Posted On September 4, 2013 by Print This Post

Hit & Myth: Legendary Underpinnings of Genre Tropes with Damon Suede

One of my favorite things about this industry is the people I get to meet and call friend. Damon Suede’s amazing book, HOT HEAD, was recommended to me by author Elisabeth Staab and I loved it. In fact, my first copy is littered with post-it notes and highlights about the gorgeous characterization and sizzling sexual tension. Then she introduced us and I knew I had met a kindred spirit. Damon’s background writing for the stage and screen makes him fascinating to talk to, his humor is contagious and he wears a kilt!  Now he has agreed to write for RU on a quarterly basis – and believe me – we are in for a treat. Welcome Damon!

Why do romance readers and writers find tropes so compelling?

Merriam-Webster defines a trope as “a common or overused theme or device:DS-Spring12 200 cliché,” but in the romance genre the term has evolved to cover the constellation of formulaic themes that “tag” a story…thematic patterns, archetypes, and story hooks which draw audiences inexorably to certain types of narrative. These can range from a plot device as convoluted as a secret baby to the open-ended friends-to-lovers chestnut. Tropes spring from our most primitive storytelling impulses, and those ancient roots are the key to their appeal, their power, and their potential.

Romance fiction requires only two carved-in-granite essentials to merit the name: a central relationship that drives the story and a positive outcome.. Real life may be frustrating and uncertain, but genre fiction tells everyone what they can expect before they step inside. At its core, escapism guarantees an entertaining trip and a satisfying destination.

vasari_perseo_e_andromeda_studiolo-copyFamiliar, well-loved tropes recur with metronomic frequency in romance: mistaken identities, reformed rakes, star-crossed virgins, doctors and nurses, not to mention billionaires, Spaniards, and sheiks. Harlequin built a billion-dollar empire out of its savvy marketing of recycled plot germs as branded category lines (beginning in 1973 with the launch of Harlequin Presents) because they had identified readers’ insatiable appetite for pleasurable certainty.

I’m struck by the similarity of popular romance to Greek tragedy, not in tone, but their relentless foregone conclusions and their insistent retelling of the same stories. Greek tragedians had to use an established set of well-known stories with little room for modification. When ancient audiences lined up to see Medea or Agamemnon, they already knew the entire plot. No one expected Medea to bake cookies or Agamemnon to splash around with his rubber ducky. The appeal of Greek theatre was in seeing how the heroic characters faced their dilemmas: the granular variation of details specific to an author and a voice.

Unlike much of life, legends and folklore are above all fair. Myth and folktales Trojan Horse - Tiepoloshare certain comforting, recycled patterns that reassure its audiences that “something good” will happen and the outcome will be satisfactory and suitably just. Dragons get slain, virgins get rescued, and giant wooden horses are tragedy piñatas. Their scrupulous (even ruthless) sense of justice provides moral parameters for the cultures that revere and repeat them. Mythology tells stories worth retelling.

Humans love stories…we’re wired to absorb and process them; they affect our lives in primitive and startling ways, even today. Much of what we think of as identity or culture arises from shared narratives ingrained in us so deeply that they feel genetic. This oral tradition unites communities by reinforcing values and lessons that help individuals get on with the business of living and loving.
By definition, legends must be popular culture because they are penned and edited by millions of voices. In essence those mythical stories provided a limited pool of tropes in which the playwrights could grapple with themes and relationships that interested them and their communities. If you wanted to look at crime and punishment you did an Oedipus or a Eumenides, or if you had an idea for a debate about family honor you’d opt for a Phaedra or Antigone. The title alone gave the attendees an instant thematic preview. Like an iron-age TV Guide, the selected mythology broadcast what to expect from the show, just as much as it pointed its writer in topical direction. Ergo, remakes as the roots of popular entertainment and all that.

Anyhoo…what does all that have to do with the Amnesiac Rancher’s Secret Billionaire Baby?

