Uh oh, you wanted to have your characters go to a school for magic or discover the meaning of friendship on their quest, but because someone’s already written an article about it, you’re not so sure. That’s right, you’re thinking of using… a trope. It’s okay though! Just because something happens often enough to be recognizable, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. To prove it, this week we’re discussing our very favorite tropes, the ones we might use a little too often if our editors weren’t there to stop us.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast, with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Chris: This is the Mythcreant Podcast. I’m Chris and with me is Oren and Wes. And since we have this opening every single time and we always make bad jokes, is that a trope?
Oren: If it is, I’m not doing it anymore.[laughter]
Chris: Is our opening bit a trope now?
Oren: Tropes are bad and I hate them and I’m never doing another trope. It’s the worst.
Chris: Okay. No more opening bit. No more puns.
Oren: Wait, what? No, you can’t take that away from me! That’s my favorite trope. [laughter] That’s the one I like! When I said no tropes, I meant only the tropes that I like.
Chris: No only the tropes that you like? Okay. We’ll remove all the tropes that Oren likes.
Chris: We’re going to talk about our favorite tropes. And the reason we’re going to talk about our favorite tropes is we’re so busy usually, talking about what tropes are bad on our site and online, because frankly, that’s what people read. Sometimes people ask us, why don’t we have more positive articles? We do sometimes, we have probably have more than you think, but they don’t get the clicks! They don’t get those sweet clicks. People just want to read negative stuff. It’s sad, but it’s true.
Oren: Literally nobody reads our positive articles.[laughter]
Chris: When people talk about tropes, they tend to talk about tropes that they don’t like.
Wes: And we’re probably also talking about this because the last time you talked about tropes, and all the ones that you guys hated, I wasn’t around. And you knew that I would not have partook very strongly in that negativity. And so you’re like, “Oh, Wes is back. Oh, we gotta keep things positive for him.” And so we’re clearly like, “Yeah, let’s talk about good things that we like. Cause I bet Wes loves all this tropey nonsense.”
Chris: It is true that perhaps we’re a little bit more ready to tear things apart than you are, Wes.
Wes: It’s cause I’m a Virgo. I want to sit back and hear it all out and be calm.
Oren: There is a weird kind of fear that I see in writing Twitter and other writing social media spaces, that everyone hates tropes now because TV Tropes exists. I don’t think it’s that big a deal, but we have encountered a few Q and A’s from people who seem to want to not do something, specifically because it is a trope that has a TV Tropes page.
I would just kind of like to show by example that just because something has been documented doesn’t mean it’s bad. What is or is not a cliche is kind of debatable, but just because something has happened often enough that people notice it, that doesn’t mean it is a bad thing and that you should stay away from it. You will run yourself ragged if you think that way. It will not help.
Wes: We like identifying patterns and categorizing things, because then you get to draw on that. And then when those expectations get subverted or altered, it’s enjoyable. But without it, you can’t subvert something that hasn’t been established as a trope or otherwise. So in a way that brings you more novelty and joy.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, I do think people could maybe do to read TV Tropes with a grain of salt. A lot of their stuff is not necessarily reflected in actual storytelling. They make some assumptions. But just the fact that they talk about tropes doesn’t make tropes bad.
One of my favorite tropes is surprise reinforcements. I love it the most. I sometimes just watch the portal scene in Endgame when I’m feeling bad. I like it when friends show up to help. I would definitely overuse this trope if I wrote more fiction, and I probably overuse it in my RPGs. I did use it probably more times than I should have in one story that I’m still working on, and I’m trying to change one of those instances because I’d already done it. Don’t you want it a second time? If it was a good thing the first time, it would clearly be good again.
Chris: Let’s just say, in your current campaign, I can count on, if I fail a role, that some NPC is going to show up and help out.[laughter]
Oren: Yeah, but sometimes they’re an NPC you don’t like, and then it’s awkward.
Chris: It’s not as much candy for my character, right? So in that case, it is not as rewarding as the successes. Of course we have tons and tons of NPCs in that game. So many of them to show up and help out at the last minute.
Oren: Usually the surprise reinforcements trope is a prior achievement turning point, at least when it’s done correctly. It can definitely feel kind of contrived if it isn’t earned in some way. If good guys just randomly show up. “Ah, well I’m glad they came to help!”
Chris: When you have many protagonists, you might have a main character who usually solves problems. But you also need your side characters to contribute. Once in a while, it’s okay for the side character to solve the problem instead of the main character, by showing up and saving the day last minute. It’s not something you should do for every conflict, but sometimes it’s worth it to have those side characters contribute depending on how long the story is. That’s a good opportunity to give some candy to a different character than your main character.
