A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Tropes! Huh! Wha-aat are they good for? Absolutely nuthin’ – say it again!
This probably sums up most people’s attitudes when they hear the word ‘trope’. It’s become one of those buzz terms that is flung around in our discussion of books like a handful of annoying and unnecessary glitter, getting into the carpet and your hair and still gleaming at you from the crannies of your desk six months later even after you used the hoover in an attempt to get shot of it. People talk about tropes all the time, and their comments usually run along these lines:
‘Tropes! Tropes everywhere! This book would’ve been good if not for all the tropes! These tropes are so over-used! This book is the tropey-est of the tropey! TOO MANY TROPES!’
What is a trope? Let’s consult Google for the formal definition:
nounnoun: trope; plural noun: tropes1. A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.“both clothes and illness became tropes for new attitudes toward the self”2. A significant or recurrent theme; a motif.“she uses the Eucharist as a pictorial trope”
That second one is the one most people are most familiar with. A trope is a recurring motif. A pattern within a story which we recognise as having a familiar form – such as the Beauty and the Beast story, or the Cinderella/rags-to-riches story, or the true love’s kiss ending. More examples would be: the mother who sacrifices herself for her child, or the mild-mannered mother who turns out to be the murderer because the victim hurt her child, the climactic final showdown between former best friends turned enemies, the monster in the cave, cheerleaders and football players ruling the school, and love at first sight.
However, if you’re a fan of the TV Tropes website, you’ll know that these days pretty much anything any writer can ever do has been identified, codified, and is now considered ‘a trope’. Stuff the majority of people have literally never even heard of (‘You I shall never forgive!’) has already become a tired and over-used trope to other people. The most moving, beautiful, shocking or gritty plot elements, the most fully realised and nuanced characters, the most heartfelt, raw pieces of dialogue. It’s all been done before. Everything is now a ‘trope’. Sorry!
*Blows the loudest raspberry in the world*
See, the problem with all this is that it seems the words ‘trope’ and ‘cliche’ have become interchangeable. And actually, they’re not the same. Most people currently use the word ‘trope’ as if they universally regarded all tropes as a bad thing. Even in talking about the most original, unique and quirky stories, people will point out what they believe to be tropes, either somewhat gleefully, as if they’d caught the author out somehow, or wearily and with annoyance, as a ‘shame’, as though the mere presence of a trope had spoiled something that would otherwise have been good.
But if everything is a trope, what is a writer to do? Create a book in which nothing is predictable, none of the characters are recognisable, and everything is utterly original? This does seem to be the gist of the ‘anti-trope’ discussions you see, and it’s a nice idea – if it were possible. But it’s not. In order to achieve this you’d need to literally publish a book of random words strung together randomly. ‘Nugget. Bumblebee. Scaffold. Fussbudget schaudenfreud; scrumpy marple Wimpole!’ Not a trope in sight! But not entertaining. Not actually a story at all.
Why? Because HUMANS LOVE PATTERNS. Humans instinctively and automatically strive to make sense of the random and chaotic by sorting it into recognisable patterns, which is why we look at clouds and see dancing monkeys, turn the cracks in the ceiling to rivers, discover a face hidden in the wood knots on the back of the bathroom door, and mentally draw out the constellation of Orion in our friend’s freckles.
You can’t stop humans from being humans. You cannot alter the way the human brain works or how people perceive and conceptualize the world. People will find patterns. If they can find a pattern in the raindrops on their windowpane they can certainly do it for any narrative constructed by a fellow human being. Which means if you give them a story, they will find tropes. From the very earliest myth of Gods and monsters and creation that humans made up to explain the world to the latest bestseller on the NYT bestseller lists, the same patterns can be found, if you look hard enough.
Cliches can certainly be a bad thing (and for advice on how to kill them you can check out my posts here and here). They can stifle your story and characters and drain the life from them. They can be lazy, boring and even harmful.
But not all tropes are cliches, just as not all the vacuum-cleaners you might drag into your office to get rid of glitter are hoovers, even if the words are used interchangeably. In fact, tropes can strengthen a writer’s work. How? In order to answer that, let’s look at another word which I think has been forgotten in the shuffle:
nounnoun: archetype; plural noun: archetypes
1. a very typical example of a certain person or thing. “he was the archetype of the old-style football club chairman”
2. an original which has been imitated; a prototype. “an instrument which was the archetype of the early flute”
3. Psychoanalysis; (in Jungian theory) a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.4. a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology. “mythological archetypes of good and evil”
Well, would you look at that! Kind of a significant overlap, wouldn’t you say?
