On Using and Avoiding Tropes

Tropes can be your friend, especially if you’re trying to use them as a guideline for a project. Recently I’d been frustrated by my lack of fresh story ideas and decided the only way to break out of that block was to come up with a list of SF tropes that I’d enjoyed over the years and play around with them a bit. For example, I’d long had an idea about a group of young adults living on either a generation ship or a space waystation, and purposely created a list of plot tropes and characters with classic traits, just to see where it went. I let myself go much further than I usually would with the characters; rather than creating each one organically like I usually do, I came up with a list of five Classic Characters, each with the usual personalities one would expect from them. The Uplifter, The Popular One, The Misfit, and so on. I took a page from a lot of my favorite recent anime and manga series and created people I’d want to write about.

The trick here was to take those tropes and twist them a little to make them unique. For instance, the Overly Positive Character With a Dark Secret became an extrovert and the group’s ringleader not out of a need for attention, but because she’s terrified that when they do go their separate ways, there’s a good chance not all of them will ever come back; she’s desperate to keep them together for as long as she can. She’s genuinely worried about their futures.

On the other hand, tropes can also be a crutch that you might lean on far too much. I could have stayed with this Overly Positive Character and actually given her a Dark Secret, such as her having some kind of physical or mental handicap. Not that that’s inherently wrong in and of itself, of course*. What I’m saying here is that, at least for me, using that idea on a shallow surface level seems like Doing the Least Amount of Work. It would be like just labeling her as anorexic but not actually focusing on why she’s anorexic and how it would tie in with the story, if at all. Just giving her that quirk isn’t enough for me; I need it to be directly or indirectly connected to the story somehow.

[* – Speaking of handicaps, this was something I had to keep in mind when I wrote the character of Cole Caine for Diwa & Kaffi. He’s a humanoid psychic vampire with what I named Steiner-Hedraac Syndrome; essentially it’s a disorder unique to his kind where, when he’s passively feeding off the physical and psychic energies of those around him, there’s a chance it could escalate sort of like a feedback loop and he’d be unable to dislodge himself. I went through great lengths throughout the story to a) explain what the disorder is and how it affects him, b) show that he accepts that he has it and has to live with it, and that his friends are aware of it, c) show or at least mention moments where the syndrome kicks in to show how it can affect his life, and d) it is never used as a trope plot point, i.e. ‘he overcomes it and it never returns’ or ‘everyone is inspired by his strength which boosts their own success’. To me those two tropes feel like an easy out for my writing and not true to the character at all. I like my characters a lot more nuanced than that.]

Either way, I do what I can to avoid being overly dependable on tropes. They’re good as guidelines, but that’s really all they should be; what changes them to strong stories and characters is the added humanity and depth we as writers need to put into them.

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