Arcs, Guns, and Underdogs: The Invisible Tropes of Western Literature


I went to a panel at Orycon about the tropes of the East meeting those of the West, and one of the questions that came up was “What are some Western tropes so pervasive we barely notice them?”(In case it isn’t clear, West/Western is meant in the political/geographical sense, not the cowboy one.)

The Western predilection for happy endings was mentioned, as was the necessity of character arcs. Local author Fonda Lee (whose new book Jade City sounds spectacular) served as moderator and proposed the question added a doozy about personal agency over fate, a trope so strong that she noted powerlessness is nearly taboo.

There was a lot more to cover and the panelists moved on but the question stuck with me. I asked writers Damien Walter, Gord Sellar,  and Garrett Calcaterra, and if they had anything to add. You’ll see there is some crossover and I wonder if there are things so solidly ingrained that we don’t even notice them.

First, here are a couple I have noticed.

  • The Underdog. Often this takes the form of one who succeeds despite everyone they meeting hating that underdog. Women who only meet misogynists, people of color who only encounter racists, and so on. This can feel empowering and inspiring, but also relies on milquetoast antagonists and the story can come off as very contrived.
  • Tragic Flaws in the character and an expected character arc from the events of the story to being fixing that . This flaw often takes the place of alcoholism, or apathy, or emotional withdrawal. Regardless, the plot that comes along just happens to right the exact wrong (or in some cases begins the process) found in the character.
  • Chekov’s Gun. Everything from YT’s dentata to Daenerys’s dragon eggs, we love to see the solution for Act III slyly introduced earlier. This can be very rewarding but, as with the next entry, can feel too neat if constantly relied on.
  • Lack of Deus Ex Machina . It’s nice to have the elements of the story tie together and satisfying to have the solution be self-contained within the story. However this gives fiction a tidiness that life doesn’t have.
  • Structure. The Three Acts. The Hero’s Journey. We have certain expectations of structure and hence pacing that most works follow.
  • The faithful dog. For people who grow up in Muslim countries, or places like India, the idea of these dangerous pests as companions feels very strange indeed. But in the west we love dogs to the point where killing off a pet is ofttimes seen as less forgivable than killing of human characters.

That’s all I got. Onto the others!

Guns / Swords as symbols of personal empowerment

–Damien Walter
 “Most guns, and basically all swords, only exist to kill people. Only a psychopath believe that killing people makes them powerful. And yet in stories we present guns and swords as symbols of personal empowerment, that heroes use to fight their way to self-realization. This is so pervasive, most people actually believe it. Imagine if we stopped using guns and swords as this symbol, and started using books instead? That would be closer to reality.”

Love Conquers All

–Garrett Calcaterra
  “To me, the most ubiquitous trope is “love conquers all,” which tends to be used in one of three ways in western storytelling. In its standard form, our hero is driven to defeat insurmountable odds in order to be with the one they love, but the trope is also inverted oftentimes, so that by killing our hero’s loved one, our hero is set upon a lonely path as an anti-hero. The third way the trope is used is the more literary/tragic route, where our protagonist shows their naivete by believing that true love conquers all. The two lovers try to isolate themselves from the outside world, but of course that never works and heartbreak/tragedy/hijinx ensue.”

Agency is Magic

–Gord Sellar
 “Agency is Magic. That is: we insist on character agency being relevant—to the point where if it’s not apparent to the reader, then we see it as a defect in a story, and teach young writers that they MUST give characters agency, however constrained—and also on it being
able to effect real change in the world of the story, or at least upon the story problems. If you read literature from other societies, you may find this is not a starting assumption at all. In mainstream literature, this isn’t always such a disconnect, or in horror where
the lack of agency in some situations is nightmare fuel (Poe’s “The Premature Burial being a great exemplar of this) but in most popular fiction—and especially science fiction, where the intelligence of individuals interfaces with a mysterious universe to produce
understanding, then knowledge, and then ultimately some kind of power (in the form of a technology, or some other means of grappling with the world), this comes across as pretty alien: characters who just sort of wait out problems, or powerlessly behold them, strikes us as odd. Even if a character is trapped, or seemingly powerless, we usually expect they’ll discover a way to do something to ensure their own escape, survival, or overcoming of the system. Agency must have at least some ability to act upon the character’s situation, or what’s the point of the story? When I encounter stories where characters either don’t exert agency, or do so in a way that strikes me as passive and not responding to their conditions, it just annoys me.

And yet in Korean narratives (TV, film, and translated fiction), I run into this somewhat regularly. Characters either cannot do anything to change their conditions, or they could do so, but they somehow just don’t, aren’t willing, or cannot imagine doing so. (Whether that’s art imitating life or the other way round is a question I won’t get into beyond saying that I meet a lot more people in Korea than I would in Canada who seem to think that patiently waiting out a bad situation is the “right” way to deal with it. North Americans may actually do this a lot  too, but when we talk about ideal solutions, it’s assumed one must “make an effort” and  “do something” about whatever’s troubling one, or one has no right to complain about it.)

220px-TheJournalsOfMusan2011Poster There’s a film titled Musan Ilgi (The Journals of Musan) which is about a North Korean escapee who lives in Seoul. The poor guy’s life is basically hell—everyone despises him, and he runs into trouble while working a crap job on the streets. At every turn, I found myself waiting for him to stand up for himself, and at every turn he failed to do so. Like a lot of Korean narrative, it was very melodramatic, and aimed at jerking tears and evoking a kind of patronizing sympathy for “those poor North Korean defectors” but it was hard to stomach the film, as a Western viewer. I found myself wanting to shake the guy and say, “Stand up for yourself!” and finally, when he just kept letting people crap on him, I felt a visceral revulsion, even a desire to punch him myself. When, near the end of the movie, he finally snapped and did stand up for himself in a very small way, he was very brutally punished. The film felt almost as if it was an assault on the idea of agency doing any good at all, and I bothered me on a very deep level because of it, I guess.

It may be that this is also a feature of postcolonial and subaltern literature: I see it not only in Korean (i.e. postcolonial) literature, but also in some of the canonical African-American novels and short stories—things like Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Ellison’s _Invisible Man_ and Toni Morrison’s _Beloved_ and a bunch of Langston Hughes’ poetry and short fiction. Sometimes the only expression of agency possible (or conceivable) is to endure, in both Korean and some African-American stories, but to someone steeped in agency-saturated fiction, this can feel strange and frustrating. I guess it depends: sometimes agency being incapable of overcoming a problem is actually a radical thing to depict, since that’s so rarely depicted in fiction. It’s like, “Yes, I’m making you look at something agency can’t solve.” I think that can be great. But I think when agency’s missing for other reasons—because passivity is fetishized, or used as a way of evoking melodramatic sympathy—it’s probably toxic. I think the idea of agency being a potential force for good, and something to be embraced, is a good idea, even if it’s kind of fantastical and mythic. Better than (from what I see in real life) people walking around with no sense of their own agency at all… something I encounter a little too often, if you ask me.Oh, and this seems to be a really old pattern, to me, too: agency matters even when the gods are out to get you, in ancient Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, and Biblical narratives. Why? Because if you couldn’t do anything, what’s the point of the story? Agency being constrained, we understand, expect, and enjoy. That pressure pushes characters to struggle, try harder, and win. But character passivity? It just seems “wrong” to us. So we almost always have this trope where agency, applied, is like magic ointment to problems. It may not fix the thing you think, but apply enough agency and *something* changes that helps resolve the issue.”

So that was only a light level look at some common tropes. Do you have any thoughts on the above? Do you like or dislike the tropes we mentioned and do you have any to add?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s