Psyche_et_LAmourMyth is destiny. When we choose a book based on a trope, our knowledge of that mythic pattern drags us towards motifs and archetypes that speak to us as individual protagonists of our own personal myths. We’re no different than Athenians lining up for a drama based on a recycled legend, knowing the outcome but fascinated by the dramatic possibilities and variations. Stories that bear retelling impart more than a simple plot or a moral lesson. They challenge our assumptions and facilitate our internal transformations.

Now, for our purposes today I’m going to stick with the Greek and Roman mythology only because it’s the most familiar to modern readers. The argument that follows also holds true in any mythology, be it Vedic, Inuit, or Aztec. All ancient sagas trace and retrace patterns which we are hardwired to anticipate and enjoy, because revisiting them over millennia reveals deeper truths about the human condition in language a child can understand.

In category romance, the Secret Baby trope remains a perennial favorite despite the bizarre convolutions required to keep the kid hidden and the father in the dark. All evidence to the contrary, Harlequin didn’t invent all these deceptive mothers out of whole cloth. Mythology is rife with mothers peril-ized by pregnancy who hid (or ditched) their offspring after being ravished by gods and royalty to protect them from jealousy and worse: Perseus, Dionysos, Theseus, Jason, Paris, Oedipus, Romulus and Remus.

Those legendary pregnancies might be concealed from spouses, parents, or Oedipus-and-Sphinxroyalty…but the gods managed to guide and protect the unexpected spawn. In heroic births like Perseus or Theseus, the gods guided their steps to a future of glory, for the more tragic characters like Oedipus and Paris, Fate intervened repeatedly protecting them from wild beasts and worse so that they might wreak ruin and infamy on their communities. In mythology, these babies act as the agents of ineluctable Fate…Ananke (literally “necessity” in Greek).

In Romance, the inescapable Fate in every story is invariably a shimmering Happily-Ever-After; so unexpected infants become a positive agent of a benevolent Fate guiding the couple together for good (and for Good). All those endless secret babies act as seeds of destiny; their hidden power to unsettle alliances and challenge assumptions works toward the happy ending that readers demand because it is a necessity of the genre: Ananke.

Along the same lines we find romances of forced or sham marriage which echo the arranged marriages of Clytemnestra, Persephone, Cadmus, and Dido. Many of these matches end badly in the original myths, because their Fates punish their past misdeeds. But in romance that ineluctable Fate conspires with the entire universe to drive them into each other’s arms. The external pressure (of parents, culture, circumstance) act as the hand of Destiny forcing them to mingle until they stop being single.

Leda MelziMythology reveals the transformation of protagonists and their community through extraordinary circumstances. But rather than telling a single story, they trace variations and themes that change the status quo. In romance, these metamorphoses afford readers a comfortable imaginative space to indulge their love of certain kinds of hero, complication, and world.

Long before Patty Hearst hit Stockholm, the abductees of classical tradition (Helen, Odysseus, Europa, Ganymede, Persephone, Adonis… to name a very few) fell hard for their sexy captors. Violating the laws of Xenia (hospitality) might put you in deep doo-doo, but for bronze-age teenagers might made right. Rape originally meant capture, though over the centuries, the sexual overtones gradually supplanted kidnapping with explicit violation. Zeus’s rapes (in every sense of the word) are legendary (in every sense of the word), but almost all of the Olympians, male and female, snatched lovers from mortal obscurity and made them into myths thereby.

Modern romance tracks similar patterns… with innamorati thrown together by chance and desire slowly transforming each other by their very proximity. The interplay of dominance and submission, authority and depravity, violence and restraint, makes for a rowdy relationship. By definition abduction violates the safe boundaries of power, privilege, and personhood, initially reducing humans to objects and then reminding the audience that objects can become fascinating subjects. Xenia in the modern world has become more subtle and complicated; abduction from one life can be an invitation to penetrate another world.

In the same vein, most scary pairings echo myths that marry villains to innocents (Persephone, Jason, Pasiphae), girls chained to rocks like an un-Happy Meal, (Andromeda, Hesione) and juveniles fleeing horny immortals (Io, Daphne, Hyacinth). Beauty and the Beast is a folktale retelling of Apuleius’ Cupid and Psyche for popular consumption in Enlightenment Europe. The Aarne-Thompson tale type index identifies all these as versions of the “Search for a Lost Husband” story, and not for nothing have their unfit husbands been thoroughly redeemed in modern love stories that don’t judge books by their covers.