An archetype is, in fact, a powerful device within the storyteller’s toolkit, something which harks back to mythology, to our most primitive and instinctive understanding of stories, narrative, and how the world works. Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, true love’s kiss… these are all in fact *archetypes*, patterns which crop up again and again because they have immense narrative force, because they appeal to something basic within almost all people. The aged mentor who passes on his knowledge to a young protegee before falling in an attempt to protect him is an archetype – it’s powerful because we’ve seen it before, because we know we’ll see it again, because it can be twisted and subverted and turned on its head and our instinct will still identify and understand it.
Now – let’s be clear – just as all tropes are not cliches, so not all tropes are archetypes, either. There are certainly a raft of tropes that I would like to take gently by the hand, lead outside, and shoot point blank in the head with a sawn-off shotgun.
But they’re probably not the same tropes that everyone else is always talking about.
You see, I honestly believe that many of the most hated tropes, seemingly cliched and well-worn, can be transformed into archetypes – primal and moving devices for plot and characterisation – if used *well*. Love at first sight can still thrill our hearts. The aged mentor’s death can still move us to tears. The final showdown between former friends can still make our blood race. The monster in the cave can still send a chill down our spines, and true love’s kiss can still be the most satisfying finish. Of course there are people who will always loathe some or all of these, no matter how well a writer uses them, but that’s individual taste: not the quality of work.
No, the tropes I’d like to lovingly feed into a blender are ones like… ‘I’m telling a fantasy story, so I’d better set it in a vaguely imagined pseudo-European Kingdom in which people of colour and gay people don’t and never have existed, and in which women are universally horribly oppressed and constantly assaulted and exist only to be rewards for or obstacles to the male characters, and all my heroes are strong manly straight white men’.
Amazingly, not many people talk about this sort of thing as either a cliche or a trope. In fact, plenty of people – the same ones moaning about ‘yet another teenaged heroine in a Dystopian world!’ – will defend this sort of lazy, cliched male power-fantasy trope. They will call it ‘historical accuracy’ even when wizards and dragons come into play, and despite the fact that it’s actually not even faintly historically accurate. Why? Because it’s a cliche that people feel comfortable with.
And this, in the end, is my main problem with our current discussion on tropes, cliches and archetypes. Too many people are all too ready to call out the cliche/tropes that are their own personal pet peeves – teenaged heroines, love at first sight, Cinderella stories – while failing to examine or even *acknowledge* the harmful and downright stupid cliche/tropes that they take for granted.
Violence against female characters (and only female characters) is seen as ‘realistic’ instead of as a lazy cliche. The lone black character (if we even get one) dying first is shrugged off as not important when it happens for the six thousandth time in a row. The cliche of the single QUILTBAG character (if we even get one) being a flamboyant gay male whose only purpose is to act as a faithful sidekick to a female character isn’t even noticed. The Asian person (if we even get one) is, of course, a geeky IT whizz. The lack of non-binary or disabled characters doesn’t register at all. And the white, conventionally attractive, skinny heroine will always fall in love with the white, conventionally attractive, muscular main male lead once he’s heroically overcome his story’s trials and tribulations, even though he’s treated her like a piece of furniture throughout, because otherwise what was the point of her being in the story at all?
THESE are the cliches and tropes that ultimately ruin movies, books and TV series. They stifle truth in our storytelling, kill off the evolution of our characters before they’ve even begun to grow, and place painful, artificial limitations on the kind of stories we can tell and experience. If we want to see rich, beautiful, moving, original stories then we all ought to spend a lot less time making fun of teenaged girls for liking love triangles (a classic archetype) and a bit more making fun of middle aged white men who introduce female characters with a loving description of their breasts (nothing but a sexist cliche).
Down with Dastardly Tropes, say I!
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YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an eccentric sprocker named Finn (also known as the Devil Hound). Her folklore and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing for The Swan Kingdom and a Junior Library Guild Selection and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon.
The final book of her Japanese-influenced urban fantasy Name of the Blade trilogy, Frail Human Heart, has just been released in a tide of of Kitsune, Kami and katanas. Zoë is proud to be represented by Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Children’s Literacy Agency.