Yes, you read that right. For those of us in the know, we cringe when we see the word “trope” in a book review. For those of us scratching our heads and wondering what the heck I’m going on about, a “trope” simply means an overused theme in fiction, and some authors apparently devote entire series to using as many of them as possible. And they are more prevalent in certain genres than others (YA, anybody?), and fantasy fiction has been falling prey to them lately.
But just the existence of a trope isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Generally it indicates that a particular theme or idea is popular, so, as an author, you may consider including popular things that your audience may be asking for. (If, you know, you want to actually sell your work.) However, this can also backfire very easily, when too many people write a trope in too short a span of time, and then the audience gets tired of it.
So, how can we authors take advantage of some tropes that may actually a) fit our story, b) we in fact like them? Here are a few thoughts on how to shake it up and stay true to our cause of producing unique work.
To begin with, remember that no one’s book is truly original, and that’s totally okay. We’re all influenced by the storytellers to come before us. We’re living in an advanced age of humanity, there’s a lot of influence to draw on. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t seem to come up with something that hasn’t been seen on this planet yet. It depends on what you do with your influences, as to how unique your writing is.
Tried-and-true tropes that just need a different spin to still be successful:
Examples: the love triangle, insta-“love”, the chosen one (or, the “special snowflake”), bad/absent parents, and throwing every kind of tragedy conceivable at the hero/heroine.
Okay, let’s start with the love triangle and “insta-love.” When it comes to YA fic, these can be dangerous if portrayed in a way that suggests falling into complete love with the first person you lock eyes with at a party is normal, or that not only will you have one potential boy/girlfriend but you’ll fact have 5, all fighting over you. Is it impossible to believe that — especially in close social circles, as teens tend to have — more than one person would have a crush on the same girl/boy? Nope, not at all. But does this inevitably result in pistols at dawn? Good grief, no. We’re in the 21st century here. And might you be at a party only because your friend begged you to go, and over by the punch bowl you see a totally attractive person with a great smile and a fantastic dress sense, and in your head go, “OH MY GOSH, I LOVE THEM”? Yeah, of course. But that does not mean they’re about to propose and buy you a sailboat and pounds of chocolate and novels. And it is very important to make the difference clear to impressionable young people.
In The Order of the Twelve Tribes, I included romantic situations that the adolescents involved are possibly over-thinking how serious it is, and that’s actually quite a healthy lesson for teens. (Being the parent of a 14-year-old myself, I am definitely concerned with him not planning on marrying his very first crush.) Through the rest of the series, I’ll be exploring how the couples grow as individuals, learning about themselves and what they want, along with how to be a good partner. (Which should lead to a lot less dysfunction in their adult lives…)
Anyway, so how about instead of always having one girl and two boys making fools of themselves for her affection, let’s try — a) the girl tells both of them to go away, b) after she strings them along, the guys tell her to shove off, c) it’s two girls after the same boy who ultimately decide being friends with each other is more valuable.
Moving on to the dreaded chosen one, aka the special snowflake. It became a big deal with Harry Potter, and therefore a bit jaded soon after, as there were a plethora of trilogies or series (The Maze Runner, Divergent, Legend, Percy Jackson) released in quick succession focusing a variation on that theme. The unique thing about Harry Potter was that he didn’t know he was considered the “chosen one,” and had never thought of himself as anything special. Then he rose to the challenge, anyway — even though we found out in book 7 that it was never confirmed Harry was the chosen one.
Now, that’s a twist. So, how about more twists? Instead of the chosen one being groomed from birth (think King Arthur), he/she — a) avoids their “destiny” at all costs, by running away to a far land to herd llamas, b) turns out not to be amazing and powerful but really rubbish, c) was mistaken for the real fated hero, but decides to give it all they’ve got.
We’re up to bad or absent parents. Come on, folks, let’s do away with the way there are never any consequences for neglectful parenting in fiction — a) the family is irresponsible, so your protagonist ends up in a loving foster care situation, b) the dysfunctional home life results in a tragedy that creates intense character growth, c) we think the parents may be dead but are in fact alive, and simply in hiding to protect their offspring.
(For The Order of the Twelve Tribes, I went with the last. And for the record, when push comes to shove, she steps up to the plate.)
And, please, let’s do stop throwing every kind of tragedy conceivable at the hero/heroine. I wrote an entire post earlier this year about how important happy endings are, even to dystopia and fantasy. (You can use the search bar to find “It Is Not Too Much To Ask For A Happy Ending” if you missed it.) Anyway, my view is that, while it’s (unfortunately) realistic to have some bad things happen to your characters, readers need to have hope and the opportunity for life to be okay for these fictional beans they’ve grown attached to. (And I will be writing this way, too. There will be losses, but not the absolute entire end to the complete and total universe. There will be love and peace as well.)
So, instead of endings like in Mockingjay and Allegiant, what about — a) broken friendships are restored, b) only half the major characters get killed (remember, most of them survived in The Deathly Hallows), c) after winning the war, rather than becoming a devastated husk of a former human being, the narrator quietly retires to a farm to raise teacup pigs and does not suffer from PTSD for the next 743 years.
Trust me, your readers will thank you.