If you’ve spent very long at this site, reading my often rambling posts, then you’ll have picked up on the fact that I really, really, really, really, very strongly hate the word tropes. Enough so, I’ve had more than a few people ask me why I hate that word so much.
Not any of you guys. I know you don’t give a damn. This is for the people that honestly seemed bothered by it. Not that you can’t read this post, too. I promise it’ll be rambly.
First off, let me remind everyone of just what the dictionary definition of trope actually is. It’ll matter a lot going forward.
1. Any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.
2. An instance of this.
3. Compare to a figure of speech
2. A phrase, sentence, or verse formerly interpolated in a liturgical text to amplify or embellish.
3. (In the philosophy of Santayana) The principle of organization according to which matter moves to form an object during the various stages of its existence.
Nothing to hate there, right? Actually, you are right. It isn’t the word I hate, but rather the modern usage of it, which has come to take everything from stereotypes, cliches, and plot arcs, both common and uncommon, and lumped them all together under the word trope. As if they were all the exact same thing, or each as bad as the other.
I’m a writer. It’s what I do. I’ve spent almost 30 years now studying the craft. I know that there is a huge difference between these things, enough so they hardly deserve to all be considered the same thing. Allow me to break it down for you.
In a nutshell, a stereotype is a way of explaining aspects of a characters race or gender in as few words as possible. Pretty much, they are always insulting. Stuff like Jews being greedy, black people and fried chicken, or women being hysterical. I’ve never seen a good stereotype, and I really dislike them with a burning passion.
However, stereotypes exist for a reason. In every era, there are people that don’t like each other, or just plain old fashioned racism. In most points in history, this is the case, and writers of fictional tales, and even historians, have a certain understanding of how their readers see the world. Stereotypes exist so that writer can convey information to the reader in as few words as possible, knowing they will get what is meant.
Not saying that’s a defense of stereotypes, as personally, I’d like to see them all die a horrible death. It’s a literary shortcut that keeps the writer from actually having to develop a character outside of what the readers preconceived notions already are. Basically, it’s pandering to the worst nature of humanity, by telling them they are right to dislike a group of people for made up reasons.
That said, I do understand why stereotypes came into existence and were popular among writers for many, many years. I don’t agree with it, but I do understand how it happened.
It’s because people are pretty horrible, in case you were wondering.
Like I said, I hate stereotypes. All stereotypes. Including the ones popular in fantasy fiction. Stuff like Dwarves all having a Scottish accent for no discernible reason. Or Elves all being aloof assholes. Or Ogres being evil, just because they are Ogres.
I’d love to see even those stereotypes die out. My apologies to Matthew Mercer on the Dwarven accent issue, but it’s still just a cheap way to explain a character without having to do any actual character work, and that is never okay with me.
Now, I’ll grant that there’s a lot of overlap between cliches and stereotypes. I’ll even grant that stereotypes are a form of cliche. What I won’t grant is that they are exactly the same thing. The reason why is that cliches are more the stereotypes of plot elements.
You know what I’m talking about. The bad guy explains his entire plan to the hero, only for the hero to escape moments later. The love interest who doesn’t actually do anything except be the love interest. The hero being the chosen one, the only one that can stop the bad guy, for reasons. This kinda stuff.
Much like stereotypes, cliches came into existence in order to convey information to the reader without the writer having to spend an extra twenty to fifty pages coming up with a way to explain stuff the reader needs to know. Like how the hero figured out the bad guys plan all on his own. Or why the love interest is a love interest in the first place. Or why somebody didn’t just shoot Voldermort in the head with a damn gun already. Not like they couldn’t have gotten one pretty easy.
Basically, cliches are ways to tell the reader stuff, or create artificial tension where there really isn’t any. Unlike stereotypes, not all cliches are actually bad, and there’s a ton of them that we writers use all the time that pretty much nobody has ever noticed. I’m not gonna tell you which, since those are trade secrets and all, but these narrative devices are often the difference between a three hundred page book, and a six hundred page book.
Granted, there’s a ton of old cliches that have outlived their original use. Many writers have become dependent on them, though, mainly because many publishers are afraid to put anything out there that isn’t targeted at the intellectual capacity of a five year old. I’m not even joking about that part. One of the most repeated pieces of advice on writing I’ve gotten from editors is to dumb my writing down, so a five year old could understand it.
Which is why so many writers lean on these cliches. They often have no choice if they want to keep getting published. Many others aren’t even aware they are using some, which may surprise you to learn. The inclusion of an old fashioned cliche is completely unintentional, and even more frequently, a complete accident that occurred by way of the narrative.
So while there are a lot of cliches we can happily retire, they will never go away completely, as they are, and always will be, the means by which a writer conveys a lot of plot information in as few words as possible. They have always existed, and they will always exist, as long as there are writers, and readers. They will change. Old ones will fall away, new ones will come into play, become old, and fall away, repeated the cycle like the tides of the ocean.
