Tired Tropes?

Here’s today’s question:

In storytelling, you get certain tropes — earmarks of genre, of format, of style, of author — that either happen naturally or are evoked forcibly to be a part of the story.

(You can find a major warehouse of these tropes at TVtropes.org.)

So, let me ask you:

What tropes are you tired of seeing?

What tropes in storytelling are too toxic? Too predictable? Or too damn boring?

161 comments

  • I can be reduced to frothing rage by a very specific one, actually, but I’m not sure if it’s got a trope name.

    Young Probably-Male Hero is thrown into Dangerous Situation. There are other people around that have more experience and tell him “Don’t do this thing!” YPMH is really mad at everyone telling him what to do, and so goes stomping off to Do That Thing, to prove that A) he can handle it or B) they can’t tell him what to do or C) he doesn’t believe them or D) not sure because I’ve thrown the book across the room at that point.

    It’s almost always young male MCs. (Maze Runner, the Child Thief, think Harry Potter did it a few times, etc.) And they ALWAYS come back covered in glory, or at least don’t die of their stupidity and everyone praises them for how amazingly well it worked out. I hate this, so very, very, very much. I realize that for YA and middle-grade, “proving the adults wrong” is a major gratification point, but there are ways to do it well, and “I’m mad and rebelling just because!” is so very much the wrong way. (Diane Duane did it quite well in her Young Wizards books when the heroine is forced to actually say “Look, saving the world is more important than doing what you tell me!” I respect that. I don’t respect someone yelling “You’re not my real mom!” and stomping into the mouth of the beast.)

    Ahem.

    Also, nobody should have violet eyes and redheaded heroines should probably require a permit.

  • I wrote a series of blog posts on this topic. I identified a bunch of things in urban fantasy, but the one that I found in every single one out of about 20 series is what I called the Missing Parent Tropes. (No serious. Every. Single. One. I guess you can’t be heroic if you grew up in a happy household.) They go like this:

    1. The hero/heroine was orphaned before the age of 16, or one or more parents abandoned them. This accounted for the vast majority.

    2. They grew up with two parents, but one or both was secretly not their blood parent. And what was Daddy (it’s almost always Daddy)? A being of great power who passed on his gifts to our hero.

    I swear to Dog I am never writing a story about an orphan.

    • I concur. And while we’re wondering where the parents are… So many times I’ve read about kids stumbling upon something or getting involved with something that leads to huge wild adventure and we never hear about the parents. The child has been gone for weeks on his/her quest and we never hear about phone calls from the school about truancy. We never hear about mom and dad filing a missing persons report and crying themselves to sleep at night, speculating on all the horrible things that could’ve happened to their child.

      And while Harry Potter was at Hogwart’s, who was teaching the children math, science or social studies? Biology, physiology, engineering? Art, music, creative writing? English? You put that many English people in a single school founded by English people and there’s no English class?

      Books about kids have a really bad habit of being irresponsible with kids. Does this mean that I can never leave my kid alone with a book again?

  • In the case of an action adventure story with romantic elements, the Male Hero is the ONLY one that can be the Tragic Anti-Hero and the Female Heroine must be a blank slate, and no defining personality traits so the female reader can insert herself into the character.

    Come on now. We need some Tragic Anti-Heroines that can kick ass just as well as they kiss and have the Hero actually be a pretty well rounded guy in his own right and be the thing that redeems her. 😐 I’m tired of the gender distortion!

    I may have written something along those lines. And nope. The rejection letters keep piling up. Despite my growing career with being published for m/m. I might have to self-publish in the end. :/

    • “Come on now. We need some Tragic Anti-Heroines that can kick ass just as well as they kiss and have the Hero actually be a pretty well rounded guy in his own right and be the thing that redeems her. I’m tired of the gender distortion!”

      This is where I chime in quietly and say, cough cough, BLACKBIRDS.

      WHAT I SAID NOTHING

      *poof*

      – c.

  • There are a couple. Steampunk can be so damn awesome if done right. I was a fan of Lavie Tidhar’s “Bookman Histories.” Sure, the steampunk setting was there, but the tale was always about the people, their actions and the events they experienced. Since steampunk went all top 40, so much of it focuses squarely on the fashion, the funny goggles, corsets. And there’s tons of air time given to exhaustive descriptions of the complexities of the clockwork vehicles, clockwork elevators and I seem to remember even reading about a clockwork toilet. Steampunk isn’t my favorite, but I think it’s more fertile than a lot of its writer’s are allowing. So many of the books are like reading the longest article ever written about a cosplay fashion show.

