Everything is a trope
Hi folks! Welcome back to TaleSlinger, where I try and distill 3 decades of writing experience into something vaguely helpful for you.
This time, we’re talking about tropes! Why? Because a single look at TV Tropes makes it pretty clear that pretty much EVERYTHING is a trope somehow.
That’s not meant to discourage you, rather the opposite, because when you can identify them, you can start having fun with them.
Here’s a question I’m fond of:
Do your characters act in ways that suggest they don’t know the tropes they’re embodying?
Let’s break that down a bit, using the example I see most often: horror films.
Do you sit there and yell at the screen about the potential victim who runs up the stairs instead of out the front door?
Do you groooooan at the people who don’t see the really obvious killer in their midst?
Do you sigh when someone has sex because it removes their plot armour?
You get the idea. These ones are pretty obvious, others can be more subtle.
But what we’re looking at right now is the interesting idea that these people, acting out those very well-known tropes, don’t have those tropes in their own media. That is to say: if there are horror films in that universe, they don’t show things like the three examples above. If they did (so goes this theory), the characters would know better than to do those things.
There are two avenues of response to this theory:
If a killer is chasing you through a building with a meat cleaver, the instinct to go to ground somewhere that, in your panic, feels safer, is strong. And it may lead you to do things which aren’t super intelligent, because your lizard brain is in control, and it doesn’t do higher thinking.
This universe doesn’t have media with those tropes so the potential victim has no way to learn what not to do.
So let’s ask that question again:
Do your characters act in ways that suggest they don’t know the tropes they enact?
You can’t get away from tropes. It doesn’t matter what you make, tropes will be there. There’s a reason they’re tropes, after all. By this point in time, every trope also has a multitude of anti-tropes, so there’s no getting around them. Know that. Accept that. Be OK with that. Because it’s not a problem. Your role as a creator is to make entertaining stuff, not to spend your life pulling your hair out because a million other people already did a specific thing.
Let me try to set your mind at ease about that.
Tropes by themselves are not derivative.
Repeat that sentence ten times every time you want to beat yourself up for that. It’s nonsense. There are a finite number of ways to do things. Tropes are the string that hold your story together, that guide it from beat to beat. Whatever you do, whatever order you do it in, you can be sure that you’re not the first in history to do so. And that’s fine!
So now we have that out of your system, let’s get back to the topic at hand. I’m going to handle both of those responses separately.
Conscious and subconscious aren’t the only things our brain works on to process and act. Everything we do also involves any combination of the sub-sub-conscious, instinct, genetic memory, trauma, desire, physical capability and a whole lot of other things. Recreating that in a fictional character is not an easy task, but certain emotions—based in reactions to a specific situation—narrow down the possibilities. Where does your character feel safest? That’s where they’ll run to when threatened, and if they can’t get there it’ll be the closest substitute. Upstairs to hide in the bedroom or bathroom is a very natural reaction to someone chasing you with a meat cleaver. Remember: irrational reactions to irrational things. And this goes through any and every genre. Romance? Trope city. Sci-fi? Tropes everywhere. Historical fiction? Littered with tropes! Everywhere you go there are tropes.
What I’m trying to get hammered in here is that you are going to write tropes.
So what should you do about that? Know the tropes you’re using, examine them, and examine them against your character. Is that how they’d react? Then go ahead. It’s not? Try something else.
If the universe you’re writing doesn’t contain the tropes which your character is enacting, my first question is why in the world is your universe so narrow?? But OK, let’s say the genre or the trope doesn’t exist, so your character can’t know they’re doing it. Does that make any difference to what they’re likely to do? I’d argue…not really. The reasons characters are doing things in the first place, unless they’re specifically copying something they’ve seen in their in-universe media, are no different to if they have. The balance of whether it would affect what they do without thinking? That’s minimal at best.
There is of course a third point to make about all of this.
Even if your character knows these tropes, it won’t necessarily stop them from living them.
Are they actually able to recognise, and therefore overcome, their jealousy and insecurity, and trust their fiance? Great! Still a trope, but if it’s an honest one, you’re doing fine. If your character can find a way to slow down, think rationally, and engage the higher functions of their brain, they can bypass some of the instinctual lizard brain stuff. But they need to have that time available, and to that level of self-awareness already built in. You can’t pretend tropes don’t exist, but you can work a character past some of them and into one that’s less damaging to them.
Tropes are a lot of fun to play with, and I always encourage you to do so. Not to find the Holy Grail of a New Trope, but to give more depth to your storytelling as you progress in layering it with more skill.
That’s all for this time, I hope it helped. Feel free to get in touch if there’s anything else you’d like to hear from me!
And please, share this with a writer you know!
Til next time!