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Brandon Sanderson turned classic fantasy tropes on their heads... really?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Jesse, Jun 18, 2014.

  1. Jesse

    Jesse Dreamer

    I know this isn't the most timely topic, but it's something I've been wrestling with lately. Let me start by saying that I'm a big fan of Brandon Sanderson's work. I find his characters to be engaging and believable, his stories fun. I, for one, actually appreciate his transparent (I've heard it called skeletal) prose that gets out of its own way and lets me enjoy the story. I also appreciate his work on Writing Excuses and his creative writing classes he's uploaded to youtube. However, he's made a claim that I am having trouble with.

    Sanderson said that after Mistborn came out he was pigeonholed as the guy who turns classic fantasy tropes on their heads. Now I'm not the most widely read guy but do you know what he's talking about?

    From tvtropes.org: Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations.

    This give us starting points: plots, stock characters, creatures, settings, whatever, so that we can just jump in and start an adventure without having to build a whole back story. I say someone lives in a castle? You instantly know the technology level we're dealing with. I say someone is an elf? You know dude has some mad archery skills. I mention a spinning space station, you know it's in the future, but probably not too far into the future, whereas if I say artificial gravity you know that we're well beyond current technology.

    So from this I think a "classic fantasy trope" would be a quest to find a sword or to rescue the princess. Overthrow an evil queen. Right? So I Google "Sanderson turns fantasy tropes on their heads"

    Lots and lots of crap out there. And I know not everybody has read the Mistborn books, but you don't need to have to understand what I'm about to say. So by the tiny bit of actual content available on the Interwebs, apparently they're talking about:

    1. 1. Vin, 16 year old street girl. She SHOULD play the role of rescued princess, but instead she's the rescuer.
    2. 2. They never really take the "hero's journey" by which they mean Vin doesn't set off to do something heroic.
    3. 3. Overly complex worlds instead of actual plotting
    4. 4. Limited character development,
    5. 5. Characters bending to the plot instead of vise versa.
    6. 6. The true hero has already lost, leaving them with an evil ruler to contend with.

    But the vast majority of people seem to say "Sanderson isn't one to rest on clichéd fantasy tropes" or "Sanderson turns all the fantasy tropes on their heads" without a SINGLE follow-up sentence to illustrate wtf they mean by that!

    #1. Ok, so he reversed the gender roles. I can take that, though there is certainly enough precedent for that that I think it's a coin toss whether your hero is a dude rescuing a chick, or a chick rescuing a dude. I'll leave it to better-versed people on whether that's an important distinction, but as far as SF & Fantasy tropes go, I think it's pretty trivial. Read The Hunger Games or Divergent. Read much of the Wheel of Time books. Read the earlier Sword of Truth books. There are tons of examples where women are just as heroic as men and truly bad-ass. Admittedly in the overall pantheon of Fantasy, I'm quite sure the dominant theme is men rescuing women, but in recent years, I think it's evened out quite a bit.

    #2. If you read The Hero's Journey, you'll see that virtually all stories, minus very VERY deliberate literary experiments, follow the hero's journey, even if it's because Campbell carefully worded the Journey to include the widest set of circumstances possible. So just because Vin isn't doing something altruistic, she still acts heroically by embarking on a journey that seems unlikely to end in success, and while self-serving, she isn't ENTIRELY self-serving, and we learn fairly early on that there are better, deeper motivations behind the plan.

    #'s 3, 4 & 5 are basically the same complaint. Yes he's very very good at plotting an engaging story that keeps you reading, crafting three-dimensional characters you care about and who have genuine emotions and motivations. I would hope, though, that that's just considered good writing. I submit that bad plotting happens across all genres, and if it happens more with fantasy, it's still not an "accepted feature" that most readers can rely on to help get them into the story

    #6. Oh and people brag on how original it is that the true hero came before the story started and lost. But isn't that kind of how MOST stories with evil empires begin? Very few evil overlords start out saying "I'm going to rule with an iron fist and eviscerate everyone who opposes me. Oh and killing babies is totally my thing". They evolve into that over time because absolute power corrupts absolutely. As I recall, Sauron was working with the good guys and created The Ring to help out. Darth Vader was pretty decent until he got lured to the dark side - his conversion was aided rather handily by the good guys chopping him up. The computers didn't activate the Matrix until we humans tried to kill them, and the Master Rahl fetish started as a means of saving his people from Dreamwalkers.

