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Taboos and Tropes: Part I “Necessity, Balance, and Thematic Sincerity”

On December 10, 2008, Ecstatic Days ran “Dear Genre Fiction Writers: Quit This Sh*t” by Fantasy Magazine Managing Editor, Tempest K. Bradford. This article expanded into side bar discussions: sex, femme fallacies, and the taboo tropes with which these issues associate. Comments explored these issues with passionate stances and counterpoints. Should I curtail premises, or should I just write what I want? How do I best approach sex, aggression, and gender in my writing? Should I approach gender at all?

To answer these questions, one might employ three main litmus tests: necessity, balance, and thematic sincerity. If a taboo or trope can survive these, then the taboo and/or trope may serve the story’s needs, but this is the exception to the rule. As noted in the 12/10/2008 Ecstatic Days post, taboos and tropes are often misguided or overused.

First, let’s take a look at what taboos and tropes are.

Why do taboos stay with us? They are the dark underbellies. Incest, rape, torture — we can’t ignore them. As distasteful and decrepit as taboos are, we keep them around like crusted scabs on our collective skin. Taboos dare us to pick, but as enticing as they can be, taboos can also be barriers. The difference between hook and barrier depends upon thematic sincerity. Tropes, however, are a different matter.

Tropes are not so much a question of sincerity, as one of necessity. Harmon and Holman’s The Handbook to Literature defines a trope as:

[A rhetorical figure] of speech involving a “turn” or change of sense – the use of a word in a sense other than the literal; . . . figures of comparison [metaphor, simile] as well as ironical expressions are tropes. Until recently, tropes occupied a subordinate place in literary studies. When the New Criticism began to regard poetry as a special kind of use of language, however, certain tropes – irony and paradox in particular – began to enjoy an unprecedented measure of prestige.

In summation, tropes may enjoy linguistic and rhetorical respect, but tropes in a thematic or motif sense can become too common. For this reason, literary tropes often lack credibility. It is this literary credibility that we will explore, and whether or not using a trope is worth its risk.

Trope Risk
For many readers, literary tropes [theme, motif, simile, and metaphor] can too often turn into clichés ad nauseam. So why use them at all? Sometimes it’s hard to cut them out altogether. In an epic, the protagonist must go on a journey. In a medieval fantasy, characters will carry swords. Whether the story intends for the sword to represent a penis or not is irrelevant. The trope follows the sword regardless of intention. Some might say this is why epics and medieval fantasies are problematic, but many readers still crave these stories.

How Do Tropes and Taboos Affect a Reader’s Experience?
As an audience, we want creativity, familiarity, and at the last resonating word, we want a connection to the world or even ourselves. Do taboos and tropes provide this connection? Not by default.

On one hand, a trope can render exposition at breakneck speed. A taboo can perk interest, but both tropes and taboos offer pitfalls. One misstep or overstep, and the story falls laden with preconceived ideas, themes, and expectations. The story slips through the crevices. Down, down it goes, and the jaded reader stands waving good-bye.

So, how might a story use tropes and/or taboos successfully?

It comes down to rhetoric: the art of persuasion. A story must persuade a reader’s acceptance of credibility, setting, characters, and conflicts. With a masterful pen, tropes and taboos can work, when consciously employed, but this is arguably the exception.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever
One exception is Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. The first story in this series, Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), depicts rape, a risky taboo trope for any story, but in the Covenant series, this taboo trope is a conscious addition to the characters’ journeys. Despite critical friction in response to the series, rape is arguably a thematically relevant taboo trope.

SPOILER ALERT: In Lord Foul’s Bane, Thomas Covenant — the tragic protagonist and leper — falls asleep and wakes in a new world, The Land. In this new world, Covenant’s leprosy goes into recession. Even as he believes The Land to be a delusion, he experiences hope. Enter the lovely young girl, “who did not look any older than sixteen.”

Lena finds Covenant atop “Kevin’s Watch,” and she believes him to be a savior. She fawns over him and takes him to Mithil Stonedown, where the villagers revere him with awe. Covenant — flawed, unstable, and suddenly hopeful — finds himself cured of impotence and in a hysterical moment, rapes Lena.

