This is a slightly revised update of a post I originally submitted back in 2014.
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The term tropes has a number of definitions, but for the purposes of this post, it refers to those themes, conventions and plot devices that readers have come to expect in works of fiction. In this context, tropes are very much like clichés, and any literary genre you can think of has its well known tropes. Many works of fantasy utilise the trope of the young orphan who (according to prophecy) is destined to save the day, for example. And, in science fiction, how many times have we read tales of scientists whose creations turn on their creators, and wreak havoc upon the world?
Over the years, the word trope has developed negative connotations in the minds of many people. One of the principle reasons for this being the perceived overuse of various tropes in fiction. Consequently, the use of certain tropes can often provide disincentives to reading particular books, for some readers.
On many occasions in the past, I myself have been guilty of allowing the inclusion of tropes that I am sick of, make me reluctant to read titles that were initially of interest to me. One such trope is the love triangle, in which a female protagonist “struggles” to chose between two male suitors, the “nice guy” and the “bad boy”, who are vying for her affections. This particular trope is rampantly prevalent in Young Adult literature written by female authors, and my dislike for it has made me wary of reading YA novels with a female protagonist.
However, I eventually came to the realisation that it isn’t necessarily the tropes, per se, that people dislike; rather it’s the manner in which they are utilised. Going back to my love triangle example, while a small portion of my dislike can be attributed to personal experience, most of my negative feelings towards this trope is due to the all too often poor execution of said trope by many writers. And this, I believe, is at the heart of why many people view tropes in a negative light.
Continuing with the love triangle trope I mentioned, there are three specific ways in which various authors use this trope that has made it so unpalatable for me. Firstly, many writers fail to demonstrate what it is about the female protagonist that the two male suitors find so intriguing and alluring. Without being presented with a reason for her appeal, I am simply not able to buy into a fundamental aspect of the triangle.
Secondly, some writers will have the heroine either alternating between the two guys while “struggling” to make her choice as to who she’s going to be with, or worse yet, she becomes “involved” with both of them at the same time. I hate being strung along, so I don’t like to see it happening to other people, even if they are just fictional characters.
Finally, it always seems to be the case that the “nice guy” is portrayed as the safe and boring option, which is depicted as a negative, whereas the “bad boy” is portrayed as the dangerous but exciting option, which is supposedly a positive.
While I realise that in the real world (some) women make terrible relationship choices, and invariably overlook the caring, respectful and loyal “nice guy”, in favour of the psychologically and emotionally abusive “bad boy,” that doesn’t mean I have any desire to see this convention followed in fiction, especially when it’s depicted as a good thing.
Leaving aside my personal feelings about tropes, the main cause of the poor reputation of tropes is, as I said earlier, the overuse of tropes. There are only so many times people can read tales of orphans fulfilling their prophesied destiny to save the world, before they feel like they have read them all, then subsequently decide to pass up the opportunity to read any more such stories.
It would be easy for me to suggest that the best way around the issue of tropes driving readers away from your work, is to avoid using tropes of any kind in the first place; to be be completely original. Such advice isn’t really feasible, given that, “there is nothing new under the sun”, as the biblical adage goes.
I am now of the opinion that the use of tropes doesn’t have to be an inherently bad thing. The reason that any trope exists to begin with, is that the theme, convention or plot device that gave birth to it, was used successfully by numerous writers in the past. So contemporary writers should not feel apprehensive about following an established trope, as ultimately this won’t have any bearing on whether what is written is good or bad.
I believe that the key to the successful utilisation of any literary trope lies in strong writing, compelling characterisation, believable dialogue, and a coherent narrative. If a writer can attain these things, their work will not be hampered by the use of any trope. One of the best examples I can think of is the fantasy novel Shadowfall by James Clemens. The story employs several well-worn tropes of the genre, yet it is an utterly compelling read from beginning to end. You can read my review of the book by visiting my book blog, Another World.