Tropes, good or evil?

I love synchronicity, the way something once discovered suddenly seems to appear every which way one looks. Most recently, for me, it’s the appearance of the word ‘trope’.

A friend who was recently visiting with me, commented several times when presented with the plot, or elements of plots from various novels we were discussing with “yeah, that’s a pretty standard trope.”

I spent some time thinking about this comment and about all of my favourite novels, and what did I discover? That they all fall into the category of at least one if not dozens of tropes; Good versus evil, Hero’s journey, Quests, Dark lords, even magicians and medievalism are long upheld tropes.

I can think of more, young love between warring families, ancient worlds on far distant planets, every fantasy race throughout history and legend. How many stories have popped into your mind as you read that list? Dozens I expect, (and if not you really need to read more), but that, to me is the key to their continuous reuse.

For as long as humans have told stories, we have told them within a sort of comfort zone. I really enjoy the hero’s journey trope, I go out of my way to find great tales about young people who struggle against the odds to become more than they appear. Aladdin did it, so did Pug and Harry Potter, Taran the assistant pig keeper, even a little mouse called Despereaux.

You see a great deal more boys becoming men then you do girls becoming women, but there are a few. Buffy the vampire slayer, Alice (from Wonderland), Dorothy Gale and even sweet Wendy in Never Land.

The main reason for this little rant is about this view that tropes can be a good or a bad thing. I guess I’m on the side of ‘not a bad thing’ myself. I like tropes and I’m not really certain they can be totally, 100% avoided in fiction writing.

Tropes make me feel warm and fussy when I’m reading a new novel. They put me in a realm I’m comfortable with and I’m okay with that, but then I’m one of those people who will read the same book over and over again until all the pages fall out.

There is nothing wrong with comfort zone reading, but too many tropes in one story, especially when overused by the same author, can become downright boring. Same character with a different name (or not, just use the same character again ’cause he’s got more to learn). Same journey, same type of mentors and same battle for love or survival, really? You couldn’t think of one little thing to change this time round?

Then there is the valid argument of getting away from comfort zones and inventing new tropes or at least avoiding old ones. Many authors should be applauded for their skill at avoiding a classic trope when the situation could have easily warranted it. The result of avoiding tropes, or at least too many of them, is that readers feel like they’ve been given something fresh and challenging and eye-opening. It’s a shot of whiskey instead of a hot chocolate.

Possibly more interesting even then an author who avoids a trope though, is the one who twists it, subverts it to their will and thus creates something new and yet still settles nicely into that comfort zone we so love, (a hot chocolate with a shot of Baileys), but even these, in our world of over access to multiple forms of media, are becoming their own tropes.

What do you think, do you like reading and writing within a framework of classic tropes, or do you wish to avoid them like the plague? Are the use, subversion or avoidance of tropes in literature even important, or is the telling of the story itself, the richness of the characters and the world what’s really important?

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Tracey Ambrose
"Don't be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment." Ralph Waldo Emerson

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