Popular fiction has a lot of stereotypes and tropes associated with them. From vampires, angels, demons, and werewolves, people have a certain expectation for certain stereotypes and tropes. Chrysoula Tzavelas has been kind enough to stop by to discuss popular subjects in fiction and how they affect us as readers—and as writers.
Trillian: We all have a favorite trope or stereotype to read; I love werewolves with unique twists. What is your favorite trope or stereotype?
Demons, specifically well thought out demons with a sympathetic perspective. They can ultimately be bad or have secret hearts of gold (or both) but… yeah. Demons. And the trope itself goes straight back to Paradise Lost, so there’s a lot of history behind it!
Trillian: What is your least favorite trope or stereotype in fantasy fiction?
A broad topic, and harder to answer because I spend a lot less time thinking about stuff I don’t like. Let me see… Right, okay. The medieval focus of second world fantasy. I actually generally don’t like the spatial/temporal divisions: you want contemporary technology alongside magic? It takes place in an alternate version of modern Earth. You want steampunk? An alternate version of Victorian England. Kings and queens and epic sweeping scope? The late middle ages, and you ought to make it seem like a different world.
An early work of mine (currently unfinished) was set in a post-war industrial revolution in a completely new world where the industry was powered by enslaved spirits. The people doing the enslaving didn’t even know what they were doing. And there were elves, too, but they were the secondborn race, and humans the firstborn. Damn, I loved that setting.
Anyhow, there’s definitely a slow drift toward more diversity of the temporal/spatial/storytype limitations but it’s still hard to sell because it’s risky.
Oh! Bonus disliked trope, from contemporary fantasy: the idea that ordinary humans are only worthy of narrative attention as victims. And that if you are awesome enough to have agency it’s because of something inborn (a GIFT or intrinsic inhumanity) or imposed from outside (turned into a werewolf/vampire/etc). I’m always pretty meh on that. It’s okay as part of the genre but all the time? Meh.
Trillian: Fantasy gets a lot of flack over certain stereotypes. A good example of this is Twilight. However, the tropes and stereotypes used in Twilight have brought millions of young readers to fantasy fiction. Has the success of the truly popular tropes/stereotypes affected your writing? If so, how? If not, did you avoid them for a reason?
Oh sure, I’m influenced. When I’m deciding what to write next, I look at my trove of ideas and I pick something that I think has a tiny chance of being commercial. I need to have some way of making the decision!
When I was younger I worried a lot about being ‘original’ but it turned out that stressing about that just stopped me from finishing anything. And hey, bonus, it turns out even when I try to write highly derivative work I’m hailed as ‘original’.
Trillian: Men and women alike fall victim to stereotypes in fantasy fiction. What gender-based stereotypes do you hate the most? Why? Do you feel the existence of this stereotype harms the fantasy genre as a whole?
I hate the Exceptional Girl in urban (and other) fantasy. I hate the lady protagonist whose friends are all men, who ends up viewing almost all other women as rivals (or actual enemies) or jokes. I understand (some of) why it appears so often–why waste time on friendly girls when you could make those friends boys your straight protagonist could have tension with? But it is so different from my actual life (and so insulting to all the women who have supported me) that I just can’t ever implement it.
As for whether it harms fantasy? I don’t know. That’s the sort of fandom discussion I tend not to attend. 🙂 It requires defining what ‘harming fantasy’ means. It certainly entertains readers. But I don’t think it’s helpful to society in any particular way.
Trillian: You write stories involving angels and the mythos surrounding them. The inclusion of angels has certain connotations. Have you found these stereotypes have affected your readership—and your writing?
The only time anybody has commented on the angel mythos in specific is when my original publisher offered on the novels. She praised my research and nuanced approach to old mythology, which I was amused by since the ‘research’ was just… the contents of my head by then. A lifetime of interest in angels/demons made manifest.
I have had to make decisions about things I suspect other urban fantasy authors don’t need to worry about early on: the nature and status of God/the Creator (read and find out!), what I was going to do about Jesus Christ (I made an important decision about what he was but it may never come out), and so on.
Trillian: You write about a subject most consider fringe—or taboo, depending on their personal beliefs. What challenges have you faced with your choice of subject material? How does your writing break the mold in terms of the angelic stereotype?
While I’m writing the kinds of stories I’m interested in, they actually have their own lineage. You can start with Paradise Lost (if you want) or just jump ahead to things like Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN (and Mike Carey’s follow-up LUCIFER) and movies like PROPHECY. So I don’t think of my stories as breaking molds, really. The idea that God is remote, angels are imperfect, fallen angels aren’t always evil and humans are amazing all go back to the beginning of angel lore.