    Another one I’ve mentioned here before but can’t stress enough is fantasy. Fantasy is just that; any damn thing you want. It’s absolutely anything the extremities of your imagination will allow. Yet every year I fall under an avalanche of elves, wizards and dragons and shit. So many writers just keep reheating Tolkien’s leftovers. My heartfelt thanks goes out to China Mieville for teaching me to like fantasy again,

    The zombie apocalypse? Let me guess. There’s a zombie outbreak and a small band of people are struggling to survive. They never stay in one good comparably safe place. They travel to find somebody’s son or daughter who is all the way on the other side of someplace, because he/she was living with the other parent when the outbreak hit. Failing that, they’re travelling to find an alleged sanctuary of some sort that one or more of the group don’t believe exists and that creates in fighting. Zombies can be cool and all, but there seems to only be one story.

    Helpless women in peril. Dark mage versus light mage. Kids getting up to crazy kid adventure shit with no mention of their parents. You know what? This is your blog, not mine. I’m going to stop before I turn into an anger tornado.

    • “So many writers just keep reheating Tolkien’s leftovers.”

      Just to point out, it’s not always the writers’ faults. In fact, many are told to change original and wonderful books to the old staples in order “to get them to sell,” or just can’t sell their unique offerings, period. For this you can blame this fancy new thing all the publishers are listening to now called a “marketing department.”

  • Not sure how to call this trope but the one where the protagonist starts off single and whatever the conflict/drama/issue/plot, ends up in a relationship…and that’s where the book ends. As if a) the getting of the relationship is as important as the resolution of the conflict/drama/etc and b) they live happily ever after. I’d like to see a protagonist that starts off in a relationship and see some of the struggle of living in a REAL relationship. To know that “falling into someone’s arms” won’t be an outcome of the story actually lets me relax and enjoy the drama of the rest of the situation/story/plot.

    Also the “everything bad happens to the protagonist” thing drives me crazy. I gave up on Harry Potter because I just go so damn depressed at his life.

    One more: strong girl has anger issues. Equating strong with angry all the time or in-your-face, or bitchy…yeah, no.

    • I wonder if this comes from the “if they’re married they’re boring” trope. TV popularly coined this one, which is why couples often get together only in the last season and often in the last episodes. They found the audience tuned out once the “will they/won’t they” questions was answered. I still think a lack of good writing and/or good acting was more to blame, but considering how backwards Hollywood/tv media is, I doubt they’ll be revisiting the question anytime soon.

  • Okay, am I the only one going through these comments thinking damn, some of these hit way too close to home. Guess I shouldn’t admit that.

    But in my defense, and as I was trying to say like 80 comments ago, is yeah, tired tropes suck, but they’re tropes for a reason. Sometimes they work. A lot of the time they work. *If* handled properly.

    A white dinner roll might be boring, but you gotta admit everyone likes it. Don’t lie. Add some homemade whipped herb butter and you’ll have people begging for more. But they’re not just eating the butter. They’re also eating the DAMN ROLL.

    So screw you all. I’m going back to hang out with my prophesied chosen one and his brooding ol’ self.

    • Good point! I don’t think it merits anger (after all, the point of this post is to point out tropes you dislike, not to get rid of tropes altogether) but you’re right; tropes work for a reason, because they hit home with some kind of basic human instinct that we empathize with. Well, in the case of some of the bad ones, they’re tropes because they’re popular, but oh well.

      I think the power really comes from recognizing a trope that works, hopefully one that hasn’t been overdone, and, like you said, adding “herb butter” to it- making it unique and giving it an impact. The folly really comes from relying on a trope to carry a story with no point or value. There’s no need to either banish all tropes or cling to them unnecessarily.

  • As long as we’re griping about orphan tropes…you know what gets me…almost every story where it’s the MOM who is dead. Think about practically every Disney movie, a lot of fairytales in the original, stories where girls make bad choices –99% of the time it’s because mom is dead. (ergo you have evil step-mothers.)