This act reveals and damns Covenant by taboo trope, no less. So why does it work for so many readers? Perhaps it is the complicated motivations or the raw brutal descriptions. The scene focuses on Covenant’s horrific act upon an innocent girl, and Covenant hates himself for it. Good! Story end? Right? No.

The Land, Lena, and the villagers need Covenant, and so necessity propels him toward redemption. It is a juxtaposition of savior, misogyny, and crime, a seemingly impossible reconciliation to make, and it is the hook into Covenant’s story. The reader wants Covenant to be the savior, or better yet, the sacrifice. Covenant must rise above himself, his crime, disease, and self-pity in order to be this savior, but self-loathing governs Covenant’s attitude, and though the reader needs and wants Covenant to loathe himself, the reader also needs Covenant to transcend.

Covenant is a protagonist who the reader cannot dismiss, because the reader needs him to be more; therefore, the taboo trope must be more than a cliché, it must be the catalyst to Covenant’s hit-bottom turnaround. Already in love with Lena and The Land, the reader sticks around to make sure Covenant atones. He must atone, so he can save The Land — an obvious analogy, but effective nonetheless.

Of course, any good feminist will chaff at the “rapist as savior,” and rightly, so; however, this chafing does not dismiss the rape as relevant to theme. Still, it took Donaldson six original books within the series to form closure. Even so, a significant reader pool will simply not read beyond the rape scene. What does this example teach us? Taboo tropes are not to be used lightly. They are a lengthy investment of time and craft, and they will prompt criticism. END SPOILER.

Necessity, Balance, and Thematic Sincerity
In answering the necessity question, ask if the taboo or trope progresses the story along. Is it organic to characters and conflicts? Can some other plot element do the job just as well?

If the taboo or trope is necessary, the next step is balance. This balance is hard to achieve, as taboos and tropes tend to associate with provocative material — material, perhaps, unintended. Let’s consider the portal in an epic journey. Because this trope is so far-reaching, it is a compulsory caution when crafting windows, doorways, drains, and rabbit holes. Any little space where a character can squeeze through will smell like a trope whether intended or not. Another portal? Yada, yada, yada . . . A portal, even if committed by accident, can jar the reader out of the story, and subsequently, out of thematic focus. For this reason, the window, if necessary, had better be the best damn window ever; otherwise, craft the window as a true window and not an accidental portal.

Even after all good attempts, the window may still associate to the portal, hence the inescapable use of tropes. They sneak in like drunken wedding crashers, and the story must have the grace to handle this inevitability. It’s no excuse to say “But, but . . . I didn’t invite the trope!” Readers won’t care, and the caterer will still charge for the extra plate.

Taboo Tropes
Even more risky is the taboo trope (the double whammy). Taboo tropes must not only satisfy necessity and balance, but also the question of “Do you want to go there?” Ask this question: Is the rape scene necessary to the medieval epic, and if so, how does it relate to theme? Does it take over the story? In the Covenant series, the rape does take over the story, but it was meant to take over the story.

The writer must be the forever rhetorician, persuading the reader to focus on the central themes at hand. Difficult to do with taboo tropes, as they are by nature, scene-stealers, and they tend to leave a stain.

In all consideration, it isn’t whether or not taboos/tropes can be used successfully — success is subjective and worrying over it is wasted energy — but rather is the taboo or trope necessary, balanced, and relevant to theme. If not, take it out. Let me repeat . . . remove the taboo or trope. The story will be better for it.

In “Taboos and Tropes: Part II,” we will further address rhetoric and why tropes can often dissuade readers from a story’s credibility. We’ll also address specific pitfalls to consider when writing taboos and tropes with an exercise on writing about rape.

Rae Bryant is a short story author, poet, columnist, Assistant Editor for Fantasy Magazine, on staff with Weird Tales, and a reviewer for The Fix. She is the July 2008 recipient of the Whidbey Writers’ Prize. Her works have appeared or will soon be appearing in Weird Tales, Frederick News-Post, Literary Traveler, Southern Fried Weirdness, and The Willows, among others. Rae is currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins finishing an M.A. in Writing. She’s also writing a novel and lives in a little valley just outside Washington D.C. Read more about Rae at or visit her at

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