The Tropes I Like

Misty MasseyMisty Massey
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I cannot bear the Magic Baby.  You know the Magic Baby, right?  It’s when a character in a book (or a movie, or a television show) suddenly becomes pregnant, often without benefit of any sort of bow-chicka-wow-wow beforehand.  The resulting baby usually grows up within a few hours or days, displaying extraordinary mental or physical powers, and occasionally both.  Sometimes the Baby turns evil, and sometimes good, but no matter which way her mind swings, she still annoys me.  Yet she shows up time and time again, because whether I like her or not, the Magic Baby fulfills certain narrative needs and pleases many readers. 

The Magic Baby is a fiction trope, a commonly used (sometimes overused) theme or device.  A trope is not quite the same as a cliché, which seems to imply a lack of original thought.  Most of the time we talk about tropes that have been done so often we’re utterly sick of them, but it occurred to me that there are some tropes that draw me in as sure as sugar water will draw a bee.  So today I’m listing the five tropes that are guaranteed to get my attention.

1) The haunted insane asylum

Yep, set a story in or around an abandoned insane asylum, and I’ll read it on the basis of the setting alone.  There’s already something strange and terrifying about mental illness anyway, so setting a story in a functioning psychiatric hospital grants a dark atmosphere right off the bat.  Considering the “treatments” patients received once upon a time are more similar to fairy-tale tortures than actual medicine, it seems to follow that ghosts would be flocking around the halls of the hospitals whether there are living patients around or not.  If you like this trope, you should read The Hollow City by Dan Wells or Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane.  Some movies that take on the trope well are  House on Haunted Hill,  12 Monkeys, and Session 9.  (And even though only a portion of the movie is set in an asylum,  Silence of the Lambs has what is probably the creepiest high-security area I’ve ever seen on film.)

2) Catholic mysticism

The ritual of traditional Catholicism appeals to me for many reasons.  I’m high-church Episcopalian, and the incense and bowing and chants increase my spiritual feelings tenfold.  Stories about demon possession, stigmata and religious secrets push all my happiest buttons (except for The Da Vinci Code – I’m still mad about that one.  Buy me a drink at a con sometime and I’ll go on for days about that.)  Even though priests have gotten themselves a bit of a bad rep these days, I can’t help being enchanted by stories like The Devil You Know by Mike Carey and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M Miller Jr.  Great movies in this vein are The Exorcist, Stigmata and Constantine.

3) Heists

I don’t want anyone to steal from me, and I certainly don’t plan to rob anyone else, but there is nothing that pleases me more than a well-planned, perfectly executed heist.   There’s something romantic about the con artist, almost like a modern-day pirate.  He uses his victim’s greed against him, leaving us, the audience, cheering for the thief to succeed.  So it’s as if the con man is conning his mark and the author is conning us at the same time.  Fortunately we lose nothing but time and we’re able to enjoy an exciting romp along the way.  Two of the better heist tales in fantasy are  The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch and  Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson.  There are lots and lots of movies, but I’m fond of Ocean’s Eleven (old and new versions), The Italian Job (again, both versions) and Snatch.

4) Plagues

At the moment I’m reading a book called Spillover, about the diseases that transfer from animals to humans.  It’s a great book, especially because I find epidemics terribly intriguing.  Viruses are lethal and fast, and completely free of feelings about what they do to their victims.  I have a dreadful habit of sharing the tidbits of information I learn about diseases with friends and coworkers (one of my buddies at the library still looks at me a little funny since the day I explained the differences between the three kinds of plague that all got lumped under the umbrella of Black Death.)  Sickness is a weird and alien antagonist, and I can’t help being interested.  If you’re looking for some fiction featuring nasty little viruses, try Stephen King’s The Stand, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. 

5) Voodoo

I grew up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and even though I was a suburban white kid, I still came in contact with kids whose grandfathers were bokors, and could create a spell called a root that would cause the person targeted much suffering.  Whether you believe in it or not, most people in the Lowcountry respect and steer clear when they see veve signs or trees decorated in certain ways.  I’ve always thought there was something deep and archetypal about the practice and belief of voodoo, so I love running into stories that present it properly.  Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides is a great example, as is The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis and Voodoo Dreams by Jewell Parker Rhodes. 

So share with me…what tropes keep you coming back every single time?

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20 comments to The Tropes I Like

  • Misty, I adore the lone hero, the one person who stands against evil, no matter if it’s the evil invader from outer space, the evil cattle baron, the evil attack of the killer tomatoes, I adore the lone hero. It’s my fave trope. Which is why I write them, I guess. My fave solo movie hero of all time is Han Solo (see?) and Lee Childe’s Jack Reacher. Oh yeah. And no, I haven’t seen the movie Reacher. (covers eyes) Nope.

