The term trope has a number of definitions, but for the purposes of this post it refers to a theme, convention or plot device that readers have come to expect in a work of fiction. In this context, tropes are prone to becoming clichés, and any literary genre you can think of has them. Many works of fantasy, for example, utilise the trope of the young orphan who (according to prophecy) is destined to save the day. And, in science fiction, how many tales have been written of scientists whose creations turn on their creators, and wreak havoc upon the world?
Given that common tropes invariably become clichés, the word trope has developed an immediate negative connotation in the minds of many people—the principle reason being the overuse of popular tropes in fiction. As a consequence, the use of certain tropes can often provide disincentives to readers wanting to avoid books that rely upon a trope they dislike.
For my own part, on many occasions in the past, I have been “guilty” of allowing the inclusion of tropes that I am sick of, make me reluctant—even unwilling—to read books that were initially of interest to me; the biggest offender being the love triangle trope. In particular, love triangles 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, really aggravate me. Such love triangles are rampantly prevalent in Young Adult books written by female authors, and my dislike for it has made me wary of reading any YA novels with a female protagonist.
I don’t recall when, but at some point I eventually realised that it isn’t necessarily the tropes, per se, that people take a disliking to. Instead, it’s actually the manner in which said tropes are utilised that can trigger the aversion. 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 by many writers. If this wasn’t the case, I believe fewer people would come to 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 to 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, how is a reader supposed to buy into a fundamental aspect of the triangle? Secondly, it’s all too common for the heroine to alternate between the two suitors, stringing them both along, while “struggling” to make her choice as to who she’s going to be with. 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 any given trope, the main cause for the poor regard in which certain tropes are held is their overuse, as I mentioned previously. 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, and subsequently decide to pass up the opportunity to read any more such stories. To address this fatigue, it would be easy to suggest that the best way around the issue of tropes driving potential readers away is to avoid using tropes of any kind in the first place. To be be completely original. But 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. With that in mind, 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. 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.
Here ends my musings on the matter of tropes. If you have any thoughts you want to share on the subject, feel free to leave a comment below.
Thanks for reading,