Culture War Reporters, since its inception, has never been a place for fiction of any kind. As a result, when both Gordon and I hang out we often find our discussions centre around stretching our creative muscles, asking questions like: “If you had to come up with a team of mercenaries, with a minimum of five members, what would it look like?”
The issue with all questions like this is that we run into a little something King Solomon said, way back in the day [emphasis added]:
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
How do you come up with something original, something that truly hasn’t been done before?
For the most part, media is fairly content to rely on archetypes, or commonly-known character types. I’ve written a little bit about how this is [and isn’t] done well, and the example I presented then is probably still the best one. Let’s take a look at the three main characters of Rowling’s claim to fame franchise-
As you can see by the caption, we’re covering all our bases, and there are no overlaps. Yes, all three have their moments of extreme bravery, but that distinction still primarily applies to our titular character.
Because these sorts of archetypes are so prevalent, many creative types seek to flip them on their heads. With Kick-Ass 2 premiering today it’s only fitting that I direct your attention towards Mindy McCready, aka Hit-Girl.
During the first book she is “10 and 1/4” years old. She is also, as you can see in the image on the right, pretty okay with slaughtering dudes and using salty language. That is not an archetype.
But it is a trope.
To introduce another term tropes are, according to TV Tropes [emphasis added], “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” In general they differentiate themselves from archetypes because a) they refer to more than just character types, including situations, etc., and b) many tropes are not nearly as well-known.
Mindy McCready, as Hit-Girl, fits a number of tropes including Badass Adorable, Cute But Psycho, and Little Miss Badass. The thing is, checking out the latter trope’s page directs you to other female characters in Battle Royale, Kill Bill, and Hanna.
While this trope may have begun as writers attempting to subvert the expectations of their audience, portraying young girls as being extremely competent when it comes to straight-up murdering people, it has ceased to be surprising. When flipping conventions has become the norm, where exactly are original ideas to be found?
Like Rock, Paper, Scissors, your audience has a feeling that they know what gesture you’re going to throw, and it’s your mission to surprise them. As a writer I sometimes feel like I have to always be two steps ahead, or even three, assuming that they already know what I think they’ll expect, and so on.
For example, to take a jacked, burly man and portraying him as a stoic macho man is the first level of expectation. Knowing that the audience expects that means that I can pull a reversal, except that that causes my character to fall into the Gentle Giant or Emotional Bruiser tropes. These tropes are popular enough that my audience will expect that as well. Knowing this, what is the next logical step?
Backtracking to the question I ended the first paragraph with, I was stuck with coming up with a team that had some spark of originality to it. I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be ethnically diverse, but that opened numerous cans of worms going forward.
Featuring an Asian character that knew martial arts was something I wanted to steer clear of, so I began looking elsewhere. While there is a trope [and racial stereotype] that Asians can’t drive, this was more or less overthrown in the 2006 film The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, so I didn’t want to make them a driver, either. Having them be an older character who dispenses wisdom was not at all an option.
What I ultimately decided on was looking to see who was and wasn’t being represented onscreen. This caused me to opt for the character being an older [mid-50s] Asian woman. Although any role would have been original due to this character type has no place in mercenary squads, I chose to make her the team’s Field Leader.
In the end I managed to come up with a team of six that was more or less not something you could [easily] find in any other medium. That being said, the exercise of flipping tropes and archetypes on their heads, or finding a way to uniquely overturn what’s already been flipped, is an exhausting process, and one that may not even pay off. Ultimately what really matters is good writing: creating living, breathing characters that your audience will connect to and care about.
Still not sure what to do with this big guy, though.
I think you’re very right about the struggle to depict something that isn’t, as you’ve described in some of our conversations, “rote,” be it because it’s what the audience expects in general or from you as a particular creative force. I think the answer in this specific case is also what you concluding, if you do it well, it doesn’t matter if it’s expected. Another method is to have a world in the work where you don’t expect the level of decency and goodness extant in actual society, so that when you present a trope and play it perfectly straight, it’s either unexpected or, even better, refreshing. That’s one example among many solutions. I think the task presented to us creative writers today is to develop an ear as finely tuned as those of trained musicians, and hone our skills as finely as we can to present what we think will be the most effective tool for the job.
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