These “I married a monster” sagas are also the basis of every reformed rake, Herbert_James_Draper_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_1909broody ex-villain, wedded undead, rapist-makes-good story in popular romance: how to save a life without ruining your own. Answer: carefully and at great cost. Any novel about a dashing dastardly duke or werewolf-human intermarriage that hinges on shaky trust, hidden agendas, and jealous in-laws is walking in some very old pawprints.

But I digress. :)

Obviously what I’m suggesting touches on a massive subject beyond the scope of a single lecture here at RU, but… the next time you tackle a trope consider its mythic ancestry and the resonant themes evoked thereby. Every trope operating in genre fiction has mutated from these basic patterns of human storytelling…which says a lot about the importance of romance in offering narratives of transformation and an evolving mythology accessible to a modern audience.

I’ve chosen the above tropes at random, but I’d make a case for all popular tropes reflecting legendary lessons and transformations entombed in folklore, and ignored by most of our modern culture. Mythology is more than a single story recycled endlessly. The Heroic Journey™ purists are right about the impact and import of mythic structure in constructing popular literature, but I think they’ve oversimplified their case to the point of nonsense. The variations are what keep audiences coming back over and over, reading and rereading, even though they know how everything turns out.

In mass-market fiction, tropes have become a kind of mythology capsule in which we bury ancient narratives to preserve them for future generations. They remain popular because they are, literally, what makes any art form popular: they speak to atavistic story patterns rooted in our origins as a social animal.

If you love mythology, consider going back to the primary texts and investigating the tales that got retold, instead of reading books about books about books written to boil those narratives into bite-sized platitudes. If you know the tropes that compel your reading and writing habits, think about the mythic underpinnings preserved in them. And if you want to write stories worth retelling and rereading, dig deep in the rich soil of tropes and you’ll create books that will transform the world.

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Wow!  So – how many of these legendary stories have you used in your books? How will this enhance your writing in the future?

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On Friday – Editor Kristin Anders talks about when a word is not a word.

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Bio:

Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him at DamonSuede.com.

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24 Responses to “Hit & Myth: Legendary Underpinnings of Genre Tropes with Damon Suede”

  1. Damon – Thanks for being with us today! We have one . . . what is your favorite trope to read or write?

    Robin

    Posted by Robin Covington | September 4, 2013, 11:44 am
    • Hard call!

      I think my favorite thing is ruinous self-sacrifice… the self-torturing protagonist: shades of Camille and Cyrano de Bergerac. IN mythic terms that would be Dionysos, Cassandra, Prometheus and Antigone. I prefer romances with a certain amount of swoony, SCALE to them and layting down some ,major angst-track gives me lots of mileage to cover. LOL So any time I can make my characters suffer and suffer and suffer, it gives me the chance to spin out a boffo happy ending.

      Thank you again for inviting me today! Y’all are amazing. XXX

      Posted by Damon Suede | September 4, 2013, 8:08 pm
  2. Hi Damon,

    Thanks so much for the fabulous post. It was really nice meeting you at the Sourcebooks book signing. So happy to hear you’re going to be a regular on RU.

    Take care,
    Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | September 4, 2013, 1:01 pm
  3. Hi Damon,

    Myths are great for stories of love, hate, sacrifice, and revenge. Plus all the cool art!

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 4, 2013, 1:20 pm
  4. Thank you so much Damon for your rambling and insightful post. I grew up voraciously reading folktales and myths from around the world, and especially love all the Jack tales about how he slayed the giant, starting with the most well known, “Jack in the Beanstalk.”

    I suppose this type of tale is a variant of Theseus and the Minotaur. Would you agree? Or should I look even deeper?