    • Most of the time, mom is dead because in the World of Story–especially faerie-tales and myths, a girl’s mother is her only teacher to navigate the social world on which her very existence relies, and her best manager in a larger world where she is, by and large, a commodity. In the original tales and myths, having a mother would have meant that Cinderella had a protector with a vested interest and the wherewithal in maintaining her social class, Snow White would have stayed a princess, Belle would have had someone to smack her father upside the head and say, “Hell, no, motherfucker ain’t selling my daughter to the freak in the castle for some goddamn flowers!” (and also to smack Belle upside the head and say, “Hell, no, you aren’t paying for that dumbass’s mistake.”). If you look at the original stories not as entertainment for children, but rather as life lessons for them, they send a pretty strong message that children–girls, mostly–without Maternal backing have a good chance of being up shit creek without a paddle.

      Mostly what bothers me about those tropes is the way that some authors fail to give them an updated perspective. Modern-day Cindy loses Mom…get the girl into therapy. You can still play off the trope, but take out the outdated parts to it. Mentor characters still exist, even in the old stories. They should be used.

  • Before reading these posts, I thought I just published an original book. Now, with my resistant protag, dead mother, secret orphan, wizard in the wings, the “one” syndrome, all gooied up by romance, I guess it’s just another Alice in TV tropesland. Is there any way to not use tropes and still be in the genre? BTW, my betas demanded a romance–one even got mad there wasn’t one. So I guess readers like tropes. For my part, if page one has an elf or apostrophe in a name I can’t pronounce, I’m outta there.

    • June 25, 2013 at 12:12 PM // Reply

      I agree with what people here said, troopes are not a bad thing. Actually, EVERY book or movie or whatever has a troope of some sort. The problem is how some troopes are used by the author: if they seem organic in the story or if it looks like they’re only there because the author couldn’t think on a decent reason for X or Y to happen; if the author gives us an original view over that troope or if it looks exactly like what we’ve seen in book Z or movie W. I think people like troopes, what they don’t like is the feeling of “oh no, not THAT again”.

  • I agree with Abby above, tropes are popular and used frequently for a reason. But as far as the ‘orphan’ trope goes, if you take away the parents (i.e. the kid’s or teen’s ‘safety net’) you make that character so much more vulnerable right out of the box (seriously, who isn’t going to feel sorry for an orphan?), but in my opinion this is a cheap way of creating sympathy. I prefer authors that make something interesting HAPPEN to them in the beginning to make me care about them. And as mentioned above, it IS usually the mom who is dead 99% of the time because we tend to think, “Poor kid, he doesn’t have a mom, there’s no one to take care of him.” So in the reader’s mind, WE want to ‘take care of him’, i.e., read the story to make sure that in the end, he’s going to be okay.

  • Tired police investigator who wears shabby coats and drinks/smokes too much yet has a unique talent that allows him to solve all cases.

  • It’s always annoyed me that any woman (in literature) who dares take part in an extra-marital affair must be punished — either killed or her life ruined.

  • I hate the one where the hooker buries her John, but keeps the fingertip, you know, for a trophy, and then she’s just another ho, walking around with a pocket full of fingertips. It annoys me to no end.

    And the H.P. Lovecraftian Monster who Can Not be Described.

  • I’ve got two, and here they are, y’all.

    1) The Four Elements, or any variation thereof. How this trope is so ubiquitous and never shat upon blows my mind. Captain Planet, The Last Airbender, anything based on eastern OR western superstition, just about anything with any magical bent to it. Most role-playing video games. Pokemon types. It’s everywhere. It’s in my raccoon wounds. And the thing is, it’s NEVER been interesting. I hated it as a kid. I didn’t like that 3/5 of the Planeteers had shitty powers. (In retrospect, I guess Earth is a cool power, but I hated it because I couldn’t draw it.) The best use of it I can think of is the Fantastic Four – where it’s pretty subtle, and if you miss it, no big deal at all.

    1a) Gotta give an honorable mention to the Seven Deadly Sins, for mostly the same reasons. It’s just the lowest hanging fruit. It’s basic, it’s easy, and it’s boring. And like the elements, there’s this one obvious flaw: Some are cool, but most are not on the same level as coolness. Obviously Wrath is the coolest. Greed, Pride, maybe Gluttony, okay I guess. Not going to comment on Lust. But, how can you possibly get excited about Sloth and Envy? The effort people have to go through to put them all on the same level, in the literary inspiration sense, just makes me wonder, why bother? It’s boring to begin with.

    2) My other gripe is not based on content, but structure, and it goes like this: We’ve been told to start with a hook, so we start with an interesting scene! Great. But then we flash back to a little bit before it happened. Fine. No problems yet. But then our flashback overtakes the first scene, fluidly becoming the present. Overdone, but not awful. Then, NOTHING. That’s it. That’s the ONLY time in the story where anything is told outside of chronological order. If you’re setting the stage for things to be told non-linearly, that’s fine. But if you do only one flash-forward, for no purpose other than to have a hook at the beginning of the story, that’s just nuisance writing. I would say it is obvious amateur-level stuff, but it finds its way into far too many professional works. So instead, I’ll just say, it sucks.

