Sci-Fi: Use the trope or make it yourself?

In my other post about swearing, I was considering that the language comes with the character.

In real life, there’s people I know who use cuss words every other word. And there’s plenty of people who don’t need those words. If your characters, who are broken and in conflict, do not sound authentic, we won’t believe them or you. For me, I’m writing about marines in space. Nobody has met a marine in space, but most people have a picture in their head of a marine, either someone they know or R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket or some other iconic marine. Marines are tough. Marines will fight you. Marines swear a lot.

That’s the stereotype. It -is- a stereotype, in that I know marines and former marines and while all of them are tough, some are gentle, some don’t swear, some swear only around other people but are considerate of the audience around them/kids, and so on. These marines do not necessarily make up the stereotype of a marine that most of the public carries around in their head.

My marines in space can be anything I want them to be. They don’t have to be USMC culture, or British SAS, or anything Earth has ever made or seen. I suppose I could do the hard work of creating something new, so that the words aren’t buzzwords surrounded by the current culture (such as fire team, squad leader, sergeant, marine, lance corporal, navy, lieutenant, etc.).

But the point here is that it essentially looks like the USMC in space. That’s hardly original, but because it uses tropes and stereotypes, it establishes an immediate picture for someone familiar with our modern culture. I don’t have to do the work to create the picture because the reader comes pre-loaded with the picture. I just use the correct words and phrases and the reader supplies a bulk of picture, with some careful descriptions from my end to tweak it in such a way that the picture doesn’t look exactly like the USMC or marines from Aliens or something else that is intrinsic and part of our cultural background.

Contrast this with a book in which the author carefully creates an entirely new military culture, with new rank names and positions, with new terms and policies and tactics and names for them. This means the author must do the heavy lifting and set up the initial framework, then put enough explanation in the book that the reader understands that framework enough to form the mental associations with what they do know (NCOs, officers, enlisted, organization of men and material, and so on). No matter how strange and fantastic you make your new sci-fi whatever widget military city alien race, ultimately the reader cannot relate to the whatever widget unless they can tie it in to something they have experienced. Imagination can make up the rest, but if you don’t know what the color green is, it’s just a nonsense word that means nothing.

We depend on Culture to Inform the Audience on What to See

The way that culture wraps around the stories we tell is also interesting. There are movies which every single person alive either has seen or should have seen. Thus, phrases like “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” or “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” or “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” are used as the basis of jokes in other art such as written stories or cartoons or movies or visual art. When a cartoon like the Animaniacs does their humor, much of it depends on having seen the body of work of famous movies like Casablanca, ET, Star Wars, the Godfather, Gone With the Wind, and so on. Don’t see those movies? Don’t get the jokes.

I saw a cartoon done during WWII, where they tongue-in-cheek said, “Crime is down, except at clock shops.” The criminals break into a jewelry store and steal all the clocks and leave the jewelry. I didn’t understand it, had to look it up. It turns out clocks were no longer manufactured during the war because the factories were making parts and devices for the war effort, so people couldn’t buy new clocks. Thus, the thieves make off with the clocks. Without the culture to interpret the humor, I couldn’t grasp it (and it wasn’t funny).

Every Pirate Movie made from the 60s on Is Influenced by Treasure Island

Another trope in our cultural has to do with all the cultural baggage on horror monsters. Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, Wolfman, the Mummy, these early movies from late Victorian books set up decades of horror that continues to this day with genres entirely devoted to them, especially the vampire genre. Or zombies, which sprang from George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead and spawned dozens of movies and hundreds of books. The premise is pretty bad, but people really like it, for some reason.

And some things are so prevalent in our culture, that for our characters to not acknowledge them in the books as we write would be weird. So, in a zombie apocalypse type of book, you always get the character who says, “you mean this is a zombie apocalypse?” and the other characters pooh-pooh it, but the first character is right. And it has to be mentioned because it’s all pervasive in culture and you cannot avoid mentioning it without it being a wee bit strange to the reader, who is immersed in zombies and expects that at least some of the characters in the book will figure it out and call it what it is.

If you’ve ever watched a pirate movie, there is always some aspect that will point back to Disney’s Treasure Island, with Robert Newton performing as Long John Silver. Where does the pirate accent come from? Robert Newton, who got it from his grandmother who lived in a remove part of Britain where the dialect was unchanged from several hundred years before. I’ll bet some of you were playing with “Talk like a Pirate Day” yesterday, and you were, whether you knew it or not, mimicking Robert Newton’s dialect from Treasure Island.


3 thoughts on “Sci-Fi: Use the trope or make it yourself?

    • I suspect you already think about these, just not on a conscious level, when you make decisions about characters and how they speak and what they do. Tropes are shortcuts that can be used to quickly convey information and everyone agrees that it’s best that way. Take the nosy-neighbor trope, the lady with curlers in her hair that is in her bathrobe and constantly trying to see what’s going on in the protagonist’s house. Trope. When we see it, we all say, “oh, that’s the nosy neighbor trope, cool, we know what she’s going to do.” You don’t have explain it to us, because we’ve already formed an image.

      Horror writers sometimes use anti-tropes to lull us into thinking something is something else, such as the nosy-neighbor may look harmless, but is really a monster that kidnaps and eats children. The trope can be used as camouflage for what’s really going on, and we don’t see it because you apply the trope paint to something and we all dismiss it out of hand. Oh, yeah, that’s the milkman character. Not important, just part of the scene. Then he pulls out an uzi and shoots someone, and we might go back and reread the passage to see if the reader gave us any warning the milkman trope wasn’t the milkman trope.

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