Tropes are good, actually.

So, first, I’m not the first person to say this. This is definitely an argument that goes around tumblr often.

Anyway, in one of my classes we’re talking about digital storytelling, and we were talking about what makes a good story and someone piped up, predictably, with “no tropes” and the teacher was like “yea, you’re right, character archetypes are frustrating”. And I just. I didn’t butt in because the flow of the class discussion didn’t really allow for it. But I wanted to bang my head against my desk. Because tropes and character archetypes are actually important parts of any story. All the greatest stories use tropes, because that’s what a story is. It’s a collection of tropes strung together in an interesting and engaging way. Character archetypes connect us to the story by giving us a guide to the character.

Tropes allow us to connect to the story easily. We all know that the princess in the tower gets rescued and marries the prince, the purpose of the specific story is to show us how it’s done in a unique and engaging way. But tropes can also be subverted, and that’s also interesting and engaging! Does the princess marry the prince, or does she actually marry the dragon and spurn the prince who is not as nice as he seems? But in order to subvert a trope, a story first has to set us up with the known tropes that lead to the one we’re subverting. Whether played straight or subverted, the tropes are the story. Even the most unique and original story is still using basic tropes as its building blocks, they’re just fashioning those building blocks out of different materials.

Tangled Birthday Cake” by mags20_eb is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

People say they’re tired of tropes, but actually what they’re tired of is tropes presented in the same boring way. It’s not the fault of the tropes if they’re written poorly, it’s the fault of the writer for using them poorly. Learning to play with tropes in interesting and engaging ways is part of what learning to be a writer is all about. It’s why new writers are encouraged to read and read widely, so they can learn what the tropes are for a given genre, or what the overarching character types are in all stories of certain types. If you’ve never read a story about a princess held in a tower by a dragon and rescued by a prince, how are you ever going to write a story about that trope without repeating what has already been written a thousand times or reinventing the wheel?

Anyway. Next time someone tells you they’re tired of tropes, ask them to name a story with no tropes. They’ll probably name their favorite movie or book that they think is the best and therefore trope-free. Then you can cheerfully direct them to the TVTropes page for that piece of media which will thoroughly lay out all the tropes inevitably used in it! This is the best revenge since they’ll inevitably be stuck there for the rest of the day, unable to click away from the black hole time-sink that is TVTropes.Org!

2 thoughts on “Tropes are good, actually.

  1. Oh yeah. This is doubly frustrating when editors insist on stories not being tropes. Isn’t it better to take each story as they are and not judge them straight out just because the book’s premise is another one about The One? Anyway, thanks for this post!

    1. Yes exactly!! Especially since, as a reader I often finish a book I like and immediately go “that was awesome, I want another exactly like it only different” so rejecting stories for being “too similar” is dumb. We want different explorations of the same tropes!!

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