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
Love Conquers All
Agency is Magic
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.)
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.”