Wednesday, 24 December 2014

One of my favourite wikis

It's Wednesday again...

... and one of my favourite wikis, TvTropes, is running a crowdfunder, on Kickstater.

The projct is already backed, 69k$ relative to a goal of 50k$, but they do have some "stretch goals".

Early days
I remember my first two visits to the TvTropes website. One was back in 2008 I think, or more likely 2009, because reading about catgirls on English Wikpedia (probably still the web's most popular wiki) had led me there. I spent a few minutes checking out TvTropes' article on catgirls, but didn't really think all that much of it, although at that time I had an interest in how feline humanoids were depicted in fiction (even to the point of having a brief email exchange with David Pulver, a fellow ailurophile, although we did also discuss other subjects).

Some months later, perhaps over a year later, I was scouring the web (using the web's most popular search engine) for different versions of the Turkey City Lexicon (which I had first come across almost a decade earlier, in "Paragons"), for some purpose having to do with the art of writing. I think that was well before I started this blog in 2011, though, but maybe it was while working on the early entries, and not necessarily the first.

Among the top search engine hits was a link to TvTropes. I checked out the various versions of the Lexicon, and the densely hyperlinked TvTropes version caught my interest. I clicked some of its internal links. "Hey, this is pretty impressive!" I thought. There's some good analysis there. Some very useful analysis.

Advanced thinking
Soon after that, it became clear to me that TvTropes resonates with the way I think. I like patterns, I like thinking about and recognizing similarities - and differences. Compared and contrast.

Some Tvtropes articles are sloppy. I have serious problems with their LamarckWasRight article, in that it seems to gleefully take for granted that there is no such thing as genetically heriditary aptitude. It seems to take absolutely for granted that if Joe becomes a physicist because Joe's father was a physicist, it was because Joe's father was a physicist, instead of daring to contemplate the politically incorrect thought that maybe Joe's father had some genetic trait that made it likely that he'd become a physicist, such as perhaps an inborn aptitude for physics, and that Joe has inherited this trait and that that is why he became a physicist (and yes, most of the examples do in fact give the impression that they were written by people 100% cocksure of the nonexistence of genetically based aptitude).

Other articles are a bit meh. But most are quite good, and many of them, including most (if not all) of their Sliding Scale articles are nice. I also have a soft spot for Useful Notes, and would like to some day launch a more ambitious project similar to that.

You too (probably) recognizes at least the occasional trope
Many people think in tropes, at least some of the time, but often without being aware of it. I remember long ago, I was watching "Coming to America" with one of my best friends, Erik, alias Sayro, and another of our friends, Rasmus, was also there. At one point, during one of the barbershop scenes, Rasmus remarked "That's an alter kocker!"

Rasmus recognized a trope. Back then Rasmus didn't know what a trope was. Most likely he still doesn't. But he can still recognize tropes that he's aware of. He can still recognize the "thingness" of those tropes that he is aware of. That the thing he's encountering, in a work of fiction, isn't just arbitrary, random, is the way it is even though it could also have been in this other way, or in that other way, but is an on-going tradition of fiction, something frequently used (although of course sometimes subverted). That it's a thing.

They're tools
Some people appear to be opposed to tropes because they suffer from the profoundly retarded delusion that all good fiction must be original, that nothing must ever be re-used. Anyting that is re-used is automatically classified, by such people, in a knee-jerk reaction, as a cliché.

Not so.

As TvTropes so aptly puts it, tropes are tools. There are three kinds of fiction creators. Arrogant idiots who vehemently deny using tropes, even though they do. Honest craftsmen who readily nod and admit it, seeing the truth in the linked-to-essay after having read it, and those in-between, those who are on some level aware of using tropes but reluctant to admit it.

I foresaw TvTropes - in a very vague kinda sorta way
I actually foresaw something vaguely like TvTropes, years before I first encountered it. Several years. But only very vaguely like it. I had visited a few book-a-minute pages on the web, humorous attempts to summarize famous novels in 3 short sentences, and I thought "What if there was a serious version of that?"

