“Don’t seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” -Matsuo Basho
A few months ago, I posted an article on paradigms that started some interesting conversation; and a recent miserably cold and rainy day in a warm library caused me to revisit the notion with a twist I thought you might find helpful. The gremlin I’m chasing here is lazy writing. If you’re a wordsmith and you’ve caught yourself slamming into your story a dragon or an elf, a robed wizard or a huge command room on a gray spaceship, a two-arm, two leg robot who wants to be a real person, a mysterious prophecy, technology gone bad, wicked corporations, a protagonist suddenly finding out who they really are, …you know where I’m going with this…then let’s agree there’s possibly more out there. We don’t have to tweak or to retread old archetypes, it’s a great big world!
The Basho quote above makes my point well. For example, I’m inspired like crazy by Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. It’s absolute genius, in a million ways. There are a few moments in Wizard And Glass that rank among some of the finest writing I’ve ever seen. Please join me in hoping Hollywood doesn’t pooch it up with their upcoming version – we’ll talk about that when it comes out in July. King turns the mysterious gunslinging cowboy on its head in those books. He breathes fresh life into a trope we all know and that by all rights should be tired and worn out by now. Basho’s point is it’s cool to be inspired by what he did and to follow the way it made me feel, but that it’s lazy and disappointing to simply tweak a little here and there and otherwise take for my own what he did. It’s the same with Tolkein, the 1930’s pulps, and the standard rogue’s gallery of monsters. The racks at the library, at Barnes & Noble, crap on Netflix, and a lot of what I see on social media profiles unfortunately, are chasing the same tropes. I’m no better, I’m just pointing at it and looking for the stairs.
There used to be a magazine called Wizard. It was about comic books, and was how I kept up with storylines when I was forced to become an adult against my will. They had a feature where an artist would sketch something out and explain the thoughts and creative process that went into it. I recall one where a guy was drawing a library, which may fill your head with the picture of an old white woman peering over her glasses and shushing somebody. In the issue I’m thinking of, the guy said he made his librarian a tall, muscular young guy with spiked hair “because that would make it more interesting”. That really stuck with me and came to mind when my very odd daydreaming suggested the steampunk control panel in the image introducing this article.
The idea is to run a standard stock character or idea through an adjustment process that will make it more interesting, that suggests a novel story idea. LET’S BE CLEAR here – just switching genders on a trope doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. I’m not tweaking, I’m looking for a fresh look that brings something new. We’ll try it with King Arthur in a minute. Stick with me.
The panel offers a few principles, here are examples so you get the drift. Imagine cranking the knobs on these concepts back and forth till you dial into something new and fresh.
Male/Female and Ethnicity – and all the shades between.
Unborn/Ancient and Historical/Future – Take an old Tibetan monk (tired and been done) and make him the manifestation of a future incarnation, as yet unborn (there’s a story to tell here!)
Illusion/Reality – (spoiler alert) What you thought was wargaming in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was actually a war being fought – it was reality, not illusion.
None/Many – Marvel Comics took the Iron Fist character, which was a stand-alone hero like many others, and made a dynasty of them. Iron Fists through the centuries, passing on the mantle. Oh, and Yoda’s famous quote in Empire: “There is…another…Skywalker…”
Living/Dead – Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Sandman series has a character who is the personification of a place – Fiddler’s Green. An inanimate place as a person, and all that that entails.
Positive Space/Negative Space – “The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness.” I’m reminded for this one of the Sherlock Holmes story, Silver Blaze where the detective’s biggest clue regarding an intruder was that a dog had NOT barked when it should have, because it knew the culprit. It was what was NOT there that was important.
Microscopic/Massive – Take a gargantuan spaceship that couldn’t possibly be fueled or air conditioned and make it a swarm of connectable pods, ever changing. Greg Bear wrote a book called Blood Music where he turned the alien encounter trope into biological computing cells injected into a person’s bloodstream.
Let’s give it a try and wrap up. I’ll start by listing attributes of King Arthur that I believe give him staying power. Then in bold, I’ll offer suggestions falling out from cranking the dials around, looking for something fresh.
King Arthur: In a devastated land with recollections of a golden age, barbarian marauders invade. While a new and growing religion turns the world upside-down, a prophesied warrior representing the heroic virtues of his day and the new religion comes to power. He’s aided by a mystical and mysterious remnant of the old religion and wages his righteous war with a weapon that is tied to the very land he protects. He sacrifices himself in his victory, but lies waiting for a time of greatest need to return.
Crank the dials:
- (Negative space) Maybe it’s the absence of a King Arthur figure that is the story. No one shows up to save the land, so the people write their own fake prophecy and lay artifacts out hoping it will fulfill itself. Then it does.
- (None/Many) Maybe the prophecies are real and DO come true, only they do it multiple times. Several King Arthur figures, all legit, all righteous, all working for the same cause and supported by the same mystical doohickeys. But there can be only one.
- (Historical/Future) Maybe the King Arthur trope is wired into human instincts, and is supposed to happen every generation by design. Since it hasn’t occurred in so long, the ones that programmed that show up to check why it’s not working
- (Living/Dead) Maybe King Arthur wasn’t a person at all, but rather was a place. A place you can still visit.
I supposed I could keep at this, though I’ll never write any of these. My idea was just to offer a slick visual that may help me (or hopefully you) when you worry you’re being lazy and want to contort something around and make it new and shiny. To say something that hasn’t been said, at least in that way.
Let me know your thoughts. If there are any particular tropes that bug you most, I’d be curious to hear them. Good luck with the wordslinging!