Subverting Tropes

By Katie Lewis

I’ve always been very interested in Japanese mythology and media. But recently, I’ve been more inspired by other East Asian cultures. Mainly, I’ve been immersing myself in Chinese stories as research for a book I’m working on (since I’m half-Italian and half-English/German mutt).

As a result, I often have to explain Chinese tropes to my partner when talking about the books I’m reading. As my colleague Brian Kaufman pointed out a few weeks ago, every genre has tropes. However, twisting those tropes around can surprise readers in the right ways.

Know the Rules Before You Break Them

I loved Brian’s article, and to quote him directly, “Breaking rules should be applauded, so long as you understand the reason for the rules in the first place.” That sentence is essentially my Golden Rule of writing. I love breaking the rules, but it runs the risk of seeming cliche or jarring if you don’t have a good understanding of what rules you’re subverting.

What is a trope? According to Wikipedia, “the word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.” Trope you might be familiar with are:

  • The Chosen One: Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter
  • Enemies-to-Lovers: Pride and PrejudiceThese Violent DelightsRomeo and Juliet 
  • The Anti-Hero: Walter White, Captain Jack Sparrow, Tyler Durden

Tropes are the building blocks of a genre. They encapsulate what the reader expects. They also save the author time. No one needs to stop and explain warp-speed in a sci-fi setting or spells in a fantasy setting. A writer might still have a different take on why and how these things work in their world-building, but on the whole, tropes are tools that allow the story to move on to more important moments quickly.

Currently, I’m reading Heaven Official’s Blessing by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (known to her fans as MXTX). There are several “trope rules” that MXTX breaks in this story that have actually made it one of my favorite books I’ve read in recent years. Since I know many of you may not be familiar with Chinese tropes, let me explain the primary genre before we get into how MXTX turns it on its head.

One of the main genres of Chinese literature is wuxia, which translates to “martial heroes.” These stories about martial warriors typically don’t include magic or other fantasy elements. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonHeaven Official’s Blessing is a fantasy sub-genre called xianxia, or “immortal heroes.”

In xianxia stories, heavy Daoist themes abound, and characters train (or “cultivate”) in the Daoist path with the ultimate goal of achieving immortality. The genre also often includes using spells and magical weapons or devices that characters gain control of as they increase their spiritual power. In Western terms, you might think about how fairies are often portrayed in high fantasy. However, that’s a very loose comparison since characters in xianxia start out as expected, mortal humans.

Heaven Official’s Blessing twists the tropes of the xianxia genre in a couple ways. Most importantly, that “ultimate goal of cultivation is achieving immortality” trope is absolutely present but just to the left of center. That’s because, in Heaven Official’s Blessing, the end goal of cultivation is actually ascending to become a god.

Polytheism is a central theme in many East Asian stories. However, the idea of mortals becoming gods is not as expected. Instead, mortals become immortals. In fact, not only does MXTX grant godhood to the characters of this novel, but the ability to ascend is generally a mix of talent and pure luck.

Several times throughout the story, it is made clear that someone might pass a “Heavenly Tribulation” and ascend to godhood in their teens. At the same time, another might cultivate their entire life but never even be tested.

This is unusual for a genre based on Daoist principles, which generally rewards “proper” training. The result is that a lot of room is left for manipulation for, say, a high-ranking god to pull strings to ensure his little brother ascends.

As the story continues, it becomes clear that everyone in the Heavenly Realm is guilty of bribery at the very least and often far worse. Despite this change, the book is still firmly xianxia, and MXTX’s alterations to world-building offer plenty of opportunities for twists and surprises to delight the reader.

Aside from playing with the traditional Chinese storytelling aspects, Heaven Official’s Blessing also alters tropes that are more immediately recognizable to Western readers. Because, you see, the story is also a romance, and the book challenges romantic tropes like it does with xianxia.

One of the most recognizable tropes in romance is will-they-won’t-they. Pride and Prejudice is a prime example of this. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy have captivated readers for over 200 years with how they dance around one another.

There’s a clear and immediate attraction, but each of them comes up with reasons why they can’t be together until, finally, all of those reasons are thrown out the window in the name of love. It’s a plot that’s repeated again and again and again in all forms of media.

The main couple in Heaven Official’s Blessing, the Scrap Collecting God Xie Lian and the famous Ghost King Hua Cheng, don’t engage in will-they-won’t-they behavior. Or rather, they do it briefly in the beginning and then drop it for the rest of the story.

In short, Hua Cheng initially meets Xie Lian in disguise because he’s insecure about his authentic appearance. Both parties engage in a few lies by omission over it. It takes the entire second arc of the story for them to see through the disguises and mendacity. After that, all pretenses are dropped.

They decide to be together without any equivocation even when Xie Lian is warned by other gods that Hua Cheng is incredibly dangerous. In truth, the main reason it takes about 2,000 pages for these two to officially get together isn’t any form of miscommunication or stubbornness. It’s simply that they keep getting dragged into other gods’ shenanigans.

These challenges to expected tropes in Heaven Official’s Blessing are subtle yet not so fine that they don’t continually excite the reader. MXTX is very familiar with the norms of both the xianxia and romance genres, making these changes intriguing and fun. You have to know the rules before you can break them.

Do you have a favorite book that breaks the expected tropes of its genre? Or have you experimented with subverting tropes in your own writing? If so, leave a comment and tell me about it!

Tropes and Clichés

Reimagine Common Ideas

Clickable Periodic Table of Tropes

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