Hello Hello! This post is going to be a little different from the usual Personal Process series, since this week it’s a special request from my good friend Katie Koontz. I interviewed her about her character Bolte for an earlier post, and when she asked me to cover character tropes, I wholeheartedly agreed! Today, I’m doing a deep dive into how tropes are used in storytelling, some fun ways to play with them, and offering a few exercises to think about how they impact your story.
Tropes as Tools: Definitions, and how they differ from cliches.
There are a MILLION definitions out there but for the sake of this article, I’m going to use the broadest term: A Trope is a storytelling shortcut or motif that conveys information to the audience. If you notice a pattern, plot device, symbol, or archetype in three separate pieces of media, it could be classified as a trope. In fact, even the Rule of 3 is a ubiquitous trope. Every piece of media has them, and they aren’t objectively good or bad, they just exist. Saying you’re trying to write without tropes is like saying you’re going to write without a font.
A cliche is when a trope gets SO popular that it gets old. I would argue that, like every other trope, these aren’t objectively good or bad – people like consuming media they know they’ll enjoy, and so it pays to repeat the Thing they like. They can backfire, but they can also be done well in different ways. If a cliche falls out of fashion, it stops being cliche and reusing it can be a fun allusion to the original material. They can also be adapted or subverted like any other trope, and sometimes the subversion will become so popular it takes the place of the original cliche. I’ll talk a bit more about the different ways to use tropes and cliches later.
The reason people talk about tropes so much is to analyze their execution: what works and how to replicate it, what breaks the story and how to avoid it. This is what I try to do with my Reading Recs series! They’re a tool and watching how other people wield them in their own storytelling can teach you how to use them too. I try to avoid making sweeping statements like, “These are the 10 Best and Worst Tropes in Fantasy!” These lists are also incredibly popular (you could almost call them cliche), and when I was a younger more impressionable writer, I took them as iron-clad truth. Unfortunately, that led to building my stories around the subjective tastes of other people. There’s nothing wrong with having favorite and hated tropes, but there’s no such thing as objective best and worst. I’m not here to tell you How To Write, but rather to give you a breakdown of some options and ideas. The important thing to do is have fun!
Built-up or Story-down?
I’ve talked about these two methods in earlier process posts, and I think the idea holds true here because tropes are what make up all those other aspects of storytelling. For the former method, you can treat tropes like building blocks, browsing lists of them, choosing to write your story based around the ones you like, and filling in the gaps as you go. This is basically the entire premise behind writing prompts! It’s a good exercise to push your creativity if you’re struggling to come up with ideas of your own, want to practice a short piece that might be outside of your main WIP, or want to try taking it in an unexpected direction.
The story-down method is when you first come up with premise, then analyze it for the tropes after you’ve built it on your own.. Sometimes the first idea is the brilliant premise and cinch-point for the rest of the story that gets built around it, like a fundamental aspect of the magic system. Other times, the first several ideas are cliched, or don’t fit with each other very well, and you have to keep digging through your brainstorm to get to the gold. Playing with tropes can help you find the missing piece or original aspect that you were missing before. I find it a fun exercise to imagine what a TVTropes page for my story might include.
More often than not, stories are told using both methods. Writers get inspiration from music, TV, prompts, and other books, and the stories often go through several rounds of brainstorm and revision before they’re finished. Both methods make you a better writer, since they require you to practice storytelling. So with that being said, lets look at a few different ways to use a trope!
Playing it Straight
This is using the trope for what it is, and doing what your audience expects. For example, if your work includes a Chosen One, the audience expects that the protagonists will be chosen at some point, there might be a prophecy, and they’ll go onto fulfill that role and get some character development in the process. It can be useful to let your audience know what they’re getting into, so they can enjoy the more nuanced details of the story along the way to the expected end. Adaptations use this method to tell an old story in a new way: you can change an aspect of the setting and leave the story alone, like Treasure Planet put Treasure Island in space and the tropes of the original were maintained as an allusion to the source material. Many happy-ending Disney movies are very formulaic in terms of plot beats, but with different premises and characters, there’s a wonderful variety to explore.