    Anyway, I wanted to see myself in such tales, and since they were always about boys, I wrote my variation about a young woman, which is HENRIETTA THE DRAGON SLAYER, and the coming sequels. I’m also very curious about women and leadership, which my Henrietta tales explore. Do you have any myths to recommend?

    Thanks for your insights! And I look forward to your future columns!

    Posted by Beth Barany | September 4, 2013, 3:37 pm
    • Totally! Giantslayers are pretty popular as a character type…Odysseus and Polyphemus, Heracles and the Titans, David and Goliath. Norse mythology is especially focused on giants (I’d argue because of the environmental conditions and their sociological structure) For my part, I don’t know if I’d put the Minotaur in with them because his myths are all abotu bestial separation and xenia. But Theseus also has the 6 big nasties he slays on the way to claiming his throne. Giant stories touch on issues of adulthood and barbarism, both…and at their core deal with issues of virtue and “honorable” behavior. Giants in ever culture serve as earth-shakers…and battling them has a quality of wrestling with natural foirces (as opposed to hunting or subduing an enemy.

      Now for tropes centered on women and leadership, I’d look to the ways female protagonists come to power (and authority) in myths….but it’ll depend on what kind of leadership you want to tackle. To be truthful, I believe the “tropiness” of the myth is gender-free. A story of rulership doesn’t have a chromosomal structure. LOL So unless you are literally talking about a role that ONLY women experience (menstruation?), I’;d say leader ship is leadership… so look to the myths giving you the kind of story beats that resonate with your character/plot.

      If you’re specifially looking for female mythology that’s a diferent story. Because of the patriarchy, a lot of female-focused mythology centers on their reproductive role…but not all: the Trojan cycle is littered with mortal ladies worth examining…Hecuba, Helen, Clytemnestra, Pebelope, Andromache, Oenone, Iphigenia, Cassandra… each a female leader in her own way. Definitely look at Dido and the founding (and ruin) of Carthage in the Aeneas cycle; Cupid and Psyche is a hieros gamos above all else, so itpersonal responsibility is the main axis; Athena’s birth (and Mentor-ship) is a great examination of woman as non-mothering figure. Persephone is a very old goddess who later gets subsumed into the cult of Eleusis…but MUCH of the cyle is about femal epower more than anythign else.

      Anyways, HUGE topic there, and I’m sticking with the clasical sources again for simplicity’s sake…but I guraantee there’s plenty of fruit on those vines.

      Posted by Damon Suede | September 4, 2013, 9:58 pm
  5. Hi Damon. Wow, what a brilliant post! This is the most comprehensive and erudite analysis of tropes I have come across. And I’m definitely going to bookmark this and send it off to all those who snigger at romantic tropes being so much fluff/crap!

    In fact, Indian mythology continues to be the primary source of tropes for Indian movies (or Bollywood as it is popularly known). Even today the tales of the epic Mahabharata and Ramayana continue to be retold in film after film. And yes, the Indian epics do have their fair share of secret babies (Kunti’s secret baby Karna who chose to fight for the “bad” side in the war of the Mahabharata)and abduction stories (Ravan’s kidnapping of Sita which starts of a war and creates a rift between the ‘god couple’ in Ramayana).

    Posted by Adite Banerjie | September 4, 2013, 10:12 pm
    • SO true! Weirdly enough, a lot of my degree focused South Asian religion…so I actually use those myth cycles a lot more because i find them so stirring and untapped as sources. TONS of secret babies, mismatched lovers, abductions, and makeovers in those epics. The persistence of the patterns is what fascinates me.

      Actually, I felt a little guilty using the Greeks for this post, but they’re so familiar. I feel like there’s tons of turf to be mined in this material globally! :)

      XX

      Posted by Damon Suede | September 5, 2013, 10:13 pm
  6. Hi Damon…

    Thanks so much for joining us at RU as a regular contributor. Looking forward to more of your posts! =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 4, 2013, 10:16 pm
  7. Very cool post, Damon – I love this! Back in the day, I didn’t even realize how many books on my keeper shelf shared common tropes. They might be cliches, but they’re popular for a reason!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 4, 2013, 11:27 pm
  8. Love this! Thanks Damon…you should offer an online course on this! Fascinating subject. Welcome to RU, btw.