Oren: I’ve also occasionally seen this trope used where reinforcement showed up when they weren’t necessary. Like, it seemed like we were already winning and then some reinforcements show up and it’s like, “Thanks, guys! Thanks for being here.”
Chris: I think the reason why this reinforcements trope is so popular, especially in visual media, is they’re trying to make everything really dramatic. And they’re looking for [dramatic voice] “All is lost, the odds are so stacked against us,” have a way for people to not die.
And having a whole bunch of reinforcements show up last minute—Game of Thrones used that too much, where it starts to become predictable. But I think the reason they did it is, again, they wanted that really high tension, all is lost, overwhelming odds. And then they just use the same tool to get out of that too often. But it can be really fun in moderation.
Wes: Of course, it soundtracks nicely, because you can have the whole change in tone and atmosphere, and then hit the special music. And then suddenly there’s like a million more Unsullied, even though you’re pretty sure that they all got killed on the other continent.
Oren: Where did they come from? Who knows? They came from the soundtrack, obviously.
Wes: That score is incredible. Spawns more soldiers.
Chris: I love creepy balls and masquerades. So, examples. Everybody loves the masquerade in Labyrinth. You know, dancing with the goblin king. The Addams Family ball. It’s great. If you’ve seen the Strange and Norrell miniseries, which is quite good, they have like a fairy abductor. When she sleeps, she goes into the fairy realm and there’s a ball and she’s made to dance. One that I keep thinking of is the 2004 movie Van Helsing, which was a bad movie.
Wes: That was with Hugh Jackman, right? Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale? I was going to say Jeremy Renner, but I think he was in that gritty Hansel and Gretel.
Chris: The one memorable scene is the ball scene. Where the vampire big bad is having this dark ball, and he’s dancing with the damsel. And they have a singer and music and everybody’s dancing, but then they want to have an interaction between the villain and the damsel.
They just sort of stand there and talk to each other and it’s like, wait, what happened to the dancing? Why are you standing still? You should be dancing right now. You’re on a dance floor. You were dancing a second ago. There’s music playing. Why are you not dancing?
Oren: Maybe everyone at the party knows he’s a vampire lord, and it’s just like, “Okay everyone, just dance around him. Like, I know it’s a pain, but we really can’t make him mad. I know he’s being really inconsiderate right now, but step around him and then continue the circle.”
Chris: Or alternately, they watch him for cues and they’re like, “The vampire lord stopped, so we all got to stop to make him look like he fits in. And then we can start dancing again as soon as he starts dancing again.”
Oren: Yeah. Plus everyone has to wear creepy masks because that just makes it cooler.
Chris: There’s a scene that’s not a whole ball, but it’s still a creepy dancing scene in this old Legend movie, which has the young Tom Cruise and Tim Curry. There’s a scene where the damsel dances with a creepy dress. It’s like this completely black figure with just a sparkly black face. You can’t see eyes or mouth or anything on it. And it just comes and is like, [singsong voice] “Hey, dance with meee.” [laughter] She starts dancing with it, and then they’re merged together. And then she’s wearing this villainous dress.
Oren: Usually when I get dressed in the morning, it’s not nearly that glamorous.
Chris: Unfortunately, most stories that have creepy balls and masquerades, don’t do a really good job of integrating it super well in the plot. It’s just, hey, this is going to create some cool atmosphere and the villain happens to be here.
Oren: There are a lot of ways to make going to a ball part of the plot. I have had some clients who have been like, “All right, well, I really want my character to go to the ball. So we’re going to take a break from the plot to go to the ball.” And it’s like, okay, but, imagine if someone that they needed to talk to was going to be there and they can’t normally talk to them. Or like, they need to snoop around and overhear what people are saying. Then they can go to the ball and it’s part of the plot. Imagine.
Chris: Combining magic with balls works really well. Just like in Strange and Norrell. Like, imagine a masquerade where, when people put on their mask, they don’t remember who they are anymore, or something like that. You could do fun things with them.
Wes: I am a big fan of abandoned places. It doesn’t really matter what the place is. If it’s a mine, even better. If it’s a mine where dwarves used to live, that’s probably the best. And if the dwarves aren’t there anymore because they dug too deep, that’s even better. I was trying to think, why am I attracted to this idea? I kind of jam on the forbidden knowledge trope.
Even though I know that knowledge is good. We should learn things. Learning is great. But I still like the idea of, if you dig too deep in your quest for resources and prosperity, you’re going to get stung by a Balrog. Or if you read this book, there’s a reason the letters move. It makes your hair catch on fire. So I am a big fan of that kind of forbidden knowledge, at the cost of pushing the limit a little too far.