  • Wow. I’m really having a hard time answering this. I know that I’m a sucker for a lot of (sub-)genres (historical fiction being my current book-crush), but that’s not the same thing as a trope, of course. Hmm… I have to think about this and figure out some commonality in The Books I Love!

  • wow. 4 out of 5 of those are my faves too. I’m not big on plague things. But I love a good heist story. I also love a good noir turn. Haunted Asylums? Check! (Did you watch this season’s American Horror? Not quite haunted, but still awesome!). Catholic mysticism? Check! Voodoo is fascinating to me, too.

    I do love a good devil/demon story, too. I find evil really compelling and interesting, so those stories tend to pique my curiosity. The “sold your soul” stories are the ones I like, too. Though I admit, in the combo of Catholic Mysticism and Devil/end o’ the world, I’m always confused about why the Christians are stopping (or trying to stop) the end of the world. Very rarely is it theologically discussed. I mean, it’s a good thing, right, if you’re Christian? I think only one film did discuss it (and I can’t remember which one), but the reason was “all these folks will go to hell, so we should delay it!”, which worked for me.

    I like the “I was weak, now I’m badass” trope too. Primarily I’m fond of it when it deals with women. Like the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (SPOILER!) where all the would-be slayer girls all over the world get powers. The one where the girl is clearly being abused is awesome, as is the little girl who is up at bat, and everyone thinks she’s not going to hit the ball far. And you see the girls’ expressions change as they realize what they can, and will do. This also happens in Superman II when Lois Lane gets to beat up the evil woman in black (don’t remember her name). Ironman III also plays with it a bit, as did the Avengers with Black Widow. (Though hers was intellectual not physical: she outsmarted Loki, which was awesome to watch. The “thanks you’ve been very cooperative…” line was great). But it also can deal with men. “Chuck” the show was kind of fun for that, too. Of course characters have to earn it some way (Buffy, Lois, Pepper, Black Widow all put up with a lot of crap), or it is just cheap.

  • kwlee

    Hey there! My favorite trope is the ‘Forgotten Hero’. You know, the hero that has to come out of retirement, or someone that has returned from a long trip to find that everything’s changed in their absence, or a hero with a secret history of awesome. This is a fairly common theme for David Gemmell. Bujold’s Curse of Chalion was a good play on it too. Also why I like movies like Red.

  • My favorite is the same as Faith’s, the lone hero. I also really like the twist of having the lone hero forced to work with a partner or a group–the interactions between them, if well-done, really appeal to me.

  • Well, I’ve written a plague book, so apparently I like that one. My first series began with a “young man doesn’t realize he’s important and powerful, but then manages to save the world” trope, a la King Arthur and Luke Skywalker. I also like the forgotten hero, and plan to play with that in a future series, and I like the lone hero — Ethan Kaille is a pretty classic example. Tropes are fun, and without them I wouldn’t know what to write . . .

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Shape changers! though I’ve grown a bit pickier about how this gets handled. In my early reading, I found the shape-changing in the Belgariad by David Eddings completely fascinating, and one of my multiple-reads books was The Jaguar Princess by Claire Bell. *Awesome* shape-changing movie: Lady Hawk (though the soundtrack is sadly *really* dated).

    Also, sort of more setting than trope: Grasslands with very tall grasses, such as those featured in The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkein, Grass by Sheri Tepper, and Golden Trillium (set in a marsh) by Andre Norton. There is a blend of labyrinth and the exotic that strongly draws me to these settings.

  • I like “You make a better door than a window.” Oh, wait, we’re not talking the literal meaning of trope. ;) I dig the dark hero. I also like the hero that goes dark and has to redeem himself in the end. And zombies…but something different has to be done with them that I don’t expect. The standard zombie trope is becoming cliche for me. Actually, I have all three instances in my noir novel, which is probably why I like it so much. :D

  • Nathan Elberg

    In Star Trek Voyager there was a phenomenal magic baby episode, where a Borg fetus was accidentally created, maturing within a few days into a super-Borg. It sacrificed itself to save the ship, knowing that if it was assimilated into the Collective, it would give the Borg the ability to easily assimilate Starfleet, and the rest of the galaxy.
    Yes, the trope is over-used, but if it’s done well, and it’s an original approach, who cares?
    Resistance is NOT futile.

  • I love plague stuff. Any disease stuff really (You should read Peeps by Scott Westerfield if you haven’t. Seriously. It’s got all sorts of parasite stuff, which is so freaking cool). I also love the lone hero and I love the assassin/thief who gets into trouble by going up against the wrong person (which ties into your heist thing, which I also love). I like the David and Goliath stories.

    I can handle the magic baby in some forms–like Species, although that was not well done. The concept was good, execution less so. What I hate is the secret pregnancy. Blah. Hate it.

    Course, as with all things, execution matters, as does giving things a twist.

  • Megan B.

