Some readers and writers have a hate-hate relationship with tropes in fiction, but I love a good trope myself, especially if it is gently tweaked to be a little more interesting. Writers can often argue whether tropes are good or bad, but I think it’s a little more complicated than that.
A trope is usually a concept or idea that gets used repeatedly in media and has become very familiar. Some tropes get overused to the point where they are cliches and signs of weak or lazy writing, but there are always ways to play with them to make them fresh and original. Think of it this way: a trope is a tool a writer uses to get a reader’s attention. Tropes are simply familiar schemes and characters to layer into story to create a narrative safety net.
An example of a common trope in fantasy fiction—one we’ve all seen a million variations of—is the ‘farmboy who sets off on an adventure, and ultimately discovers they are the son of the king.’
Harry Potter could be viewed as an example of this: the poor orphan kid, abused by his family who discovers he is actually a wizard and the Chosen One. And there’s no denying that the Harry Potter books are some of the most popular books in recent history. What if JK Rowling had decided that all tropes are bad and she’d never use any? For a start, the series would have been vastly different, and I sincerely doubt it would have been half as popular.
Some writers take tropes that are familiar to readers and turn them on their head for comedic and dramatic effect. Terry Pratchett does this masterfully with characters like Carrot Ironfoundersson (who is a walking library of upended tropes) and the story line in Guards! Guards! which runs merry havoc with the concept of the secret prince hidden at birth who must reclaim his birthright. If you haven’t read Pratchett, I recommend this one, as it’s a great entry into the Discworld universe and canon.
Any writer who would like to take lessons in subverting tropes could do far worse than looking to Pratchett.
Some people believe tropes ruin a story, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad about tropes themselves, just the way they are used. Readers like the comfort of the familiar. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A good trope can carry a heavy pack on a long journey. And sometimes we all want a bit of comfort-reading where we can set aside our brains for a wee while and let the story do all the work. Tropes are great for this. We can sit back, safe in the knowledge that the girl is going to choose the boy-next-door, the underdog is going to win the race, the youngest child will outsmart everyone and solve the mystery.
But tropes do get overused to the point where just the hint of them can have a reader send a book flying across the room while screaming obscenities. Raise your hand if you have never yelled at the screen when the band of teens splits up in a horror movie?
For a while, the love-triangle was an extremely popular narrative device in Young Adult fiction (and is still common, because enough readers love it, so there.) I had what I hoped was a subverted love-triangle in my book When the Sea is Rising Red, but just the mention of a Love Triangle ™ in reviews was enough to put it on some readers’ Will Not Read lists.
And that’s a chance you take when using tropes, whether you play them straight or crooked. And there are those who will tell new writers to never use tropes. I think that’s a bit unfair. My caveat is, if you’re going to use tropes (and there are so may, you’ll be hard pressed not to) try bring something original to it. It doesn’t have to be a massive change, but a few subtle tweaks can elevate a common-as-mud story to a much more interesting place.
There are also tropes which are pretty damaging, so one question to ask yourself as a writer is what you are portraying when you use a particular trope. Some, without a doubt, are racist, sexist, or classist (or all three.) If you’re using a trope like the Magical Negro, where a Wise Old Native Person’s sole role in the story is to appear to give the protagonist advice, or if you’re using a character’s rape as motivation for the protagonist, think about why you’re using this particular trope and what you want to achieve with it.
But outside of these kinds of damaging tropes, perhaps the biggest question to ask is, does it matter if you’re enjoying it? Whether you’re a writer waking up every day to fall headlong into the world you’re creating that’s filled with farmboy princes and mentor wizards, or if you’re a reader who loves romances where the heroine wins the bad boy and fixes him, what is it that makes you fall in love with a particular narrative convention? If you’re not hurting people, then revel in the things that make you happy and don’t let yourself be ‘trope-shamed.’
And, if you would like to waste the rest of your day away, you can head to tvtropes and get sucked into an endless spiral, hunting all the tropes in your favourite media, and then making extensive notes on other shows you must watch and books you need to read.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also enjoy The merits of tropes: a battle for the aeons!
Cat Hellisen writes weird, lush speculative fiction for adults and children. She’s the author of When the Sea is Rising Red and Beastkeeper, and her short fiction and poetry have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including Tor.com, Apex Magazine, Shimmer and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Her favourite writers are Ursula K Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Tanith Lee and Clive Barker, though she loves discovering new writers of the fantastical.