Aug 2, 2014

Subverting tropes: a hard sell

I like to subvert tropes. I take traits that readers have seen too many times before--a gentle giant, for instance--and turn that character into something unexpected. Readers figure that a gentle giant will be misunderstood, considered a monster when he really isn't. The reader rolls their eyes ... until the plot takes an unexpected turn, and the gentle giant gains dangerous berserker tendencies that get innocent bystanders killed. Now the reader must reexamine their assumptions and wonder if he really is a monster, despite his depiction as kind and gentle.

The main character in my novel (Book 1 of the epic series) is front-loaded with tropes. He's a child genius. In a wheelchair. With telepathy. Mistrusting readers are rolling their eyes, thinking they've seen this before, in Artemis Fowl and Ender Wiggin and Professor X. Such readers assume that he's going to save the world (or his friends, or whatever) with his genius and telepathic abilities. They'd go on assuming that ... until he doesn't. About 30% into the novel, the story takes an unexpected twist, causing the reader to reexamine their assumptions about geniuses and telepaths and disabled protagonists. His strengths are being a child and being disabled; his weaknesses are being a genius and being telepathic. It's the opposite of what audiences are trained to expect.

I should have expected that this would be a hard sell. Holy cow. I'm running into a roadblock where industry professionals see the trope, assume that's all it is, and stop reading before the trope gets subverted.*

One beta reader suggested that I plant hints of trope subversion in the first chapter or two. I'm not sure that's feasible, since the beauty of trope subversion is setting up reader expectations before blowing them to smithereens.

Has anyone else run into this problem when subverting tropes? Have you found a way around it?

* The first chapter has other red flags for industry readers, but the trope assumption seems to be one of two 'kill switch' factors.  The other major red flag is the protagonist's young age, which industry professionals consider wrong for YA crossover or adult markets, A Game of Thrones and Ender's Game notwithstanding.


Unknown said...

Sounds interesting! What I did for one of my characters (who had a dark side despite acting nice) was I added a short Prologue. I had one or two paragraphs talking from the eyes of an angry man but never said his name or gave a hint to who he was, except for one tiny thing. Maybe that could help with the holding readers??

JeffO said...

Followed this here from your thread on AW. Turning tropes on their respective heads is all well and good, but the question is, are you giving people enough to keep them going to get through the "Ho, hum I've seen this all before" stage"? Some people are patient readers and will stick with something a long time, maybe even finish a book waiting/hoping for it to 'get good', others won't. And agents and other industry professionals are most likely among the impatient readers.

As others said over on AW (I did not reply in that thread), if you're not getting actual feedback from agents, you can't know if: a) it's the age thing that's the problem; b) the trope thing that's a problem, or even c) your query letter that's the problem. No matter how good the manuscript, you've got to have a query that's going to get pages read. Good luck!

Abby Goldsmith said...

JeffO, agents never give feedback on auto-rejections. I wish they did.

100% of industry professional readers give me feedback along the lines of: "Are you aware that your main character is like Artemis Fowl/Professor X?" And "Are you aware that your main character is too young for YA or adult markets?" Normal beta readers don't make these comments. They keep reading, and they enjoy the book.