    I truly believe that Sanderson is a fantastic author, but I'm still having trouble with the tropes claim. To me, he was just writing a damn good story. Am I wrong? I focus on this because I worry that I've missed something here. I too want to write something original, heralded as a pioneer, but if I can't figure out what the buzz is about, then what business do I have trying to create works of my own? Is this just some brilliant marketing move by Sanderson to get people talking about him, like a model saying, "everyone keeps saying I'm too pretty to be in Victoria's Secret, darn it!"?
  2. MFreako

    MFreako Troubadour

    Can't say I'm a fan of Sanderson. I'm inclined to call his skeletal prose empty. And I find his characters flat.

    As for tropes—you can hit every so called cliche out there and still have a wonderful story. And you can consciously subvert every trope you know of and have a terrible one. Originality is overrated. I truly believe it's all in the execution. Take your most original idea, go back in time, and someone's already done that in one form or another. As writers, the best we can do, the only thing we should do, in my opinion, is come up with beautiful stories, and then focus on writing them beautifully.
  3. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    The problem is that most readers are just not very well read and have no idea of the rich history of high quality fantasy that exists. And more and more contemporary writers of fantasy are also ignorant of it. There are so many readers and writers who think new books do things in terribly clever and original ways and have no knowledge that at least 50 stories have done it before them and some of those have been around for hundreds or thousands of years.

    I mean, for example, how many people today think it's so new and refreshing to write a story that doesn't feature a Big Bad or any clear cut villain at all? Well guess what, the first story that did that was the very first written story that we know of, Gilgamesh. Even more famous work that also does that? The Iliad. Nothing anyone does is really new. And that's fine.

    I honestly hate the way people get so hung up on "trope twisting" as if that's the only way to avoid writing stale stories. Sorry, folks, there is no formula to avoid writing stale stories. You either have a fresh voice and perspective of story inside you or you don't.
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    The obsession with cliches, what TV Tropes says or doesn't say, and so on, is an overall detriment in my view as well.

    As to the specific question about Sanderson, I can't really say. I don't find his work compelling, for the most part. Although one thing Jesse notes above, and which may be true, is that you can get buzz in certain circles when you subvert these tropes (or are at least perceived to have done so). How much that translates to sales from a general readership, I don't know.
    Ghost likes this.
  5. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Well, I think Sanderson can be brilliant--but I agree, he's not the first to reverse tropes.

    I'd say most of the attention comes from things like how clearly he emphasized Mistborn's overlord being a failed hero-- not a new idea, but he did better than many at making that point while keeping everything else action-centered. Or

    Vin's mentor dying-- a serious cliche in itself, but Sanderson put so much effort into the guy we forgot he had that teacher-shaped bullseye on him. Which makes it feel like a double-reversal, even though it isn't.

    Sanderson just likes reversals and opposites, I'd say. None of them are "new" (including in modern fantasy), but he has a lot of fans like me that think he uses more of them than most authors do, and works them better.
  6. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I'm a more a fan of Sanderson podcast than his writing, but I've read his first book Elantras and a bit of Mistborn. Based what I've heard Sanderson say about Elantras and Mistborn and my personal experience, I think the subversion reputation comes in the form that his stories aren't your typical generic fantasy, with quests and larger than life goodie-goodie heroes, etc.

    Elantras is a bit of a mystery wrapped up in a backdrop of what equates to a fantasy version of a zombie infested city.