Often when I think back to a novel I've read, or a movie or TV show I've watched, long ago, I'd kinda like a thorough summary of it. Not that I don't often re-read and re-watch. I do. But that's not always desirable, and often it's more curiosity about a work from decades ago, that I do not remember fully, than it is any kind of desire to actually re-consume it (after all, the evil suck fairy may have struck). It'd be kinda nice to get a two-page summary, or the like, of such works.

But really, much of what I wanted, I've come to realize, wasn't so much a plot summary as an overview of the tropes present in the work, a thorough overview so that if I see a trope not present on the list then I can know with a fairly high degree of certainty that it was not present in the work.

For that purpose, which I thought rather important back then, but perhaps a bit less so now, the tropes should be sorted into first a short list of major tropes, prevalent tropes, tropes that defines the work of the most important characters, followed by a longer list of tropes that are important for the work, and finally a still longer list of tropes that appear only incidentally, only once in a major character or event, or only 2-3 times elsewhere in a film or novel or only about a dozen times in a multi-part work.

TvTropes doesn't do it like that. Instead they divide tropes up into a main page, a characters page (with tropes divided among the characters - early on I was much impressed when Tvtropes identified one of my favourite fictional characters, Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald, from "Cracker", as a Byronic Hero, because he is), and various subjective sub-pages, including (Crowning)MomentOfAwesome which is quite similar in spirit to a short list that I wrote myself almost 20 years ago.

Because isn't that one of the main reasons why we consume fictions? To be awed? To watch Grand Admiral Thrawn pull of a cheeky - if not downright preposterous - gambit? To watch Tony Stark perform a miracle in a cave, with a box of scraps?

Another thing I'd have liked - foresaw is much too strong a word - would be to have one go-to-place if I want to discuss any given novel, similar to how IMDb is the go-to place to discuss movies and TV shows. TvTropes ain't that.

Nevertheless, TvTropes remains one of my favourite wikis.

I haven't contributed much to it. I don't think I've done anything much, except a few things on "Ghosts of Mars", and of course my all-time-favourite novel (which might be made into a movie or mini-series by Zentropa Film soon).

But some of the people there are pretty sharp. I'm particularly impressed by DrunksSriblerian, "Uncle Drunkie", e.g. his analysis of the concept of characer agency in this thread, in posts #1 and #15. Given the presence of insightful posts like that on the forum, his writer's blog is very disappointing, but I'm linking to it anyway. Maybe he'll start adding more content to it.

Upon re-reading "Assassin of Gor" by John Norman it became clear to me that in that novel, seemingly reflecting a general trend of the early novels of the series, the protagonist, Tarl Cabot, really doesn't do much. He's a spectator. So is his girlfriend, Elizabeth Cardwell, but the passive female is par for the course in such works. Unfortunate, but very much to be expected. The lack of agency of the main character is rather more annoying, but seems to serve the purpose of drawing the reader's attention to the secondary characters, many of whom are somewhat interesting.

One sees some of the same trend, with colourful secondary characters, in many serial works, e.g. in Tintin, but upon rewatching the animated versions of "Destination Moon" and "Explorers on the Moon" I was immediately struck on how much agency Tintin has, in spite of being a flat, very genericized character, who doesn't really draw much attention to himself. And no, that isn't someting particular to the animated version. I'm quite sure that it's present in the original comic albums as well, and in the audio drama versions.

That was food for thought! And that's exactly what TvTropes is about. To get people thinking. Thinking about the stories we write. Thinking about the stories we consume. Rather than runing your life, it'll open your eyes, make you better able to understand and appreciate fiction.

This is going to be the last - the only - blog entry this year, but I'm fairly sure I'll return next year, with at least twice as many entries as I managed to write in 2014.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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