I remember loving a particular episodic fantasy series of novels when I was a child. The heroes were always engaging, the adventures swashbuckling, and the villains harrowing. As I got older, something snapped me out of my cozy fictive dream state every time I tried to pick up a new novel in my ex-favorite series. I noticed that beneath their shallow patinas, it was always the same struggling hero slapped with a new name and a fresh backstory, the same coming-of age adventure thrust into a new setting (or not), and the same dastardly villain wrapped up in a new skin. Behold, my introduction to archetypes. I also noticed the author overutilizing (I was a teen, authors never overused, they overutilized) the same thematic elements. He kept repeating favorite turns of phrase and was always providing the same, constant supporting elements to every lead character. Behold, my introduction to tropes. In truth, the line blurs between what constitutes a trope versus an archetype. I would personally define many classical, universal tropes as archetypes and define a trope as a variant of your garden variety descriptive cliché. I would then define such a cliché as an idea, situation, object, place, or persona that is instantly recognizable and registers on some familiar, subconscious level due to cultural overexposure.
As writers, we are told to shun clichés like the plague. Most of these “like the plague” clichés are linguistic writing crutches and I wholeheartedly approve the notion that you prune them from your writing within moderation without going overboard. However, when a linguistic cliché becomes a descriptive cliché (i.e., “That’s so cliché!”) used to denote an idea, situation, object, place, or persona, then you are entering trope territory. They are just as repetitive and hackneyed, and the ancient roots from which they spring (archetypes) have sunk deep into our ancestral psyche. Use these tropes in your writing. We remember them for a reason.
Tropes and archetypes offer a society-wide shared frame of reference. We find them comfortable, we greet them like old friends, and we appreciate how they ground our story. Inclusion of a few well-tread tropes does not automatically make a story unoriginal—although trope excess can lead to a predictable story—and people put original spins on tropes all the time, make fresh characters with worn archetypes, or use our old countervailing expectations against us. Learning to recognize the tropes and archetypes of your particular writing genre and how to apply or twist them to your advantage will only make your writing stronger. Without the grounding such tropes provide, your story loses all context and becomes an incomprehensible idealistic abstraction. However, I caution you not to over apply tropes or your story may stray towards the formulaic and become a tired rehash of something we’ve seen a million times before. However, while good writing and clever authors can salvage the second situation, no amount of elbow grease will make the first any more palatable.
In the end, we’ve seen it all before. When I have young kids someday, I look forward to revisiting those childhood fantasy novels which so enraged my budding angry teen persona, himself a worn trope (does this constitute irony or merely a meta trope?), either despite or because of their well-worn story structure. It’s an old story, but it’s a good story, though I don’t recommend binge reading different versions of that story like I did in my cynical youth. Tropes have survived since mankind first started spinning tales in caves around campfires and they will continue when we are spinning spaceships around alien suns. Willa Cather summed it up best: “There are only two or three or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” Everyone has their favorite two or three tropes. Next time you read a good book, look around for the wicked step mother figure or the crusty old man with a soft heart—you may be reading one of mine.