    Have you heard about the babe? The babe with the power! (Sorry, it was all I could think of)

    One of my favorite tropes is the character who goes away halfway through the story, then shows up to save the day just when you’ve forgotten about them. Even when I see it coming it makes me happy every time. I’ve been wanting to use it in my own work but haven’t hit upon the right story for it.

  • Shapechanging is one of my favorites; started with Jennifer Roberson’s cheysuli and has run right through to Faith’s skinwalking badass, Jane. I also like most things that have to do with plagues or dragons. And pampered kid turns hero (after much loss and trauma, near-deathing and de-pampering, of course). Oh, and I love anything that has to do with religions, real or imagined, so long as the imagined ones have an internal consistency – at least as much consistency as the real ones, anyway!

  • Razziecat

    Oh, this is a fun post! I, too, deplore the Magic Baby (aka the Special Child), especially the Genius Child–ever notice how this is never a girl?

    I love lone wolf types, the self-contained silent ones with a background full of grief and suffering. I just like broken heroes, I guess. I love earthy witches, ones that practice very simple, natural magic that’s bound both to the earth and to their own sense of self (think Granny Weatherwax, or the magic in McKillip’s Heir of Sea & Fire. And I do love religion-as-magic (Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni come to mind).

  • quillet

    Oh, man, I hate that Magic Baby. It’s an instant eye-roller for me. But I love the lone hero, especially the one everyone underestimates, but who overcomes really long odds and totally wins. I also love the assassin, the thief, and the awesome archer (like Robin Hood, who combines at least two of those). I’m also a sucker for stories set in forests (Robin Hood again). Love the plague trope, especially the Black Death — all three forms! (Is there such a thing as a plague-geek? If so, you absolutely get geek-cred for knowing that.) Also love that Catholic mysticism stuff (and I too can’t stand The da Vinci Code — a book I hurled with great force before page 50).

  • I’m so glad to discover that many of you guys like the same weird things I do! Now I’m wondering if I ought to write a novel about a demon-inspired plague that’s unleashed by a former priest who went crazy while trapped in a haunted asylum, and the Voodoo bokor who can save us all.

    And quillet, I read the whole Da Vinci Code, but he truly lost my respect with that Scooby Doo mirror code. I’d have hurled my copy as well, except I was in a hotel when I read it, and I didn’t want to have to pay for the damage to the wall. *laughs*

  • sagablessed

    I like the ones that take the POV of an assistant or side character. They are very rare, but if done well, worth the reading.
    I think you mean hoodoo and not voodoo. They are different. Voodoo is a religion: hoodoo is root or hedge magic. I do like stories with that, but they have to be well done.

  • Saga, yes, academically they are different, but in real practice, they blend. If you want to go tell them they’re getting it wrong, feel free, but don’t mention my name. I prefer being on the good side of a bokor.

  • Misty, tell that to a Dahomean Mambo. They’ll disagree. A true bokor will, as well, though he may try to scare you into thinking otherwise. ;) There’s a lot of power in belief.

    I Did a lot of research on the subject because I wanted what I wrote in chapter 4 of my Arrgh! Thar Be Zombies! supplement to actually reflect the belief of the people during the time period in question.

    But for this, it’s splitting hairs. Because Voodoo is merely the bastardization word of Vodou or Vodu, brought over from Africa by slaves and changed to worship of “saints” to hide their practice from Christian slave owners. Voodoo and Hoodoo don’t really blend, and any true practitioner will tell you. Hoodoo is far more sensationalized. The term to practitioners of the Vodou faith means “Hollywood voodoo.”

    Voodoo is quite a bit more complex and typically doesn’t involve bugs or snakes coming from orifices or rotting zombies rising from the ground. But as you say, I don’t want to get on the bad side of anyone. But yeah, the best interpretation I’ve ever seen of Voodoo is On Stranger Tides, based on their belief and how the world and their faith works. Including how zombies are made and appear to others. And how some of the charms work.

    And Donald, if you haven’t read On Stranger Tides, it’s an awesome book.

  • Though, others call Hoodoo hedge magic, a practice like our “witches” pretty much, not the true religion of the people.

  • I wish I’d gotten to this post sooner b’c I love trope conversations. I just wanted to say that the magic baby has its roots in Catholic saints’ legends – there are tons (ok several) versions of magic babies who are born talking, do miracles at age 3 days, refuse to nurse on fasting days or will only drink holy water and the Host (breasts being too much for their delicate saintly sensibilities). Unlike modern magic baby tropes, usually these babies die young. They just give up the ghost after doing a few miracles and then ascend to heaven. I’ve always wanted someone to write a Saintly Infant story that gets at it from the mother’s angle – I don’t care how holy your baby is, it has to be startling and upsetting to have a child who won’t eat, screams bloody murder if you leave church for five minutes, or who urges you to repent when he doesn’t have teeth.