You may or may not have noticed that I’m fascinated by tropes. For quite a long time, I was convinced that predictability was a bad thing in books. It was unoriginal, it was boring, it was bad storytelling.
Yet I eventually came around. There are so many good things that tropes can bring to the reading experience … though of course there are downsides too.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Tropes vs. Cliches
I’ve seen some people use the two terms interchangeably, so before we dive in I want to make sure we all understand each other; English classes have shown me that it’s difficult to have a productive discussion without some shared vocabulary.
The distinction between a trope and a cliche seems to be purely a matter of opinion. Essentially, most people use cliche to indicate a trope that they’re tired of seeing, and the list will of course vary between individuals. Someone might love Chosen One stories, while someone else might think Harry Potter should’ve been the last.
Hence, cliche has a negative connotation; trope should not. (You can still dislike tropes in general, but that’s a separate issue.)
The Importance of Implementation
For me, it’s often not about the specific trope (though I have a few favorites) but how the author incorporates it into their story. Just as retellings can be very different from each other and from the original, trope usage can vary greatly. I might read two books about quests to retrieve magical objects, love one and hate the other.
Many authors with some kind of marginalized identity (authors of color, queer authors, etc.) have pointed out that some tropes are “tired” because they’re always presented in the same allocisheteronormative way. Marriages of convenience take on a new significance when queer characters are involved; a long-lost parent might be viewed differently through the lens of a non-Western culture.
Tropes can also make it easier to keep a story straight in your head: it’s like being able to plug numbers into a familiar formula, rather than having to derive a new equation for each homework problem. In a complex SFF setting, it can help you get oriented enough to keep up with what’s going on: this is the main character, who will probably have a rags-to-riches arc; she is fighting a dystopian regime; these are the love interests.
And part of the reading experience is the buildup and release of tension: if you see the plot twist coming because the author has masterfully led the characters (and reader) to that point, it can extremely satisfying to see it realized — or subverted!
Still, There might be an issue with pacing or character development that keeps you from totally enjoying the experience, though — perhaps you just can’t get invested in the story. Or maybe there are just too many tropes and you feel like you know this story already. Or maybe you thought the plot was heading in one direction, and it takes a sharp turn into a trope you just don’t like.
Harmful Stereotypes & Romanticizing
All that said, certain tropes should just be retired: the mystical martial-arts master who speaks broken English, for example, or the controlling bad boy who’s reformed by the Power of Love. While most people can distinguish fiction from real life, media still shapes our views and behavior.
Reading might be the only time we’ve encountered a specific ethnic group, or with romantic relationships, in which case it has a huge influence on how we view them. This is particularly important as we’re growing up and learning about the world. (It’s the same reasoning that leads some people to try to censor what their impressionable young kids / students are reading and watching, though I am by no means condoning any form of book banning.)
Even if we have personal experience on the topic, what we read can impact us. I spent so many years being proud of having mostly guy friends, being “not like other girls” because so many YA books told me that other girls were catty backstabbers. I also spent a lot of time reading way too much into every interaction I had with a boy, because so many YA books told me that this is how endgame romances start.
Yay for compulsive heteronormativity.
And it affects how we see ourselves. As an Asian girl, most of the characters who looked like me were overtly sexy and/or super smart, and I didn’t feel like I was either. As a bisexual girl, I didn’t feel valid in my identity because I hadn’t dated a boy or a girl, let alone both. (Some days I still don’t feel valid because I still haven’t dated a girl, even knowing now that it’s not a prerequisite.)
Of course, this gets into views of the characters do not (necessarily) represent the views of the author and “Death of the Author” territory. (Death of the Author, in case you’re not familiar with the term, basically means that the author’s influence should end with the words they actually wrote; they can’t “retcon” and claim that a character was always meant to be gay, or that the protagonist’s transphobic remark was obviously part of a growth arc.) To some extent, individual interpretation by the reader plays a role too.
I know, it’s a total cop-out to say that ultimately I think whether a trope is bad really depends on the specific context. But it makes me sad when I see other readers complaining about a book just because they foresaw the plot twist or recognized certain elements across the genre — because that used to be me.
Maybe I’m preaching to the choir and you already knew all this, in which case I’d love to trade examples of your favorite tropes and the books that incorporate them well! Or are tropes a literary dealbreaker for you?