I was driving into town after reading Red Robin Reader's post at Dear Author, Too Many Rules, Too Little Romance, and following a conversation on Twitter about whether or not historicals are a dead genre, and I found myself thinking about James Bond and Dr. Who. I've only taken an interest in both recently, and one of the things I find fascinating about both series is the way that the character is sort of like a title or an office. One doctor dies, a new one regenerates. But it's always The Doctor. First James Bond is Pierce Brosnan, then he's Daniel Craig.
Each reboot allows the series creators to reinvent the whole franchise -- but at the same time, certain elements have to remain stable. But which ones? Clearly, the Doctor is not the Doctor without the TARDIS and a companion. If someone said, "How about the twelfth doctor learns to travel through space and time without a ship?" I'd say, "No, thank you." If someone said, "How about James Bond has crack negotiating skills and can't shoot a gun to save his life?" I'd say, "Cool, but different guy."
But certain key elements of the characters can be bent and flexed. The most recent Bond flick was all about toying with expectations. We see Bond with a martini, but we don't hear him order it. He meets a beautiful woman in need of saving, but when the time comes he won't go out of his way for her. And of course there's the opening sequence which suggests to us that, contrary to our deeply-held belief, Bond isn't really all that special -- he's disposable, like any other soldier.
We wouldn't keep going back to the same well if we didn't want more of the same. We wouldn't do a reboot if the water didn't go stale.
We can't break conventions if there are none to play with. But once a 'convention' has been broken enough times, in the same fashion, a new one has been made from the ashes of the old. I've noticed this in historical romances with heroines who have career-like vocations -- there was one year where I read three separate romances where the heroine owned or managed an orphanage, and that wasn't an exhaustive survey. It's hard to escape tropes because, like the doctor, they regenerate as fast as they're destroyed.
But each role, each rule -- the ingenue, the masterful rake, the rebel, the wallflower, the practical mastermind (The Doctor, James Bond) -- is like an outfit the characters step into, a hat they put on. And, as the old saying goes, clothes don't make the man.
I'm realizing that I haven't said anything that Robin didn't say, only rephrased it in a way that is friendlier to me, an aspiring writer. Because I'll be honest, I'd much rather follow a convention than toil away in isolation, if that's the choice (I'd be delighted if readers like Robin broaden the spectrum of choices). In any case, it behooves me to see tropes as creatively productive, as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
I recently read a perfect line in Swann's Way, on page 24 of the hardcover Lydia Davis translation, that sums up the possibility inherent in constraint in the perfect way: "My mother ... derived form this very constraint one more delicate thought, like good poets forced by the tyranny of rhyme to find their most beautiful lines."