What Makes a Sekrit Rool?

A ‘secret rule’ is what I call a trope or archetype that a specific writer comes back to again and again. It might or might not be something that’s universal to the genre the writer is working in, it might be a specific theme or belief that the writer deals with.

For instance, a good example of a trope might be a conservative writer who ever and always has a whiny “liberal” to beat up and abuse. (Mickey Zucker Reichert and David Weber are examples of this. For instance, the prince in The Legend of Nightfall, and various liberal enemies of Honor Harrington are good examples of this.) It might be evidence of a strongly held opinion about gender differences. (For instance, L.E. Modesitt Jr., Marion Zimmer Bradley and Octavia Butler all tend to revisit themes involving the differences between men and women. Most of L.E. Modesitt’s books visit this theme, and the same is the case with both Butler and Bradley in varying degrees.) The archetype or trope is always present in some manner, and in the case of the negative symbol or archetype, the archetype is “punished” for having a wrong-headed world view.

Another way a writer’s personal archetype or trope might appear is in the very fabric of the universe the writer creates. What is absolutely possible and believable in one “universe” is not possible in another universe by another writer. For instance, passive resistance and pacifism does not and cannot work in a story written by a conservative who believes that passive resistance is a waste of time and that pacifists are essentially cowards who let other people do the fighting for them. In the hands of a writer who does not “get” the mindset of military organizations and who sincerely believes that any war is evil–will tend to write military characters as inherently incapable of understanding or wanting a peaceful resolution to a problem. (To test this, apply a basic theme or situation from one book or series to another; if you lift the theme directly and dump it into the situation in the second canon and you abruptly go ‘yeah, no that’s not going to work at all,’ you will probably see what I mean.)

If you know a writer’s symbols and tropes, it is occasionally possible to also get a feeling for the writer’s world view. It should be noted however that it is possible to misinterpret the actual intent of the writer, or misinterpret the trope or symbol the writer uses. A symbol or image makes sense and “works” in the writer’s head may not look the way the writer intended it to, because the symbol has been interpreted differently by the reader.

A “secret rule” is a recognizable symbol, theme or trope that is an intrinsic part of the story, and one that is visited again and again. It might be a specific kind of character, a world view the writer supports or disagrees with, or part of the basic fabric of the universe created by the writer. Spotting and identifying these individualized symbols can give you a sort of window into the worldview of the writer.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “What Makes a Sekrit Rool?

  1. You know, I once saw the world view element split into 'active' and 'passive' — mostly because That Way Likes Preachy Books, and the essayist was interested in exploring that. Passive was mostly the idea that certain methods tend to be favored in that universe — if the author was a hawk, violence works better* than if the author was a pacifist. Active is when you get into the idea that the people with opposing POVs tend to be misguided at best and strawmen villains at worst (and then I throw the book at the wall). But I like the idea of also categorizing tropes and what Steve Brust calls Cool Stuff. (Basically, he noted that for writers to have fun doing their job and write better books, they should tell stories about Cool Stuff and Boring Stuff, with the Cool Stuff varying by the writer.) * Better in the sense of 'leading to a situation where Our Heroes win, and the minimum of Bad Stuff happens'. Not so much in the sense of 'five gallons of overpressurized blood that comes out with every sword slash'.

  2. Tropes are a really useful concept I think–I like taking apart the elements of a story and sticking them back together.

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