    Tropes I have used: assassin falls for his target, Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella.

    Posted by Rashda/Mina Khan (@SpiceBites) | September 5, 2013, 10:17 am
  9. Thank you so much for this inspiring post!

    Posted by Heather | September 5, 2013, 10:32 am
  10. Thank you for your thought-provoking post, Damon. I’ve noticed parallels between my own favorite tropes, in both my reading and writing, and those of mythology.

    One such trope goes like this: Character A loves Character B. Then something cruel and unusual happens to B. A sallies forth to save B. But the unexpected happens and a simple rescue effort gets complicated.

    The oldest story of this type, at least that I know of, is the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris. It’s turned up since in heroic legends, fiction, and movies. I use it quite a bit in my own works, including romances. I think it has plenty of potential. And unlike many romance tropes, it’s far from overused.

    Another favorite trope: A and B are in love. Then one of them decides something else is more important than love. This destroys their relationship. It all ends tragically, or they get a second chance. But they’ve both changed; they can’t just pick up where they left off.

    The myth of Venus and Adonis follows this pattern. They don’t get a second chance. Romfic couples always do.

    Lastly, there’s the trope of “the world well lost”. A loves B, or both love each other. They’re under overwhelming pressure not to follow their hearts. But they do anyhow. And pay a terrible price.

    One story along these lines is the legend of Tristan and Isolde. Which is not exactly a popular source of inspiration among romance writers. Nowadays the genre demands stories in which the focal characters follow the rules and uphold the system. And nobody pays a terrible price for love; rather, they’re richly rewarded. But I’m fond of this trope. So whether or not it’s commercial, I use it.

    Keep up the good work!

    Posted by Mary Anne Landers | September 5, 2013, 1:23 pm
  11. Fantastic post! When we first started out (I am co-founder of Booktrope publishing) I wrote a blog post titled “Educate or Entertain Me” because I am very “out” about my lack of interest on a personal level in reading deep fiction that required I “digest” or “analyze” the book while reading. I see huge value, both personally and culturally, in genre fiction. Is H.G. Wells less impactful than Salinger? Would we call Dickens genre fiction today? (I would argue we probably would).

    Lest you wonder, we named the company Booktrope with multiple meanings, one of which being that we planned to change the trope that book creation has become. We happily publish all genres, including those I do not personally care for. After all, just because I (and my colleagues) are “publishers” who are we to decide what makes another reader happy or feel fulfilled? If readers like a book, it has worth.

    I look forward to more of your posts! Thanks for adding a new layer of appreciation to one of my favorite genres!

    Posted by Katherine Sears | September 8, 2013, 12:50 pm
  12. Fabulous post, Damon. Glad you will be a regular here at RU.

    I co-founded and also co-curate the original Lady Jane’s Salon in NYC. I don’t know where you’re based, but would love to chat about you guest reading. We are romance fic, not erotica per se, tho we do have erotic romance and erotica authors read (their tamer PG-13 scenes) for us. :)

    We pride ourselves on celebrating the spectrum of romance fic and have had m/m, f/f (and various permutations thereof) romances featured.

    http://www.LadyJaneSalonNYC.com

    Posted by Hope Tarr | September 17, 2013, 3:18 pm
    • Hey Hope!

      I LOVE Lady Janes and come whenever I’m in town. In fact, for nine months Leanne has been harassing me to come to do a reading. I would love to discuss scheduling something. Let’s tawk. :) I’ll shoot you an email.

      XXX

      Posted by Damon Suede | September 18, 2013, 11:20 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] The wilder/more unfamiliar the trope, the more the emotion has to draw the reader in to carry the […]

  2. […] writers find tropes so compelling?”  This question was posed by author Damon Suede on the Romance University blog the other day.  My question is, what the heck is a […]

  3. […] Hit & Myth: Legendary Underpinnings of Genre Tropes Damon Suede on the surprisingly ancient origin of story devices still common today and why they still work. […]

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