    • I think gripe number two is based in the extreme pressure to start with an action scene. Apparently in the last four decades readers have become short attention spanned numbwits who can only be drawn into a story by ACTION! Apparently we readers are so numb to sensation that unless bodily juices are being swapped (blood or more erotic things) we will wander off, jaded, and go play video games or watch Avengers instead. I mean, forget the fact that I don’t even CARE about said character enough yet to care if he or she is in mortal danger.

      In our current format, Anne McCaffrey, Ray Bradbury, JRR Tolkien, and dozens of other greats would never even have been published. They’d have been “too slow.” I kinda miss a publishing world that assumed if you read books you are actually an intelligent human being with something resembling an attention span. The corporate trope that states we’re all mindless ADD entertainment junkies is one I could certainly do without.

      • I’m with you on this, katfire. I enjoy books that draw me in with setting, tone, mood and extend the characters from this. But as a commercial writer, the pressure to open with an action scene overrides other literary devices, generally. And if we don’t follow this convention, the editor and betas will certainly draw our attention to it. I recently found myself reading a highly unusual book that took me three tries to get into, because it did not follow the convention (read “rut”) to which my brain has become accustomed.

  • Centuries-old vampires must fall for someone in story – true love, I’ve never loved anyone like this before (except maybe this one tragic incident during my human life that I can’t talk about but maybe I can with you), and you make me feel alive again BS. And the object of his affection? Some naive twit, possibly in high school. That adds to the criminality of the vampire’s act because it’s extreme pedophile. The ‘true love’ defense doesn’t work in court for mere humans.

    Speaking of tragic incidents in a character’s past – is it as unspeakable as a Lovecraft creature? Terrible things happen every day, so I need more than a few hints to rank the tragedy and generate a level of sympathy for a fictional character.

    Describe a Lovecraftian horror? Are you insane? HP did use words and you can generate your own combinations here – http://www.wyrmworld.com/interactive/lovecraft/lovecraft.html

    Also agree with unattended/neglected/orphaned children seem to find themselves in all sorts of adventures. There needs to be more cautionary tales – this will not end well – like Pinocchio and Pleasure Island amusement park.

    And I agree about the odd eye color and hair combo. Even red hair and green eyes is too much for me these days because these women are everywhere in fiction. They are no longer special.

    Although miscommunication is a staple of sweeter romances, I prefer the entire story not be based on a misunderstanding. I can handle a more complex plot.

  • Oh my God, the main character must be really stressed, upset, melancholy or otherwise blue because he just splashed cold water on his face and then looked at himself in the mirror!

  • Characters who are evil because they’re evil. In real life, most people want to do what they see is right, even if they fail at it. Even Hitler and Stalin believed they were on the side of the angels, doing what was necessary to improve the world.

    Generally people only think they’re evil to self-punish. The cackling I’M SO EVIL AND I LOVE EVERY MINUTE OF MY EVILNESS villain is highly unlikely.

    A small proportion of real-life murderers kill because they enjoy killing and love it, but we’re talking Famous Serial Killer territory, and the reason we talk about them is because their crimes are shocking in their rarity. Most murders are for banal reasons, not the joy of murder.

    Also, the kind of person who’s that much like that tends to be a loner, and for good reason.

  • In horror. The black guy with magical powers, the disabled kid with magical powers, the young girl with magical powers.

    I’m looking at your Stephen King.

    (And me…my new book is built around this…so…yeah. Ignore what I said).

  • Magical powers.

    Yes, all of them.

    Oh, and zombies. And vampires. Maverick ex-CIA psychos. Ex-special forces psychos. Billionaires.

    Detectives. Yes, all of them. In fact, I never want to read another book ever where the ‘hero’ is a policeman / woman.

    Romance. Honestly, you still believe in romance? Is my cynicism showing?

    Anything set in the same era as Jane Austen novels. (I think they call that ‘regency’.)

    I’d better stop. But before I go I’d just to mention magical powers again. I mean, you know, it’s just silly. Even though I did love the Harry Potter books and all. But can’t we stop now?

  • This might get wordy….