Oren: I mean, abandoned places have automatic plot hooks, of like, why are they abandoned? What happened? And that’s not always part of the story. Sometimes you’re just an urban fantasy town, which has an abandoned everything. But if you’re using the trope to its full potential, part of the story is going to be, why was it abandoned?
And that’s just a question that gets raised when you go to an abandoned place, and it provides some tension. It’s probably not going to be because it fell below housing code and is no longer considered fit for human habitation. It’s going to be, like, a ghost or something.
Wes: In abandoned houses, mansions—I guess, condemned buildings, whatever—those are fine. A mine, it’s hard to grasp the concept of the limits of a mine. It’s easier for me with a building. It’s like, I know what a building looks like. I can kind of think about an ant farm and maybe that’s the mine, but only in two dimensions.
Chris: Everything in the mine’s very hidden, as opposed to, I love castle ruins that are on the surface. But, you know, you can see where they end. I think I like imagining, seeing half of the structure and imagining the rest.
Wes: There’s a really terrible—I want to say it was a Hallmark movie, but it stars Tom Hanks, and I don’t think he acknowledges it—but it’s called Mazes and Monsters. It showed up, I think in the eighties, kind of right after peak satanic panic kind of thing.
Tom Hanks’s character goes off to college, having promised his parents that he would not play Mazes and Monsters because that’s the reason why he had to leave his other college. Because he became too obsessed with that game and flunked out of class.
Chris: [laughing] Oh wow.
Wes: He meets a group of enthusiastic young people who also enjoy playing Mazes and Monsters, and he starts playing with them and has a romance with one of them.
But they decide to take their game to the next level. And one of the characters discovers an abandoned mine nearby. They start LARPing in the mine as part of their Mazes and Monsters, but due to a few things that happen and Tom Hanks’s character falling out of that romance, he has too real of an experience in this mine. And suddenly he can’t separate himself from his character, which is Pardue, a holy man. Then he goes on a quest to New York City.
Chris: I did not expect that end part. Are you saying that was like the fifteen minutes in the beginning or something like that?
Wes: The mine stuff lasts probably about two thirds of the way through, but then yeah, he starts telling them that he’s getting visions, that he has to go to the two towers. It was weird seeing the twin towers in a movie. He has to jump into a portal and we all see where this is going.
He goes to the top of the building to jump into the portal, but then they save him. But do they? Cause then they go see him after time has passed, and he greets them as Pardue. And so he’s, like, broken forever. It’s a terrible movie.
Oren: Man, I wish I could get players who were that into their characters.[laughter]
Wes: So invested. [laughs] I liked the premise of that part. I thought there would be more with the mine, that things would get more supernatural instead of just sad. The atmosphere was just ripe for it. It was pretty fun for that scene.
Oren: This is a little cheating cause I know Chris likes this one too. I love antagonistic parents. And I love antagonistic mentors. And I love antagonistic mentor parents the most. Three great things, all in one. It solves so many problems around mentors and parents if they’re antagonists. It gets rid of the whole, why don’t they fix the problem for you? Well, they are the problem. Deal with it. [laughter] You can’t handle the truth.
And it also provides a role for the parents in the story. Because if the parents are around, there’s kind of this odd feeling of like, they should probably be important if the character is talking to them on a regular basis, as a young person probably would. A story can feel kind of weird if the character is technically in high school and lives at home, but never talks to their parents because their parents aren’t important in the story. And there are ways around that, but one of the best ways is if the parent is a bad guy.
Now you have a built-in role in the story that doesn’t get rid of the protagonist’s agency. And it’s such great drama, especially if the parents, despite being bad guys, are still loving parents and still want what’s best for their kid in some way.
Chris: I would put a dividing line between parents and, what would be in most stories, a parent figure. Which is the character that is “like my father” or “I thought he was my father, but turns out he’s not my real dad”. Because a lot of times those characters are characters that hate the protagonist. They’re just evil. Whereas the relationship becomes much more interesting if you have a genuine parent figure who actually wants the best for the protagonist, right?
The other relationship is a lot more complex. So I would put that caveat on it. And it is a little sad that when people want to make a parent an antagonist, so often they reach for “not quite real” parents. It doesn’t say very good things. But they can be friendly and antagonistic. And so could the mentor. And it’s great.
Oren: I really enjoy it. I find that there is built-in dramatic conflict because, in addition to having to try to overpower this antagonistic parent, you also have to deal with, well, they’re your parents and they love you and you love them. Probably. I think that’s what makes this more interesting. But you still have to defeat them or convince them to join your side.