Another method is to play the trope completely straight, and then explore unintended consequences of that action. Do your heroes cause collateral damage? Stories told from a different point of view can show a different aspect of the same trope you might not have noticed before. Those same formulaic happy-ending Disney films are tragedies if viewed from the villain’s point of view, especially if they thought they were doing the right thing. What if you told a Chosen One story from the perspective of the mentor or sidekick? Those sorts of twists lead us into the next way you can use tropes:
Subverted and Inverted
Technically this is the Red Herring. Trope savvy audiences will notice setup and predict plots, so going in an unexpected direction can make for a plot twist or interesting premise. You can also take a trope, reverse the premise, and then use the inverted version of it, like a photo negative. Going back to the Chosen One example, you could subvert this trope by killing off the hero and letting them fail, invert it by having the hero become the villain, making the villain the chosen one, or revealing there’s nothing special behind the choosing after all.
The idea behind twisting the trope is to keep the audience engaged. Sometimes twists are done so often that the subversion of one trope becomes a different trope in and of itself. In a parody, playing a trope straight would be subversive! It all depends on context, and the categorizations can become splitting hairs, but it’s fun to think about!
Having the characters within a story acknowledged the trope is an interesting device that heavily depends on context. Oftentimes, comedy will have characters point out the elephant in the room by breaking the fourth wall. If the audience knows what will happen and the character doesn’t, that creates dramatic irony and the “screaming at the page” effect. If the character is as trope-savvy as the audience, fulfilling a role can be played for tragedy, drama, or horror since they know what’s coming and fail to stop it. You can treat a trope seriously, and come up with a worldbuilding explanation for why it exists. It can be satisfying to take a generic beat and make it your own to the point that it becomes an integral part of the story you’re trying to tell. Of course, if that’s not your thing, you can always work by Rule of Cool aka, “I, the author, say so.”
Character Tropes: Archetypes
Character Tropes are a certain category that talk about what roles the characters fill in the story, and they’re as old as stories themselves. What I love about archetypes is that they don’t necessarily have to fit into stereotypes, and it can be a fun exercise to switch up the characters that are expected to exist in a certain role. For example, in Avatar the Last Airbender, Toph is a small blind girl and the tank and powerhouse of team avatar. This archetype fits into her stubborn no-nonsense personality and character arc of protecting her friends while not letting other people define who she is. In the show Voltron, Hunk fills the same role as the tank, and both characters are associated with earth. Unlike Toph, He’s pragmatic, cautious, friendly, gentle, and likes cooking. He’s stable and reliable, which suits his role in a different but equally fitting way.
There are lists of archetypes a mile long, and they tell you how the characters in the story interact with each other. Having words for these roles is useful shorthand to talk about any pair or group dynamic. In the case of ensemble casts like adventuring parties or heist teams, it also helps you keep track of what assets and clashes your group has. You can have a handful characters with especially niche skill-sets and a wide range of character quirks to interact and work together.
The beauty of tropes are that they’re so versatile. They’re fundamentally a way to categorize similar aspects of stories so they can be compared and contrasted, and since they’re so ingrained in the popular imagination, they’re very powerful tools! Whether you’re adapting, breaking, or putting them back together again, learning how they work and can make your story stronger is a super useful ability! Below I’ve listed three of my favorite sources that look at tropes from a detailed and objective perspective. These have taught me a ton about writing and I recommend checking them out if you want to learn more! If you’re looking for other writing help, my master post of favorite sources is linked here.
TV Tropes: A wiki of every possible trope and media you could imagine. It goes beyond TV into movies, books, comics, music, and even real life examples, and it’s cross-referenced. I’ve spent hours clicking around between pages, and it’s a good place to start research or brainstorming.
Trope Talks from Overly Sarcastic Productions: This series does deep dives into a specific trope and all the different ways it can be written and subverted. It covers a lot of the big ones, and Red’s research and analysis is incredibly insightful. They’ve also begun a new series called Detail Diatribes which focuses on one piece of media and then talk about all the ways it works really well.
TaleFoundry: This is a really creative channel that does deep analysis of certain genres and pieces of literature to explain what can be learned from their writing style. It’s a more narrow and detailed focus, but an important one for learning specific skills from the writers that do it best.
I hope this was a helpful article, and a huge thank you to Katie for recommending this topic! Happy Writing 🙂