What Are Tropes?
Do you ever start watching a movie or reading a book and get a weird sense of deja-vu?
Like you’ve seen something like it before? I’m not talking mistaking one actor for another, or cheap spin-offs that change one thing about the original and call it a day, I’m talking about that moment when you’re sitting there and start to wonder… why are middle-aged men in yellow onesies viewed as more effective than the military when it comes to defeating bad guys? Of course, I’m talking about superheroes, and of course, there’s no answer to it except for “its fiction and writers can do whatever they want.” However, can they really? Even in fiction, ignoring all reality, there are things you can get wrong. Or, more specifically, use wrong. For every character, every plot point, every carnivorous plant or race of alien creatures, there is a precedent for it. These precedents, each with their own definitions, correct and incorrect usages, and subtypes, are known as tropes, and they are the building blocks of every story that has existed and will exist throughout time.
“A trope is any word used in a figurative sense (i.e., a figure of speech) or a recurring theme or device in a work of literature. In this sense, a trope is similar to a convention of a genre, such as the common theme of a “dark lord” in the genre of fantasy or the appearance of a literal ticking bomb in an action or adventure story.” (LiteraryDevices.com)
When executed well, many tropes are able to go right under the noses of whoever is reading or watching them. Take this as an example. Based on Wicks (amount of times a Wikipedia page is referenced in a Wikipedia page outside of its own) the Star Wars franchise is referenced as an example of over 16,000 different tropes. Now, of course, the average watcher, no, even the super-fan, won’t be able to notice all of them while watching the movie. There will always be the big ones that everyone is aware of, such as the tropes of the Space Opera, Warrior Monks, and the Farm Boy who gets caught up in the mess, but most of that 16,000 are tropes that are practically invisible, but when all put together create a compelling story. For most tropes, that’s the goal. Tropes should be practically invisible to the consumer unless for an explicit purpose, and even then, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s when too many works start being explicit with a specific trope that there might be some criticism at its use.
Not all tropes can be incorporated into stories so seamlessly, however. These are often referred to as Discredited Tropes due to their overuse and expectability. Another word that might be used to describe them is “cliche” or “cartoony”. Examples of this can be things like an anvil dropping on someone’s head, or bedsheet ghosts, just because they aren’t very realistic. Other cliches are named so because of their absence in modern media when compared to older media. Usually, this is because these cliches relied on racist, sexist, or homophobic stereotypes.
However, cliches aren’t all bad. Ever wonder why there are so many shows about police or medical dramas? It’s because they sell well, and part of that success is in thanks to that very sense of familiarity these shows can give the watchers by using common tropes that watchers can expect based on other experiences with the genre.
A few types of tropes:
These are tropes that are primarily associated with a particular genre. Think of your favorite crime drama. Did an officer use his finger to taste a strange substance and deduce it was a drug? Or, a criminal ended up being caught because they let information slip that no one else but the criminal would’ve known? Did the lights shut off and someone disappeared when they came back on? Maybe there was a Red Herring– a piece of evidence only there to distract you. All that to say, is that you’ve probably seen at least one or two of those tropes in something you watched. In crime dramas, tropes like that are just the genre norm.
Tropes that are primarily associated with a particular medium. This kind of trope is fairly self-explanatory. In Japanese anime, it’s common to see a girl running late to school with a piece of toast in her mouth. In comics, you’re definitely going to see some speech bubbles. If there’s a musical, there’s probably going to be a reprise of a happy song or its leitmotif during a depressing moment. Another musical trope is the use of brass instruments for heroes with western-aligned morals. In video games, you’re going to find tropes such as Sanity Meters, and the despised Power Equals Rarity mechanic. While you might spot some overlap occasionally, these tropes tend to stay within the media they were founded in.
The elements of storytelling. These are going to be those tropes that can be found in any medium where a story is being conveyed, regardless of genre. The biggest example is probably the chosen one trope, which is, as Douglas Adams explains it, “it’s one thing to think that you’re the center of the universe — it’s another thing entirely to have this confirmed by an ancient prophecy.” These characters have been chosen by some force and they are now the only ones capable of resolving the plot. Notable examples of this trope, which borders on cliche, are characters such as Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, Aang from Avatar, Beatrice Prior from Divergent, Harry Potter from, obviously, Harry Potter, the list goes on and on…
My personal favorite narrative trope is Chekov’s Gun. In Chekov’s own words, as transcribed by Donald Rayfield, it simply means to “remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Some famous examples of this trope include Aliens with Ripley’s aptitude with the Powermover equipment which later becomes a primary weapon, in The Davinci Code, a seemingly useless detail about the Louvre in the beginning of the story becomes crucial information within the final act, in Thor, Darcy takes a photo of Thor and later uses it to make a fake ID… you get the point. And those are just the examples that I was most familiar with.
There are more tropes than included in this post. Hundreds of thousands more. Every day, new tropes are identified based on closer and closer analysis of media. Every trope, each with their own definitions, correct and incorrect usages, and subtypes, exists unconsciously in both the minds of the creator and the consumer. It is these tropes that humanity has picked up from past works that are welded together to create new works of arts, and with them new tropes to be built upon by others. Some tropes are used too much with too little altercation. This is not to say classic devices are bad, but instead are sometimes relied on too heavily by the users. In conclusion, there is nothing wrong with heroes saving the world. There is nothing wrong with them wearing yellow spandex while they do it. It does, however, become a problem when everyone in the genre begins wearing it too. It’s at that time when the real heroes, the true revolutionaries of the fictional world, might begin to consider switching to leather.