    Mistborn is a fantasy heist story, with heroes that aren't exactly the most noble of people.
  7. Jesse

    Jesse Dreamer

    I totally agree that trope twisting isn't the only way to create a fresh story - or in fact a guaranteed way at all. I don't feel like I'm obsessing over trying to twist a trope myself, I was really just trying to understand what everyone else is saying about it. In the examples I gave, which were the only concrete examples I could find on the Internet, I simply couldn't see how those were tropes, and if they were, I couldn't see how he'd turned them on their heads. Even in the responses to my original post, I'm hearing a general theme of "sure he reversed tropes, but that's nothing new or impressive" and yet I'm not seeing any mention of WHAT tropes are being reversed. I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it's a brilliant publicity move - even those who dismiss him as being skeletal or empty first must acknowledge that he's turned the genre on its head.
  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I've read very little Sanderson. But:

    These are tropes. Whether or not these six elements represent a "subversion" of the way these tropes are commonly portrayed is another question. But pretty much anything that can be identified as an abstract thing that occurs in a story is a trope. For instance, take a look at the Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Character.
  9. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    I appreciate trope subversion more if I don't care for the original trope when played "straight out". I believe the best guide to whether or not you should subvert a given trope is how much you genuinely care for it to begin with. The best subversion is heartfelt subversion in my book.
    MFreako likes this.
  10. MFreako

    MFreako Troubadour

    What Jabrosky said, but on a broader scope.

    The best story is the heartfelt story. Tropes and their subversion are an irrelevance. *Enter obligatory "that's my opinion" here.*
    Jabrosky likes this.
  11. Tirjasdyn

    Tirjasdyn Scribe

    Urg. My first reaction is that these people claiming these things are not widely read at all. I can name six authors who did those same things, many before Sanderson every picked up a pen but lately it seems everyone ignores the time between Lord of the Rings and the last ten years.
  12. ScipioSmith

    ScipioSmith Sage

    While I'm not sure if it counts as turning a trope on its end, I did find the soft-shoe shuffle over the whole Hero of Ages deal in the Mistborn trilogy to be quite clever.

    Overall though, as much as I like Sanderson, and I do, I like him because he writes a cracking story, not because he subverts tropes or anything of that sort. That sort of cleverness can never hope to compensate for the presence of interesting plot and likeable characters, but thankfully Sanderson provides them in spades.

    I am a bit worried about his multiverse engulfing the Stormlight Archive, though. I was never able to get into Warbreaker so I'm worried that I'll miss stuff from not from having read everything he's ever written.
  13. hots_towel

    hots_towel Minstrel

    i havent read sanderson's work (the way of kings looked interesting. but im a slow reader, and its quite a monster. if someone can talk it up enough to me I might cave and set everything aside for that), but yea. Im not one who will suddenly fall for a book because it does [insert trope] differently.

    In fact, I'm a little annoyed when a book gets hyped JUST because of the alleged trope turnings. that doesnt tell me anything about the rest of the story, or how the author writes. just that they did something different (that a lesser known author probably already did decades before).
  14. ScipioSmith

    ScipioSmith Sage

    The Stormlight Archive is, in my opinion, his best work. I don't know how to talk it up because I don't know what you look for in a book but if you like expansive worldbuilding, witty dialogue, cinematic action...some of the characters can be a bit annoying at first, between Kaladin's emo-ness and Shallan's precocious wit, but they both grow on you and Dalinar is awesome enough for all three.

    While the book is huge, it's also divided up into five parts, so you could always just read Part One to see if you like it and then give up if you don't.

    One final thing: the Stormlight Archive takes place in the same universe as all Sanderson's other books (the Cosmere) and features characters and concepts from the other novels. This isn't a problem in Way of Kings, but certain things in the sequel, if you get that far, will have you scratching your head if you don't have an awareness of his other work.
  15. Jesse

    Jesse Dreamer

    I guess that was actually kind of my point. I enjoyed the books a great deal for all of the reasons you listed, skeletal prose be damned. But the trope subversion was something that everyone talked about - even Sanderson himself! And I just wasn't seeing it. I sure hope I didn't come across as saying "that's what I want to do!" I was just concerned that I couldn't understand what people were saying. I'm glad to hear the dissenting view that trope-turning isn't all it's cracked up to be, because I too couldn't really care about cleverness if the story's no good. There are lots of things that can be really fun for a writer to play with that don't add to the reading experience, and in that case, you should probably save them for your big literary fiction masterpiece.

    I want to thank everyone for helping to educate me a little.

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