So I was super into The Runaways when it first started. And it floundered, but I really liked the premise.
Chris: They had some logistical issues with power levels.
Oren: For some reason, the parents in Runaways don’t have powers. I don’t understand that choice. All of the kids get powers and it just seems like the parents should also have them, but only one of them kind of does, but it’s actually just the power to use the staff.
So once the kid has it, the parent doesn’t have that power anymore. And so now the conflict over being able to physically defeat them is just kind of over now, because they don’t have powers. So, yes, I guess you can.
Chris: I would love to see more protagonists studying under antagonistic mentors. Where it’s like, “I don’t necessarily like what this person is doing, but for my own survival or benefit, or so I can become powerful enough, I have to study under this person and gain their skills.” Or, “I think everything’s fine, but it turns out my mentor is maybe not as good of a person as I thought.” I like that. I would like to see more of that. That’s more of a personal relationship, as opposed to “I’m going to infiltrate the system,” which just has a different feel. Less personal.
I like things that seem innocent and end up being menacing or deadly. The cute aliens in Galaxy Quest. Where they’re like [high pitched voice] ooh, they look like cute babies! And then—this is how it always goes, right?—the cute animal, or whatever it is, open its mouth. And it’s full of teeth.
Wes: You loved that scene in Captain Marvel then, right?
Chris: Oh my gosh. Oh, the best. I love that cat so much. [laughter] I also think it works really well with plants. I really like carnivorous plants. Especially sneaky ones. In the Xanth books, there’s carnivorous grass where, it’s fine, but if you go to sleep in the wrong place, the grass will start to get to you.
Later seasons of The 100 have the same thing, where they’re on a planet that has trees that are carnivorous. And again, if you lay down in the wrong place, the roots will start to entwine you and you won’t be able to get away.
Oren: That’s a pretty strong case of a thing that looks familiar, but is different in a dangerous way. That’s the uncanniness right there. We’re pretty used to plants. There are some dangerous plants, but they’re almost always dangerous cause they’re poisonous or what have you. There aren’t any plants that will actively pursue a human, but in fiction there can be. And it’s like, that’s not how plants do. I’m weirded out now. I’m not comfortable.
Wes: I hope you guys never did see M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening.
Oren: [laughing] Oh gosh.
Wes: Basically the plants come after everybody. It’s terrible.
Chris: See, now I want to see it more, but you’re saying it’s terrible.
Wes: No, you don’t. It’s bad. It’s not fun bad. It’s just bad.
Oren: The reason why it’s bad is actually because the plants only come after people in the most technical sense, because people start killing each other for no reason. And the whole movie is the characters kind of running away, and for some reason, not succumbing to the same effect. But meeting people who have. It’s very inconsistent. And then at the end they’re like, “Oh, the plants did it. The plants released a pollen or something that made people kill each other.”
And it’s like, I guess if you say so, it was the plants. Sure, it could have been anything. You could swap out that scene for him explaining that actually it was the kitty cats. The parasite that they give you mutated and made you murderous, or actually it was Fox news. And that would be more believable. [laughter] It’s only plants coming after you in the most technical sense of the term.
Wes: So, Chris, do you just look at everything with suspicion? Anything cute, you’re like, uh-oh.
Chris: I mean, I think this is part of the fact that I just like creepy things. And so if you take anything and make it more creepy, I will like it better.
Oren: In real life, that’s how hippos work. Hippos are large, no matter what, but they look kind of cute. And then they open their mouths and they have these enormous fang things. And it’s like, what the heck? There’s a TierZoo episode about that.
Wes: If the devil is involved in some way, and if the devil is sympathetic in any way, I’m here for it. I will watch that show. I don’t know. I mean, it’s been done so many times. It doesn’t have to actually be Lucifer or Satan. It could be a stand-in for the devil, like Dracula or something like that.
Maybe I crave the gray morality that comes with this type of trope. [considering voice] “Well, you know, the devil’s got a point.” [incredulous voice] “No, no, you can’t trust the devil!” Seems reasonable!
Chris: The devil always speaks truth.
Wes: Having finished season five of Supernatural recently, I enjoyed the Lucifer character immensely, especially in contrast with those angels. I mean, I liked them, but they were terrible.
Oren: The angels were rude. They were rude dudes.
Wes: But the Lucifer character, [soothing voice] “I will never lie to you, this is why I’m doing this.” And coaxing, “Just trust me.” And it’s like, I know I can’t trust you, but I want to!
