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Subverting Your Writing

As a student who is working with racial representations in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, I am all about subversion of expectation. What I mean when I say that is taking something we expect (any sort of trope or stereotype will do) and turning it on its head, manipulating it so that it unravels all of our expectations and challenges a good reader to examine why are expectations are the way they are. The catch, though, is that half the onus is on the writer to do a good job at subverting the trope they're writing, and the other half on the reader to catch on and resist the temptation to ignore the subversion and fall into the trope. This makes for both fun writing and an interesting reading.

A good example is Sansa Stark (come on - are you really at all surprised I pulled out the Game of Thrones reference?). In a lot of ways her character falls into the damsel in distress trope [spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire through A Storm of Swords, just FYI). Sansa is a young, beautiful girl who puts a lot of stock in the feminine courtly ideal - at the beginning of her narrative all she cares about is marrying the beautiful prince and having beautiful babies, and thriving in a court environment. Her world view is simplistic, and her understanding of the gray the world contains nonexistent. As far as she's concerned there is evil, and there are shining knights, and the knights always win. There is no other possible outcome.

But as her story continues she learns, she grows, and she begins to understand. More importantly, and perhaps more relevant, is she understands who she is as a young woman in an environment that only values her for her sexuality and her ability to produce children. She understands that she is valuable (and therefore able to remain alive) only so long as she fits into what the court wants to see: a demure, feminine, malleable young woman. She must appear stupid in order to remain alive. And she gets a lot of criticism for that.

But her entire narrative is about subverting the damsel in distress and twisting our expectations. Sansa is not stupid. Far from it and her internal narrative displays that - she's quite aware that she's in a den of lions and a single misstep will mean her death. She uses her position as a perceived young and stupid girl to keep living. She understands that she can't fight in a masculine way (those that do inevitably die without exception), but she's punished for playing into the feminine ideal. Her whole narrative is about criticizing the conditions she's forced to exist in - she can't ape her perceived betters (men) and she can't perform to their standard (the feminine ideal) without incurring wrath and risking death.

And understanding all of that produces a much richer writing and reading experience. Tropes are tropes for a reason: they're fun and we love them. But manipulating those tropes is always better because more often than not, you're going to create something better and your audience will get something much richer.
Somaiya Daud

Somaiya Daud received her BA and MA from a university in DC in English. She is currently working on her PhD. When not writing or studying, she spends too much time on the internet yelling about comics and robots. Her first novel, Mirage, is coming 2017 from Flatiron Books.

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  1. Wow, that sounds like a really interesting read. (I'm debating reading Song of Fire and Ice but it's such a time commitment ...)

    Robin Hobb did the same thing with the heroine's little sister in her Liveship trilogy. The girl starts out wanting to be pretty and rich and admired, and doesn't know what a spoiled brat she is. But she winds up in an adventure that shatters all of her trope-expectations, and IMO she winds up a much cooler character than the actual heroine. But at the beginning she's absolutely odious.

  2. I love this post, Sumayyah. And I think that there is no better book (or series) to use as an example of subverting tropes than A Song of Ice and Fire.

  3. There is nothing better than a good subverted trope, and Sansa is a great example. Wonderful post!

  4. This is one of those things I love to be reminded of so I notice it more in what I read and write. I like your example, too. You can subvert tropes in a very simplistic way, but Sansa is a more subtle example.

  5. Are you familiar with TV Tropes?

  6. I agree. We are starting to see more and more heroines that subvert the trope such as Katniss and Katsa. Katniss definitely has to play dumb to garner sympathy. That seems to be the dominate culture these days. Smart girls playing dumb to get what they want.


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Item Reviewed: Subverting Your Writing Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Sumayyah