More debunking of tropes.

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January 22, 2013 by jcfarnham

Last week I used a few of the more disliked examples of trope in fiction, and tried to explain why you don’t necessarily need to eradicate them entirely. Today I’d like to continue on that theme with a few more random examples I dug up from TvTropes’ list of most overused elements in science fiction.

[One massive] Idiot Ball“Council never believe the protagonist (usually a commander of a starship), even when evidence is staring them at the face. If the first danger passes, the council will gain Laser-Guided Amnesia and…not believe the protagonist about the second impending danger. They’re either corrupted or carrying one massive Idiot Ball.”

Logically it makes no sense. Surely, someone on that council isn’t a fool, right? Here’s the thing though, I enjoyed playing the Mass Effect series despite the council always refusing to get involved. If the Idiot Ball is such a problem in Scifi, then why did I enjoy it? Why for that matter does it crop up so much?

Science fiction, along with most speculative genre fiction, relies pretty heavily on examining “what’s wrong” with society. One of humanity’s favourite things to do is poke fun at the government. We love to think we know better than people who lead the country as a profession (and in some cases it’s true). So while it can be annoying to find an entire plot is constructed upon Idiot Ball foundations, other times it doesn’t matter. The council in Mass Effect do hold the idiot ball on occasion, but what makes it work is that they have other concerns to worry about like the state of their own territories.

Starfish Aliens/Forehead Aliens – The two scifi extremes and both garner just as much criticism.

Of Starfish Aliens: “Sometimes, however, they are too alien and their language, mind-set and culture remain incomprehensible to humans” [emphasis added for effect]. The problem comes for most people when said starfish aliens base their full scale invasion on not understanding one simple thing, humans are alive, or intelligent, or any number of trivial things. Things are complicated further when said aliens can be vanquished with a very deus ex machina application of the common cold (no points for figuring out where that came from).

On the the end of the scale are forehead aliens–so named for their appearances in Star Trek where often the only different between the Alien of The Week and a human is a gnarled forehead. The problem here is one of believability and probability. How likely is it that a culture and people almost identical to humans could evolve separately?

In both cases, I think writers and readers alike need to turn their attention to our own ecosystems. Some animals are pretty weird looking, and sure as hell have no comprehension of abstract thought. Some however can look identical to each other but entirely unrelated. Take the animals that stand in for shrews, hedgehogs, etc, in some isolated corners of our planet, as an example. You’d sware blind that it was hedgehog… except it isn’t. Time and time again the eye has evolved, along with creatures with limbs in multiples of two, …

If it happens so much on our planet who’s to say it’s not so in the rest of the universe? Don’t be afraid intrepid, young scifi writer, I’m allowing you the chance to have as many Starfish/Forehead aliens as you wish, for what ever reason you like. It’s characters that make a story after all.

Planet of Hats“On their Wagon Train to the Stars, our intrepid heroes come across a planet with a single defining characteristic. Everybody is a robot, or a gangster, or a Proud Warrior Race Guy, or an over-the-top actor, or wearing a hat. To some degree, this is unavoidable; you only have so much screen time or page space to develop and explore a culture. But it’s still very easily and often overdone.”

The quote says it all really, but again I’d like to point out that, in the grand scheme of things, it matters far less than what those characters actually do. Star Trek was notorious for hat planets, and is infact the trope namer for the amount of times a hat was the difference between the crew of the Enterprise and the apparently totally alien aliens.

This one for me is the most henous out of the lot, but sometimes you’ll find criticism thrown you way for having a planet of hats, or too many forehead aliens, when really you just have no page space to develope different the cultures. That’s wrong right? Though Klingons are often “proud warrior race guy”–and again, probably named the trope–there are more nuances in there when you take into account the entirety of Star Trek lore.

On the face of it, some examples may seem like a Planet of Hats, but are they? More often than not I tend to take it for granted that some of these aliens probably “do it differently” to the ones I’m privy to on screen or on page. Again, something to think about, but not something to stress over. If it works, it works, but know WHY.

This can also be extended to my next example; “Although humans still have multiple languages, each alien race has only one language.” Here’s my answer to that: We humans have produced a number of pidgins and trade languages in order to communicate with eachother. Is it too much of a stretch to say that, in the age of which you are writing (often way, way into the future), those aliens have developed a single way to communicate between themselves, despite having multiple “off-stage” languages? Yes, a passing mention would help us, but when it’s not easy to include given the story, look between the lines for clues. Do they have advanced technology? What’s trade like?

A trope (something so common in fiction that it deserves a name) only becomes a cliche when it’s used badly. It’s already overused, but that’s only because it often works well. The trick is to understand which is which in specific cases. The story may have the typical badass protagonist but is it there because the writer doesn’t know better, or is it there because it’s just cool? There is definitely a difference.

What I’m trying to do here in this post is show you that difference. If a franchise has loads of “overused” elements to it, but is otherwise loved by millions… what’s the problem? Is it badly written material, or are we just nitpicking in hindsight?

Know when to mention it, and when to accept it.


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