I’m working on rewrites to my upcoming novel this week, and I’ve been doing quite a bit of noodling on character motivations. Combine that with the recent online panic about Captain America turning out to be a sleeper-agent for Hydra (in the comics) and I’ve been banging my head against tropes, subversion or tropes and all the different ways you can explain a character to a reader (or a viewer, or a gamer).
I get that these tropes exist for a reason. They’re a shorthand (not always a good shorthand) that taps into the shared experience of everyone who has been consuming media for the past 20 years. Notice I only say 20. We humans have a notoriously short lens. Take an English class sometime and read through anything written before the turn of the 19th century. Notice how much time your teacher has to spend on setting the context? Explaining the cultural canon of that timeframe so that you can appreciate the actual depth of the books you’re reading? Once you know things like; the term “nose” as a common metaphor for “penis”, your understanding of a works can change on a very fundamental level.
The point is that this body of trope and metaphor, what is often referred to as the “cultural canon” is constantly changing and updating. The tropes of 50 years ago are, by and large, unintelligible to the incoming audience.
But what this means is that these things that we are railing against, these shorthand pieces of storytelling that tap into the cultural canon to cut out hours of work and exposition, these are temporary. We have the chance to change and direct where they go and what replaces them if we start putting the extra work in now. There will be fits and starts, of course, there will be throwbacks and reversions to type, but we are already pushing the canon in a new direction. The idea of a villain with a sympathetic backstory? That’s NEW, that entered the canon within the past 30 years. The idea that hero can fail, then *return* to being a hero again? That’s also NEW. So while it’s disappointing to see one-note throwbacks, we need to keep in mind that those are on their way out. As long as we keep pushing to create the new canon, replacing those older, now negative tropes with an easy to use toolkit of new ones, we can keep this evolution moving forward.