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Writing Tip: Tropes & Clichés

March 1, 2014

Happy Tuesday, er, Saturday! I apologize in the delay of blog post. I’m house-sitting this week, and the time grew legs and ran away. Or it felt like it did.

For this week, I thought I would give a mini-lesson on tropes and clichés. A lot of you might already know about them: they’re everywhere and in every kind of writing, and it’s very important for writers to be aware of which tropes/clichés they are accessing or drawing on.

First off, definitions. There are taken from Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos, specifically the 2011 Tropes versus Women series, which I love and whole-heartedly recommend.

Trope—a common pattern in a story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to the audience.


Cliché—an overused trope

In other words, tropes and clichés are, at their core, story or character elements that an author can assume the readers have seen before. When done with characters, they can instantly tell the reader background information or traits, without needing the writer to spell it out. An example of a character trope would be The Bully—I just have to say the word and an image popped into your head, didn’t it? Similarly, an example of a story trope would be Mistaken for Gay, where a character or set of characters are mistaken by gay by others—this is becoming more common nowadays, from television shows like BBC Sherlock and Supernatural to movies like Little Fockers and The Kids Are All Right. If you’d like more examples of tropes, I’d check out TV, which is a website dedicated to archiving and indexing tropes and clichés. Look up your favorite television show in the search bar, or click on the Random button at the top and be amazed!

And also vaguely horrified. But this is everything I’ve ever written! you say as you flip through entry after entry. I’m not being original at all! I must move to China to hide such dishonor!

Take a deep breath and calm. Humanity has been telling stories for literally thousands of years—patterns are going to develop, and its part of being in a culture that you’re able to recognize and interpret common signs and symbols. Writing is a bit like a puzzle in this way, because authors use pieces and knowledge at their disposal to create a whole new picture. A new way to tell an old story. Some authors I’ve read even go as far as saying that every story is just a variation of “the protagonist goes on a journey.”

Of course there are pieces used and pictures made so many times that they’re just boring, aka cliché. As many of you probably know, clichés can be big—the Schoolyard Bully punches the Nerd in the face—or as small as “rosy-fingered dawn,” a phrase which I have been reliably informed is so frequently used in Ancient Greek literature that it produces a gut reaction to fling things against walls.

Clichés and tropes are powerful tools to produce such a reaction at their repetitive use, and with great power comes great responsibility. Use of some clichés and tropes are harmful because they perpetuate stereotypes and systems of oppression (see the Feminist Frequency videos for examples). You must be aware, because you do not live in vacuum and neither will your story. One of the best things you can do with a cliché is to complicate it, or turn it on its head. An example of this from The Christening is Mary.

For those unfamiliar, Mary is the female protagonist of my novel series, The Bound Chronicles. When I was sketching her out, one of the most worrisome tropes she could potentially inhabit is The Slash Wife. The trope goes that the female character A is the wife of male character B, who is romantically attached to another male character C. The Slash Wife trope is harmful because it erases the female character’s own story in favor of the males’. Her sole purpose in the work is to act as an obstacle to Characters B and C getting together. It reduces the woman to a mountain instead of a person, which is not only lazy writing but also contributes to the patriarchal notion that women are pretty, consumable objects here for men’s benefit.

For my story to avoid this pitfall, I tweaked Mary’s backstory and had chapters in her POV so I could fully explore it. Yes, Mary is an obstacle, if as a reader you’re determined to get my characters B and C together. However, I complicated it by fleshing out her emotions and reasons, having them connect to her past, using the chapters in her POV to really dig into her head: you can read the whole book from her point of view. In this manner, while Mary does share some of the characteristics of The Slash Wife, she complicates the trope, making it new and interesting for readers, as well as unharmful.

So go check out TV Tropes and see what tropes and clichés your story’s using. It’s interesting and gives you a lot to think about as a writer.


From → Writing Tips

  1. kelvinoralph permalink

    Very informative. Until now, I never knew the meaning of Tropes. Will check out TV Tropes ASAP

    • I’m glad you found it helpful! I dithered a bit about the wording and examples, trying to make things as clear as possible.

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