This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a thing.
Unlike stereotypes and cliches, plot arcs have absolutely nothing in common with those two. A plot arc, if you aren’t familiar with the term, is the basic narrative structure of a story. The most commonly known one is The Heroes Journey. This is one that has been in play from as far back as The Illiad, and as recently as the newest Star Wars films.
The reason plot arcs are common, and often even easily comparable, is because of two basic reason. The first one is that they work. The second one is that there aren’t any new ones to be found.
When I say they work, that’s literally what I mean. They work. The plot arc is the basic skeleton of the narrative, and you don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. There is a reason The Heroes Journey has been used since at least the time of Homer, after all. It works. Hell, even Grendel is just the basic Heroes Journey arc. And that story is one of the oldest known. You don’t try to fix what isn’t broken.
Beyond that, though, is the simple fact that there are really only so many ways to structure a story. Five or six, really, and after that, you’re just doing the same old thing in a possibly slightly new way. Bear in mind, humans have been writing tales of fiction for thousands of years. Before writing, they were doing it verbally. There is no way any writer is going to come up with a plot arc that has never been seen before. It is completely impossible.
Even if they did come up with something original, nobody would read it. There’s comfort in the familiar, after all. Not to mention, I don’t think there’s a publisher out there that would publish it, simply because it would be too different, too unrecognizable, for them to feel like it was a safe bet.
That said, it will never happen anyway, because there really is only a small handful of ways to structure a plot, so anything anyone writes is going to be something some one already did. That’s just the hard cold truth, folks.
So, if there’s no new plot arcs, then why write new stories? Because there are a hundred different ways to tell those plot arcs. With The Heroes Journey, you could have the villain undergo it, for example. Or really switch things up and have the supposed hero die half way through, and have their comedic sidekick step up to finish it for them.
Writing is about finding a new way to tell an old story, but above all that, it’s about finding a way to convey new characters to readers. All writing, ultimately, is about the characters. We don’t get attached to plot devices, after all. We get attached to characters, and that’s where the real joy of writing, and reading, comes in.
So, why hate tropes, then?
Most of my dislike for the term has come out of people screaming that they don’t want to see any more tropes in fiction. To which, I now reply that they should go stare at a blank piece of paper, because that’s what a story without the modern usage of the word trope would look like. It wouldn’t exist, plain and simple.
You can easily write a story that doesn’t use stereotypes, and really, every writer should be doing that anyway. You might could write a story without any cliches, but I really doubt it could be done. They are narrative tools, after all, and if you can’t build a house without tools, so you sure can’t build a story without any, either.
Most of all, though, you can’t write a story without a plot arc. It cannot be done, and as I said, there aren’t any new ones out there, so really, the only way to write a story without using any ‘tropes’ is to not write one at all.
There are two things I attribute this rise in trope whining to. The first is TVTropes, which has built an entire website out of linking similar themes. There’s only so long they could get away with that, though, so in order to keep adding new content, they began linking things that were only kinda similar, then just starting making shit up and saying it was the same, even when it really isn’t.
People tell me they lose hours at TVTropes, but I can’t figure why. I was bored after about five minutes, and then I got annoyed when I realized that more than half the stuff they claim is a ‘trope’ is actually not at all that similar. Frequently, I saw them removing important context that would have totally made it clear that there was no real similarity.
But, hey, when you have a popular website, you do what ya gotta do to keep adding new content. It really isn’t their fault at all. It’s people not taking the time to do more than get the gist of something before running around screaming about how tropes are ruining everything.
Which brings me to the second thing I attribute to all the complaints. People not knowing how writing actually works. As in, people who are not writers just assuming all writers are phoning it in and are too lazy to create something that is actually new and original. Not only is that false, it’s kind of insulting.
Sure, there’s those that do. I admit that. Most, though, have spent years working out the plots, characters, twists, and events of their work. They agonize over every word of their manuscript. Which is not a joke. I’ve spent hours myself trying to decide if a ‘the’ was really necessary in the sentence.
May sound silly, but it isn’t. Take it out, and the sentence reads weird. Put it in, and you just went one word over the limit that agents and publishers want to see. So, yeah, hours spent obsessing over the word ‘the’.
Point is, writing is a labor of love. You don’t just spit words at the page and call it good. Yes, there are cliches we can stop using, but there will always be cliches, just as there will always be plot arcs that bear at the very least, a strong passing resemblance to another plot arc in another piece of fiction. Saying that these things need to be stopped entirely is actually, for real, the exact same as saying nobody should ever write anything new, ever.
Which is why I really hate the term trope. It’s getting used to describe things that are not always similar, or things that you can’t write without. The thing that bugs me the most about it, though, is that this would be pretty obvious if people would spend a little more time studying the mechanics of writing, and a little less endlessly browsing TVTropes.
One thing I will say, however, is that at least they are using the word trope correctly. Any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.
At least we have that.