Tropes Are Not A Substitute For Substance

(This post was inspired by the comments on a recent Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review)

I’m sorry this is late. I had a crisis of confidence last week. But now I’m back!


I recently talked about the good side of tropes, and how they can be a positive tool to set expectations with the reader, and help people find stories that they like.

There is another side of this. Tropes are not always used for good.

Some writers use tropes in place of character and plot. These are not the same thing at all, but it can be easy to get confused sometimes.

A character archetype is a good place to start when building a character, because it helps to clarify the function of the character in your narrative. But it is not the whole character. You have to build facets and layers onto the archetype, to make them unique and fully-rounded. And it is an approach of building together the correct elements, like with cooking, not just mixing random things together and hoping it’ll come out amazing.

For example, you want to make a pasta. (In this example, let’s just say that pasta = wounded hero). Now, there are a lot of difference sauces that you can put on a pasta (and, therefore, many different types of wounded hero), with elements that you can shift and adjust as required. But using the right elements in the right amount is what gets you a well-made Carbonara, as opposed to a pickle and seaweed sauce. At that point, it won’t matter how well the pasta is cooked, no one will enjoy it. And if you only have one element to your character (aka the Original Trope) it doesn’t make for a very interesting character. No one eats pasta without the sauce; it’s too bland.

Plus, all the flavours/character elements have to match. You have to think about how all these pieces will taste/work together. And how the flavours will develop together when you cook them. One wrong element can spoil a dish, as much as any random collection of character tropes can’t make a character.

While a stripped back, simple character is not a bad thing, they still need room to develop and grow. The elements of the sauce can be added in stages. Or, your pasta can turn into a pasta bake, or a pasta salad! The character trope you use is only a base—a beginning. Not a whole meal.

Now, sometimes you don’t get it right the first time. Sometimes (during edits) you have to make the recipe again, adding or removing things as is appropriate. This is normal! But if you get it at least close to right the first time, it’ll be a lot less work for you later down the line.

Everything I’ve said here can also apply to plot, too. Everything must work together as a cohesive whole.


I hope this helps.

And now I’m craving pasta.

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