With spoilers for Of them all by Leah Cypess
Writing is rife with tropes. Fantasy writing, especially, can sometimes feel too tropey – another Medieval setting, vaguely European, with princesses and castles and kingdoms and curses, elven fairy-like creatures, short, grumpy dwarf-like creatures, we’ve heard it all before. Of course, some fantasy books avoid these tropes. And some, although they rely on them, use them in innovative ways. So, what is the difference between succumbing to a trope and using a trope for the story’s benefit? How can writers use tropes in a conscious way, to enhance their writing?
An example which can help us find some answers is Of them all, a novella by Leah Cypess, first published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction (Sept/Oct 2020 edition). It’s a fairy-tale rewriting, so some of the ingredients are very familiar.
The story starts with our heroine Margarette, who tells us that, at her christening, the fairies blessed her. But the blessing was strange. They said: "You will be beautiful only to those who wish you harm."
The story progresses from there, Margarette torn between being plain when people like her, or even just feel neutral towards her, and being beautiful – in a Medieval patriarchal world, being beautiful for a woman means being powerful – only to those who hate her. The novella draws the reader in and is hard to put down. The resolution is particularly satisfying. Yet it is a story we have heard before: the beautiful princess and the ugly one, a southern kingdom blessed by fairies, a northern kingdom called Snow, two princes, an old war. So why does it work?
I think there are a couple of reasons why this novella works. Firstly, the fairy-tale setting means the worldbuilding can be glossed over, allowing Cypess to focus on the more important aspects of the story. As readers, we don’t need anyone to explain to us why fairies come to give children weird maybe-curses, maybe-blessings – we know that part of the story. We also understand the importance of being beautiful for a princess, without lengthy explanations.
We can focus on the crux of the matter: the difficulties the phrasing of her blessing puts Margarette in. In a way, the trope shortcuts the worldbuilding, makes the story leaner.
Humour often does this. It’s easier to rely on well-oiled tropes, because it makes the story simpler for the reader to follow, leaving space to focus on the jokes.
Parodies also thrive on exploiting the obvious failings of common tropes for comic effect. They work so well because we know the story already, and are comparing the parody to the original in our minds.
Of them all is interesting because, despite being a fairy-tale rewriting, it isn’t a parody. It takes itself, and the trope it’s using, seriously.
Using a trope also means the writer can delve deeper into the implications of the trope, because the readers are already familiar with it – picking at the trope’s consistency, at its deeper meaning, at what impact it might have in people’s everyday lives. The writer can afford to push the reader further away from their comfort-zone. For example, Margarette discovers she is barren. She cannot have a child, because the curse protects itself: it cannot create someone who will both love her and her find beautiful. This is trying to push the logic of the blessing to its bitter end, to find out exactly what kind of limitations – or opportunities – having a curse placed on you might imply.
Another key to identifying a good (or bad) trope: does it make the story predictable? If the trope being used means we can tell the end of the story before it even begins, then it’s a problem. But this is not the case here. There is no easy way out for Margarette. Her predicament is complicated, as are her feelings towards her beauty, or even towards marriage. She gets into a fight with her sister, and she is torn between making up – forgiving the harsh words that were exchanged – or adding fuel to the fire, because at least when her sister wishes her harm, she finds her beautiful. Margarette gains the upper hand when she is hated, not pitied. This means she is tempted to mess up her relationships to obtain beauty, creating lots of opportunities for conflict and character development.
At the end, we find out why the fairies have given her such a strange blessing. It turns out the fairies were never interested in humans. They are involved in a war with the dvergar, who live in the rival kingdom of Snow, and the dvergar can never find humans beautiful. So, ‘you will be beautiful only to those who wish you harm’ means that the dvergar can never harm her. It’s a shield. Margarette is a weapon in that war.
This is a twist, an unusual explanation behind a familiar trope. The fairies don’t give a damn how much their blessing has messed up Margarette’s life and relationships. They didn’t do this for her to be happy. They did it for her to be hard for the dvergar to kill. Fairy-tales are normally anthropocentric, so this reveal is very effective, surprising and satisfying all at once.
We’ve covered a couple of ways a familiar trope can be an effective storytelling tool in fantasy: reader expectations can be subverted; the worldbuilding can be streamlined; the trope can be developed more in-depth, as readers are familiar with the basics. Most importantly, the trope needs to be at least partly subverted, or the main plot and/or source of tension needs to be dissociated from the trope, so that the story isn’t predictable.
As long as the writer is conscious of their readers’ expectations, it is then possible to surprise them, or to cast a story they are familiar with in a new light.
6 Nov. 21