The biggest ‘challenge’ I’ve faced in that regard is what to do about the Known Angels. Names like Gabriel and Raphael and Lucifer all have a LOT of narrative weight to them. Getting entangled in that is a huge challenge. I eventually came up with a solution I like, though, that leaves them as part of the setting while letting me use original characters for the real storytelling work.
Trillian: The fantasy genre has been under fire due to certain social issues, including gender bias and sexual orientation. What’s your take on this subject?
Trillian: Do you believe authors can make a difference in regards to these social issues in their writing? Have you intentionally addressed these issues in your books? If so, how?
I’m not going to change the world with my books, even if I was as successful as JK Rowling. Nobody is going to say, “Wow, I was wrong about X!” as a result of my book. But here’s the thing. Back in 2009 I read some personal anecdotes of little girls in India who read fantasy fiction and didn’t realize they could be princesses too, because they weren’t white. And I remembered that when I was a little girl I got pretty frustrated that my fantasy destiny, if I had one, was to be a wife and mother to some awesome man. This doesn’t hit all little girls who read fantasy–some of them are able to say, “It’s fantasy!” and overlook the gender issue– but it hit me. It hurt. So I empathized with those little girls from India. I don’t aim to change the world, but I do want anybody who picks up my books (but especially those who are underserved in escapism options) to feel welcome. I want them to know that I believe they can be a hero, too.
So what I do is this: these days when I create a new character, I do my thing, come up with my vision– and then I ask myself, “Is there any reason this character needs to be white/straight/cis/male?” And you know, a lot of the time the answer is actually, “Yes,” to one or more of those, because of stereotypes or tropes or power structures I’m representing. But when I don’t have a good reason, I change things up. I try to stay flexible.
Also: all of INFINITY KEY. Branwyn’s story is about facing down entrenched systems that consider her a weaker and less valuable member of society, clawing her way into personal power and forcing them to take her seriously. Not-so-coincidentally, Branwyn is fiercely, actively feminist.
Trillian: What’s your favorite book? What’s your least favorite book? Why do you love / hate these titles
The Most Reread titles are split between Terry Pratchett and Jane Austen. I love both authors for their keen insight into the ordinary elements of humanity: the way people live and how that impacts others. I like Pratchett for other reasons: the poetry of his language, his complex approach to good and evil, his compassion for individuals and his faith that even Magrats can punch Fairy Queens in the nose. Do you want me to pick a favorite book of his? I’ll suggest Nation, then. It’s not part of Discworld and I’ve only read it twice because it’s emotionally rawer than most Discworld books. But it’s amazing.
I’ll also throw out a plug for Gunnerkrigg Court which started out as a webcomic but hey there’s now 4 print volumes of a really excellent fantasy+robots boarding school story.
Least favorite… this could get me in trouble. 🙂 Um, I’m not a fan of various super-popular urban fantasy series with lady protagonists. There are some I like! But the ones I don’t like all have certain things in common. Protagonists who are described as awesome and wonderful by the narrative but actually act pretty incompetent. First person protagonists who talk about their bodies with a third person perspective. A massive focus on irrelevant details like doing laundry. Stuff like that. I don’t know if I’d hate these books so much if they weren’t so very popular. But as it is they’re the ones that get the one stars.
Trillian: I try to leave all interviews on a fun and quirky note. There are a lot of doomsday scenarios surrounding the end of Earth as we know it. What’s your favorite of them?
Hah, well, I’m the kind of killjoy who doesn’t find doomsday scenarios “fun.” Sorry! When I was growing up on Air Force bases that were primary targets in the inevitable nuclear exchange, I liked to plan out how I’d survive and that was kind of fun then, but these days I just end up worrying about my kids. Having a special needs kid makes it hard to pretend we’ll do well in a zombie apocalypse.
BUT I do have an uncommonly discussed End Of The World scenario to pitch. It’s not the least bit original–I picked it up from a Hugo winning novel–but at least it’s not zombies or solar flares or alien invasion or cataclysmic climate change. Instead, manmade biological self-aware cellular computers infect…. everything alive, which causes the collapse of the universe due to too many minds. Then everybody transcends to a higher plane because the cellular intelligences are basically benevolent. Yay!
Yeah, okay, I’m a killjoy.
As a note, the Senyaza series is all about a slow progression towards a doomsday scenario, but I’m not telling what that one is. 🙂
Thanks for the interview!
About Chrysoula Tzavelas
Chrysoula Tzavelas went to twelve schools in twelve years while growing up as an Air Force brat, and she never met a library she didn’t like. She now lives near Seattle with cats, dogs, adults and children. They graciously allow her a few hours to write everyday and one day she’ll have time to do other things again, too.
She likes combed wool, bread dough, and gardens, but she also likes technology, games and space. This probably goes hand in hand with liking Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett and Iain Banks.