    The Interchangeable Women (most often found in movies):

    The story goes: Boy meets girl, boy falls hard for girl, boy can’t keep girl because she falls into a time portal or is really a mannequin or sacrifices herself for him or __insert_tragedy_here__. BUT, never lose hope, true believers, for in the last five minutes he will stumble across a woman who looks EXACTLY LIKE HIS TRUE LOVE and whisk her away into the sunset! Personality? What’s that? Mourning period? WHY? Just pick any girl off the street, give her a little extreme plastic surgery, and presto! Instant happy ending! I mean, it’s not like she’s a totally DIFFERENT person on the inside or anything….

    The No Consequences Woman (and yes, it is SO often a woman!). Oddly, not always a Mary Sue since they are as often written by men:

    There seems to be a disconnect in the idea of what an “empowered” woman really is. So many women who are portrayed as “empowered” in books are actually rampaging jerks who seem to make it their goal in life to run roughshod over anyone and everyone who gets in their way.

    One notable example was a woman assassin who hooked up with a cop, finagled him into several sexual encounters against his will (it wasn’t rape, but damn it skirted the edges sometimes), totally disregarded the moral quandary this plunged him into or ANY feelings he had on the matter (or in any other matter), then thought–with a complete lack or irony from the character OR the author–that it was his fault that he “couldn’t appreciate her.” You flip the gender roles and females everywhere would have been screaming mad, but a woman did it, so she’s “empowered.”

    Another example was Ms. Lives In the Victorian Era. Now, it is Steampunk, so not our world, and she is a bomb toting wild child. I GET all that. But the author goes out of her way to show us this woman is extraordinary BECAUSE she is so diametrically opposed to the cultural standards surrounding women at that time…so we are in the regular Victorian era, just with more clockwork menaces. Which leaves me questioning why, when she invites her stuffy and extremely traditional partner in to watch her bathe, she doesn’t suffer so much as a tongue lashing. Or why, in all the points when she didn’t even TRY to fit in with the high society folks she was rubbing elbows with she was not summarily thrown out of establishments for being of indecent moral standards. The world just magically fell into place around her because she was an Empowered Woman.

    I am all for Strong Characters, Female. I am NOT for these spoiled little twits who mix up Empowered for asshole.

    The Rape? What Rape?:

    Here’s a scenario. A woman is out on a date and gets raped. She runs from her rapist, only to be murdered horribly by a pack of werewolves. After turning into one herself, she winds up with the pack that murdered her, and worse, she is often taken unwillingly (aka,more rape) by their leader. And all of this affects her SO MUCH that she drools over every cute boy she sees and generally acts like a clueless 20-something.

    Then there was Ms. Enslaved For Years who lived in utter fear of being raped–which eventually DOES happen–murders her captor, and gets sentenced to death. After a year in a dungeon (which somehow doesn’t affect her physical health or atrophy her muscles or skills at all), she is forcibly poisoned and told she must risk her life daily or she will not be given the medicine that can keep her alive one more day. You’d think she’d have some trust issues. She doesn’t. And after being dominated by a man for years, her first act is to start training with SOLDIERS. Because, you know, all raped women (and for that matter, ex-slaves) feel SO SAFE in the company of strange men who can easily overpower them, especially when they’ve been given no breathing room to recover from their attack.

    Basically, some jackass author wants to give their character an interesting back story, but one that leaves no physical wounds or scarring. So they choose rape. And instead of acknowledging that rape–much less any of the other trauma their characters go through–leaves it’s own set of scars, they excise it from the character as soon as it becomes inconvenient. It’s lazy, it’s inconsistent, and it is a surefire way to have the damned book bounced off a wall.

    Not to mention, just a teeny bit disrespectful and dismissive to those who’ve been there. I’m not asking the characters be crippled, mind, but a balance can be made for strong-but-traumatized female. And if you don’t want the trauma, leave out the rape and go back to making her an orphan instead.

    Those are my three least favorite tropes in current overuse. And that was as wordy as I warned it would be. 😛

  • I see the orphan as different to the orphan with a superpowered, destiny-laden background. An advantage of getting the parents out of the way in the backstory is the creation of an ideal environment for character growth. The protagonist can go off on adventures without having to be home in time for dinner. And they are completely unprotected and self reliant. Understanding one’s self as separate from one’s parents is part of growing up. The story proposition is what would you do in this situation? Natural answers like “my mum would figure it out because she’s smart” or “my dad would defend me with his superior strength” wouldn’t leave a kid with much of a challenge or way of discovering the strengths and character attributes within.

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