.


  2. On behalf of SF Signal, thanks for the guest post, Jeff!

    The premise of Scourge of the Betrayer is fairly simple: a young chronicler named Arkamondos is bored archiving the mundane histories of middling merchants, and agrees to join a foreign military band to record their exploits.

    This has some parallels to, among other things, Glen Cook’s Black Company series, where the chronicling of their exploits is an important motif. Did they influence you?

    • Thanks, Paul! I was honored to have the opportunity to post.

      I’ve always been a Glen Cook fan. Long before “gritty” became a marketing hook for so many fantasy novels, he was a darker counterpoint to writers like Raymond E. Feist. Don’t get me wrong—I loved me some Feist when I was growing up—but I was always drawn to Cook’s stories about seedy mercenaries.

      So I’m more than happy to claim him as an influence. That said, I do hope I’ve done enough to distinguish my chronicler-among-a-company tale to avoid the dreaded derivative tag. Otherwise my post here is going to look awfully silly. 🙂

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