The deeper I get into writing, the more I learn. There’s always something new around the next corner. Learning never ends. As such I wanted to start sharing some of the bits I’ve picked up along the way, in the hopes that other writers might find it useful.
One of the sites I’ve spent a ton of time on is TV Tropes. At it’s worst, it’s a bit of a maze and one that can lead you down some serious rat holes. Many articles barely qualify as tropes and aren’t very useful but such is the nature of a community built website.
Yet at its best, the site lists all of the essential patterns of fiction. You simply can’t write a story without them no matter how much you want to rebel against “formula.” There is no escaping the universal patterns so you might as well learn them. Don’t worry. They’re in every story you have ever loved. So, don’t fight them. Go with them. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll spend a little time highlighting the best ones as time allows.
Now some folks see tropes as bad and others see them as good. Nothing is all good or all bad. We all exist on a continuum of good to evil. Some shade closer to one side or the other. A gun can hunt game and feed a family just as easily as it can murder someone. A lamp can bath a room in light, but I can pick it up and hit you over the head with it.
In fact, thinking about things as binary, good or bad, is the essence of the trope Black and White Insanity is one of my current favorites and one I use as an ongoing theme in my stories. The best tropes reflect deeper truths about life. This one is about how people view the world. In childhood, we tend to see things as all evil or all good, but as we get older we start to see the complexity of people’s behavior. It’s the essence of the Biblical quote “when I was a child I saw and acted as a child but when I became a man I put away childish things.”
Seeing the complexity in things allows you to develop more realistic and rounded characters. You can’t build a great villain if you don’t love him in some ways or see some truth in why he does the things he does. In real life, you don’t need to look hard for examples. Gandhi changed India, but also beat his wife. Martin Luther King had affairs but changed thinking about race in America. Genghis Khan slaughtered numerous people, but also fostered cross cultural connections between Europe and China, spreading ideas and building bridges. Mao’s own black and white insanity made it impossible for him to see that the people around him were telling him what he wanted to hear, causing the mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward and yet the man also smashed a brutal and vicious feudal system where a tiny fraction of people controlled everyone’s life from beginning to end, a system that had persisted for two thousand years.
Of course, not everyone sees the complexity of life. Many folks never get out of this binary thinking and it’s these people who often end up causing the most problems for the world and for your heroes in fiction. When people view their own views as entirely right and justified and everyone with a differing opinion as evil and entirely wrong, it leads to some ugly violence and a complete inability to communicate. I’ve often been guilty of it in my own life. Guess what, everyone has. Some people never see that though. They never take the blinders off and that’s what this trope is all about.
We see this type of thinking now about the Baltimore turmoil. Watch people’s Facebook streams and you’ll see people who favor one side or the other completely, as if there are no good police officers or no good people of color. This is “you are with me or against me” thinking. Either all cops are good or all blacks are bad or vice versa. This type of thinking strips individuals of their own personalities and makes them nothing but a cog in a larger machine. Rather, a more nuanced approach is to understand that blacks have something to be pissed off about, but that smashing local business where people get food and medicine will not help much. Likewise, we don’t have to condemn all police for the actions of a few and those few should pay the same penalty as other criminals for killing a man over a minor infraction. In other words, some cops are good, some bad, blacks have some legitimate things to get mad about and yet burning down your local pharmacy won’t do any good for anyone. This is what it means to understand the complexity of the situation. It allows you to see it for what it is, a senseless tragedy that hurts many, many people and will continue to hurt them for years.
Black and White insanity directly leads to overly harsh convictions, justifies extreme violence and the destruction of lives and property. It’s a central cause of wars. Throughout history this type of thinking has been used to solidify discrimination and violence against all types of groups and people. In other words, if all of XYZ group is evil, then wiping them out is all right. It’s not hard to look around the world and see this trope play out every single day across a huge swath of life and society.
This is an excellent trait to give to villains and it’s the one that writers most often employ when they want to show rigid, vicious authority figures, such as in books like the Hunger Games. Give it a whirl in your own fiction and you’ll find it’s a trope with a massive amount of depth and complexity.