Chris: Speaking of which, I just like villains that never lie. They just say the right things, but they are true.
Wes: It’s just fun. When the devil is present, I expect that trope. Present, I suppose, as a character. In Good Omens, the devil shows up at the very end, but basically doesn’t do anything and it gets kind of banished. So they don’t work that angle there.
If the devil has a role in the story, I want to know what the devil’s perspective is on events. Maybe that’s just ever since John Milton did Paradise Lost, like everybody’s like, “Oh, you know, maybe, there is a point to this.”
Oren: I mean, I’m definitely at the point where, if there’s a devil and the devil is just kind of an evil monster or whatever, like, yawn. I’m legit impressed with the devil character in Supernatural, especially considering how the demons are just uncomplicatedly evil. They’re just really bad with no redeeming value at all. So the fact that they were able to get this devil character to seem like he had a point was, I thought, pretty impressive.
I’ve actually gotten to the point where I want my devil character to be neutral. I don’t want them to be evil at all. I just want them to have, like, a different political opinion from God or Michael or whoever we have representing the heaven side.
Wes: I forget which book in the Sandman series, but the devil just quits. He quits his job as the lord of hell. And then there’s a bunch of interests come to claim the territory.
But I think I remember that book ending with Lucifer just sitting on a beach somewhere, and he takes a sip of a drink and says, “I’ll admit, sunsets are beautiful. You did good on that one,” obviously talking to God. And I’m just like, that’s nice.
Chris: My favorite devil trope is the whole violin battle with the devil.
Wes: That was nodded to in Supernatural as well. Come on, Sam, bet your fiddle for my soul, or something like that.
Oren: We have time for at least one more. And mine is evil elves. I love evil elves. I’ve gotten to the point where, if there are elves in a story and they’re Tolkin type elves, they’re going to be evil for me. Why would you want good Tolken elves? It’s a human, but it’s kind of better than a human in every way. It’s like, “Oh, great. Those guys.” But if they’re evil, then it’s like, “Ah, that’s very scary.”
Wes: Without resorting to, “Oh, the orcs are corrupted elves, corrupted by evil.” It’s like, no, they’re just elves, and they’re evil.
Oren: Everything about orcs comes with all this racial coding and racist baggage. Elves can have that too. I’ve seen a number of stories where it really feels like the elves are supposed to be stand-in for East Asian characters. And that’s not great. But I don’t think they’re that way by default the way orcs are. Like, the way orcs have racist baggage by default.
I love to use elves as my setting’s imperialistic bad guys. Because they’re very capable. People who like fantasy are familiar with the concept of elves being very good at everything. And they live a long time, so they can be ancient and mysterious, which really helps when you’re trying to make a bad guy threatening. And they’re beautiful, which is also very useful for a bad guy to be. For them to be appealing in some way just makes it a little more interesting than if your bad guys are all sludge monsters.
Wes: A book that I read that did that really well—I think I brought it up on here before—The Last Ringbearer. It’s a retelling of the Lord of the Rings.
Well, the first part is like the war of the ring. And then it’s kind of dealing with the aftermath, but it’s from Mordor’s point of view. And it’s like, the elves and Gandalf are using the humans for their own reasons to basically dominate this continent. The elves are terrifying in that. Plus they gave them cat pupils, and I thought that was a cool touch.
Chris: As opposed to other parts of their body. Hopefully in their eyeballs.
Wes: [laughing] Just had to clarify.
Oren: My favorite one is always going to be Lords and Ladies of Discworld. Cause that’s the one where the evil elves really make their appearance. They show up on the periphery of a few other books, but that’s the one where they’re the real bad guys. That’s just a very good Discworld book and it uses evil elves very well.
Chris: For my last one, I wanted to say that everything is better with wings. Put a wing on it. [laughter] Put some wings on it. There are wings. It could be bird wings. It could be fairy wings. It could be bat wings, just put some wings on it. It’ll be better.
Oren: Probably should have an even number of wings in most cases. I’m willing to make some exceptions, but for the most part, putting one wing on something is going to be a little weird.
Chris: But more interesting anyway, with one wing.
Wes: It would have to spin like a helicopter blade.
Chris: That’s true! It can be like a helicopter seed. One wing does work. Everything is better.[laughter]
Oren: I’m glad we got that sorted out. We’ll go ahead and end the podcast on that as we all fly away on these wings that Chris gave us. Cause everything’s better with wings.
Those of you at home, if you want to leave a comment explaining why everything is better with wings, name some things that would be better with wings. Cars, for example, way better with wings. Obviously.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have a Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com.
Chris: They already have the wings, obviously.
Oren: We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?