I’ve become a bit fussy. I’m only interested in books and shows that don’t go the way I expect. It’s so terribly dull to watch a movie and be able to predict exactly what is going to happen from beginning to end. It’s just not entertaining. And it’s all because of tropes.
A trope is a common idea or theme that is used in literature: a magic talisman, cops vs robbers, the villain is really a misunderstood cinnamon roll. Tropes can be good when they speak to the human condition, making people want to see them over and over again. ‘Misunderstood villain’ can work for this reason because we’re all guilty of some kind of wrong, but want people to know we’re not bad at heart, we were just misguided or made a mistake. Love triangles can also be effective because they happen in real life. We want what we can’t have, we have to make a choice, a choice is made for us and there’s nothing we can do about it. While not everyone will love these, the fact that they mirror aspects of reality makes audiences keep coming back for more. They’re on the right trope.
So when does a trope become an irritation instead of an attraction? When it’s a cliché – overused, predictable, unoriginal, and (most importantly) not that believable to begin with.
Here’s a couple of examples that really trope me off:
An evil force with no plausible motivation or back story is just lazy. Evil doesn’t just happen – it is born, cultivated, subjected to repeated trauma, placed in an environment that fosters growth … until it becomes blind to its own evilness. Even the perpetuators of history’s worst atrocities have a background that twisted their viewpoint and made them what they were. The point is, the bad guy must have a deeply ingrained reason for his belief that his way is right and his actions just.
Good villains: Maleficent (the Angelina Jolie version), The Joker, Darth Vader, Thanos, Loki, Amy Dunne.
Bad villains: Sauron (I mean … he’s an eye? Who wants his ring back? Which is bad?), Professor Moriarty, Voldemort.
Source: dabigboss @ Memedroid
The Untrained Messiah is Better Than all the Trained, Vastly More Experienced Guys
Okay. This one really gets my goat (and I like goats, and I want to keep them, thank you). I don’t care if you’re writing fantasy or SciFi or magical realism – nothing comes from nothing. You have to work hard, go through all the training montages, practise in real-world scenarios … and you probably still won’t beat the guy who’s been doing this for years. Either put in the work or stop trying to beat him at his own game. Come up with a new game, an element he doesn’t have. Then I might believe you can win. But don’t make me feel bad because I can’t magically pick up a new skill in a couple of hours like the chosen one. That’s just mean.
This is very similar to the guy-who-knows-nothing-finds-the-solution-the-experts-missed. Chances are, the guy who knows nothing understands one out of ten words the experts say. Just like any of us would when confronted with a new field – it’s gibberish until you take the time to study and understand it. Sure, the rube might inadvertently say something that causes the expert to see a solution. But suddenly grasping linear algebra? Nope.
Good examples: The Princess Bride (Westley spends years training), Spider-man (1), Batman Begins, Edge of Tomorrow
Bad examples: Karate Kid, The Last Samurai, Ant-Man, Avatar, High School Musical, Harry Potter, Dune, way too many to mention.
If You’re a Loser, All You Need is a Makeover and Suddenly Everyone Will Like You
We all went through high school. This doesn’t happen. Years of therapy? Yeah, that might make more people like you. Learning to love yourself for who you are and finding your tribe? All the time. Make-up and a haircut might make you feel better about yourself or more confident, but it’s unlikely to make people who couldn’t love the real you change their minds. Please stop teaching kids that looking better is the way to get friends. Of course, there are some awesome movies and books out there that use this trope to teach valuable lessons (see below).
Good examples: Mean Girls, Easy A, The Devil Wears Prada
Bad examples: She’s All That, Cinderella, A Cinderella Story, Another Cinderella Story, Cinderella, Cinderella
One Moment/Grand Gesture Fixes Everything
The dying mentor’s last words makes the hero suddenly realise how to beat the villain, get the girl back, and live their best life. Or destroying the ring frees everyone (OK, this one was good and bad because, although Sauron was instantly defeated, there was still a lot of suffering afterwards as a result of the wars and other past events.)
There is no quick fix to life. Running after the person at the airport, filling their room with flowers – the ‘grand gesture’ – is not the way to show someone you’ve changed or truly love them or have found the secret to happiness. It takes time, diligence, putting in the slog work. That’s how relationships work in real life, and that’s how they should work in literature if you want them to touch readers’ hearts.
Bad examples (because there are no good examples): Pretty woman, Love Actually, Prince of Persia, Sleeping Beauty, The Dark Crystal, Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
Enemies to Lovers
Okay, guilty, I’m a total sucker for this one. BUT, only if it’s done right. Someone guilty of mass murder, domestic violence, abuse, etcetera is not going to change overnight. This person is toxic and there’s no reason to start a relationship with them. However, if the reason for animosity is a misunderstanding, one mistake, a family feud … well, now you’ve got an opportunity for a decent character and relationship arc that could very plausibly end with the two enemies coming to a clear understanding of the other’s good qualities and falling in love.
Good examples: You’ve Got Mail, Pride & Prejudice, The Hating Game, Anne of Green Gables, The Wrath and the Dawn, Daughter of Smoke and Bone.
Bad examples: Friends (Ross & Rachel), Game of Thrones (Khal Drogo & Daenerys), Beauty & the Beast (Yes, I know a lot of people love these couples but they’re TOXIC).
Seen or read anything good lately that really floated your trope (or broke it)? Let me know!