I’m not particularly a writer of Tolkienesque high fantasy. Instead I think that I tend to veer a little bit more towards what could be considered magical realism: my writing takes place in the real world, in actual places that you can visit if you want to. No Orcs, no elves, no dragons. Maybe a gratuitous giant talking caterpillar smoking a hookah, but that’s just in somebody’s dream. The fantastical elements in my writing tend to come from what happens when normalcy (or at least what we think of as normalcy) gets disrupted by something that is very, very out of the ordinary. Think mind bending superpowers or Satan, that kind of thing. For example I find it interesting to imagine how the U.S. government would respond (or not) to the Devil taking up residence in suburban California and announcing the end of the world.
Still we’re talking fantasy here, and inevitably I’m going to wind up including a trope or two whether I intend to or not. Actually this topic is interesting as it gives me a moment to reflect on my own writing and realize just how hard it is to avoid at least a little bit of the generic in whatever the heck I am producing. It’s also interesting to consider why I have included the generic elements that I have included in my writing.
Take for example the bored rube who finds himself sucked into some fantastical adventure. Sure enough, the first main character you meet in my book is a teenage farm boy who has recently signed up to be a member of the King’s men-at-arms because he suffers from extreme boredom. Why did I go there? Why toss out such an extremely obviously and cliched character? I’m not entirely sure, maybe because I haven’t really thought about it before––and it’s been a while since I wrote out the rough draft of my book, so my memory of exactly what I was thinking at the same time is now separated from reality by many years and about half the beer I consumed in college. Still a few possibilities:
It is (was) easy. One of the things that makes writing so damned hard is that it requires an essentially constant use of your imagination. Fantasy is especially hard because you have to create a new world or significantly alter the existing one. In a situation like this falling back on something common makes life a bit easier. Also when you’re coming up with a new story the avenues for extreme creativity may not be immediately apparent and so something obvious tends to sneak in and then just gets stuck in the book.
Often things become clichés because they actually work pretty well. For example a generic rube farm boy has a very good reason to actually want to seek out a grand adventure. (In my book wanderlust and a willingness to head to the opposite end of the Earth on short notice are the primary reason my character gets chosen to go on the adventure in the first place.) Also because farm country tends to be thought of (perhaps unfairly) as a backwater, our character is naturally likely to be out of his element in journeying out into the wider world. Peril for him will seem even more perilous, and his lack of knowledge is a lovely excuse for someone else to explain backstory.
The character becomes instantly relate-able. Let’s face it, a lot of fantasy readers are probably looking for a temporary escape from their mundane existence (be it school, an office job, or yes, even a real farm.) We relate with, say, Luke Skywalker who is obviously very bored stuck in a backwater Moisture Farm on Tatooine because, frankly we’ve probably all been in a somewhat similar situation at some point in our lives, and are still stuck there now.
I think though that there’s a broader reason why broad tropes tend to work their way into fiction––the simple reason is that it’s hard to avoid them all. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, which means that almost any idea that you can come up with has probably been tried by somebody, somewhere. And since the population of plots and ideas and tropes that work well is going to be smaller than the total population of plots and tropes, it’s likely that any good idea you have has already been put into place by somebody else. As such clichés happen, in everything from dime store science fiction to Booker Prize winning novels*.
So in a nutshell tropes happen, even when we don’t necessarily want them to happen. At the end of the day we’re going down a very well trod path, and even if we do wind up arriving at someplace new, at least some of the scenery is likely to seem very familiar along the way.
*If you don’t believe me read Midnight’s Children, one of the best and most acclaimed books of the last half century. The plot twist is––amazingly generic.