Bookworms know what I’m talking about. We love the tropes—enemies to lovers, found family, the Chosen One, and many more. There are so many that I could do one blog a week on each trope and I wouldn’t run out of content for years! But as writers, we have to ask ourselves why. Why do tropes matter? What value do they bring to our writing?
Dictionary.com defines a trope as “a recurring element or a frequently used plot device in a work of literature or art.” In other words, a trope is part of a story’s structure that is used and reused in many stories.
Sometimes a trope is as simple as a character slipping on a banana peel. That plot device has been used so many times that it has become a trope.
Other tropes are more complex, such as the villain joins the hero to defeat a greater villain trope. That plot device is also quite common—we see it in superhero movies, fantasy stories, and sci-fi books.
Now for the writerly question: why do tropes matter?
Well, the obvious answer is that people love them!
Tropes are often reused for the simple reason that they sell. People will buy books for the dark, brooding alpha male falls in love with the soft, sweet sunshine girl trope. They’ll buy for the chosen one must face their destiny trope. They’ll even buy for the tragic Romeo and Juliet trope of foolish teenage infatuation. (Oops, I think some of my bias slipped out.)
If a trope exists, it’s because there is a willing and eager audience ready to consume it. No matter how stupid or overused said trope may be.
So let’s take a look at a few reasons why people love their tropes.
I’ve found that readers tend to identify with characters, and because of that, they identify with the tropes a character may live out. Sometimes readers find these tropes in their own lives. Consider this short list of common tropes:
- A character tries to ignore the feelings they have for another character
- Jerk character is always right, though going about it the wrong way
- Rich character is ignorant of the troubles normal people deal with
- Poverty-stricken family is more generous than the rich family
- Everything goes wrong at once and causes a character to break down
Can you relate to any of these tropes? Perhaps you’ve experienced some of them before. These tropes are popular because they are grounded in reality, which makes them relatable. A reader can see this happening to themself.
Everyone has an aspirational identity. (Or in my case, several!) We all want to be someone we’re not, or experience lives we’ll never live. Certain tropes feed these aspirational identities, allowing the reader to step into a world that is not their own for a little while. Consider this list of tropes:
- A character inherits a large sum of money from a long-lost relative
- Love triangle—a character must choose between devoted would-be lovers
- A character discovers their true identity as a lost royal or the Chosen One of a prophecy
- A character stumbles upon a mystery and solves it
- Bad boy/girl falls in love with the main character and experiences personal growth (but retains that mischievous smirk)
Have you ever wanted to experience life as a royal? Solve a mystery? Catch the bad guy?
At some point in our lives we’ve all wanted to watch someone fall in love with us, to experience sudden fame or riches. We’ve all wanted to be the Chosen One. That’s why stories like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Princess Diaries are so popular. They feed aspirational identities shared by people around the globe.
Some tropes are simply meant to make people laugh. We’ve all done stupid things. Consider:
- Character slips on a banana peel or marbles on the floor
- Character searches desperately for glasses that are on their head or a phone that is in their hand
- Character gets caught in a lie, so makes the lie more elaborate and unbelievable to save face
- Character uses outrageous insults or hilarious alternative cuss words
- Child misunderstands sexual references and misuses it
These tropes are a mixture of relatable and outrageously exaggerated, which makes them hilarious. Writers use these and many more tropes in art forms of all kinds—on the big screen and in novels, paintings, comic books, etc. They’ve been used since the dawn of time to make people laugh.
Tropes Do the Work For You!
My favorite thing about tropes is how useful they are. Need a good twist? Use a trope. Want a character to fall in love, but don’t know how to make it work? Grab a trope. Want to add some comedy or tragedy? You guessed it—pull out a trope!
A common trend among writers in the last few years has been to pull away from tropes. Writers often want to stand out from the crowd, so they’ll try to do something new and unheard of. But that’s not always wise. Tropes are popular because they sell!
If you want to stand out from the crowd, it’s best to take a popular trope and add your own twist to it. Tropes aren’t bad just because they’ve been used so often. They’re fun! Tropes exist because the audience wants more, so give them more! Consider these famous tropes with a twist:
- Monsters Inc did this very well by inverting the child afraid of the monster under the bed trope.
- The Hunger Games changed the love triangle trope forever when Katniss chose Peeta over her childhood friend Gale.
- The Divergent series broke the stereotype of the main character/Chosen One surviving everything thrown at them.
As you can see, writers are trendsetters. We can’t ignore each other’s hard work! But writers are also thieves, stealing good works and making them better. So don’t be afraid to use today’s most popular tropes! Jump on that bandwagon and ride for a little while, and then spread your wings, writer.
If we’re meant to change the world, let’s start with the tropes we have. Check out a few other tropes I’ve talked about here!
Thank you so much for joining me. Until next time, writer!