All the way down

 

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Street art in Richmond VA. Artist unknown, by me at least

Everything is a trope. Every idea you’ve had, every thought, has come before. The precise number of plots is debatable but all who have managed to get others to pay for their opinions agree: stories are finite. Only the telling varies. Yet there is no algorithm to tell us how to write the perfect story. We continue to devour tales that seem to us to be distinct and unique and precious. Experts, our brains scoff, what do they know?

It’s the same with tropes. We can identify them: there’s the Dead Lesbian and the English Villain (beloved of Hollywood); there’s Women in Refrigerators and Humans are the Real Monsters. There are so many that it becomes almost paralysing. You don’t want to be part of a trend, do you? You don’t want to perpetuate damaging myths or be victims of the witch-hunt of the week.

I try not to be racist. I try not to be sexist. So when I’m writing I try to have a diverse cast. I try to have characters of differing sexualities – not representations but living, breathing people – in significant roles. I do this because it represents the world we live in and the future I’d like to see (and I try to read diversely too). But it’s also a minefield. With so many tropes littering the path it seems impossible not to trip up somewhere.

Do I, for example, dare to have a BAME villain? Or a woman? Can my nastiest character be homosexual? What if I cause offence? The internet is a rage machine: do I want to be defending my work – my character – and do I have to be defended by racists and other people I detest?

Recently Lionel Shriver caused controversy by pointing out that all fiction is inherently fake. It’s a difficult argument: she’s right, of course: everything I do is a lie and part of the job description is to put myself in the head of someone I’m not. But there is a horrible arrogance in her position; that we shouldn’t care about the opinions of the people we’re representing (appropriating); that we can take at will without hearing their voices directly.

Now we have sensitivity readers to help us, and that’s good. We don’t know everything and we need help in picking up the slack. It’s been said that this will limit the issues we can address, but I see the opposite. I think the growth in awareness will give us – us being, I suppose, white western cisgender writers, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t work the other way too – the confidence to address controversial issues and periods of history.

I am in favour of political correctness. I want to be challenged. I believe that it’s right to listen when someone tells us they’ve been offended. If nothing else these issues make us reassess our own prejudices; and, I hope, help us produce better work.

This is what I want to communicate here: being aware of all these issues makes our work better. You can rail against all these limitations or you can use them to build more rounded characters and plots. This is what I’m trying to do. If I realise that I’m falling into a trope-trap I will work harder to think of a more creative solution. The story will be richer as a result.

We still live in a massively ‘white’ world. If we want to write about other peoples and cultures then the least we can do is get it right.

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trope-bingo

I’ve been writing seriously for over a decade now. As I tentatively, and (as yet) without a real plan, move on to a new project, it’s starting to strike me that most of my novels have certain things in common. I’m not sure I like this, but it’s moderately undeniable.

Here’s a look at what I’m beginning to identify as the key themes of my writing:

  • A love of the Everyman

Born out of a teenage infatuation with film noir, and probably deeper-rooted in childhood frustration at my own limitations, my protagonists are – without exception – normal. No superheroes for me: no supersoldiers, or psychics (except Oneiromancer, and even there it’s the ordinary folk that stole the show). No Spidermen or cyborgs or even battle-scarred lone-wolf PIs.

  • Split narratives

The first person Night Shift series seems more and more like an aberration. I am drawn relentlessly to the lure of multiple viewpoints and film-like changes of POV within scenes. A large cast is inevitable so I can give a broad perspective – especially when I can show…

  • Cat and mouse

…hunter and hunted: predator and prey. Those split narratives of mine always seem to show both sides of the fence…

  • A heavy police presence

…and one of those sides is usually represented by the police. Not that the police are necessarily the Good Guys.

This is probably the thing that bothers me most about my own writing. I have no real knowledge of the police. All my info comes from crime novels and the sort of ‘Miss Marple’-type dramas I used to watch as a kid. It’s all guesswork and bits cobbled together from other fiction. I’m desperate to drop it but I just don’t seem able to let go. The police are just so damn useful. How else do you prove the Everyman’s innocence?

  • Madness

At least one of my characters will have unresolved mental problems. It’s depression in Night Shift (though I didn’t realise it when I was doing the writing). One of my protagonists in Oneiromancer has had a breakdown. Chivalry has a pair of nutters. Why do I do this? Maybe I have unresolved issues myself (actually, I know I do. But still). Maybe it’s a way of showing a fraction of some deep-seated resentment. But it’s there. Always there. At its best it’s an important and underwritten commentary on modern life. At its worst it strays close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory.

This is probably just scratching the surface. There are probably many more commonalities I’m not seeing quite yet; I’m still too close, too blinkered.

The Downside

Tropes – common themes – are great. There’s nothing wrong with having a style, a niche and a way of writing that readers can follow, and get behind and embrace. It also says a lot about the writer. Politics (sometimes direct, sometimes more subtle) will always creep through your words: where would Terry Pratchett be without his love of the underdog, his challenges to received orthodoxy? Within (massive) boundaries, you know what you’re getting when you read a Discworld novel.

But tropes are dull. It can lead you into ruts; who doesn’t yearn to break free of their comfort zone and do something totally unique and off-the-wall? I want to push myself, to explore new ways of writing; I want to grow.

Maybe some of this is cowardice. I fear to write a real space-opera, or a historical novel, or to truly break out of my comfort-zone. Maybe I’m not sure I’m good enough, or that I’ll be laughed at or thought too out-there, man.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve started a new piece. I don’t know where it’s going yet but I’ve already written in a police point-of-view, which means a split narrative and… And I don’t want to do this. I’ve done it before.

The only way to break out of this is to sit down and plan, to rewrite and rework. The problem with that is that I like to find my way through writing, through getting things down on the page and seeing where they take me: almost the antithesis of pre-planning.

There is, of course, a middle ground. There has to be some sort of whole-novel planning, even if it isn’t a scene-by-scene breakdown. Then maybe I can reassign some characters and turn my story in new directions.

But I’m not at this stage yet. I still don’t know where I’m going.

I just know I want to get off this treadmill and go free-running through new landscapes.