Cliches and tropes have been around for centuries, embedding themselves into the minds of readers and subconsciously shaping their preferences. The villain with a tragic past, the secretive new girl in town, the small town dreamer turned epic hero: these are just a few examples of common literary tropes.
How have authors used these classic scenarios for decades without running out of content?
Cliché vs. Trope?
According to the Oxford Languages Dictionary, a cliché is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.
In the literary field, clichés are considered a dangerous path to irrelevancy. Readers are always looking for fresh content, something to catch them by surprise or something new and inspiring to get behind. Authors tend to avoid cliches in order to keep a status of relevancy and intelligence.
According to Literaryterms.net, “The word trope can refer to any type of figure of speech, theme, image, character, or plot element that is used many times. Any kind of literary device or any specific example can be a trope.” Although there are dangers in using tropes, including the fact that a multitude of books have already made a name for themselves using these structures and fear of losing the attention of readers based on taste, tropes can be useful in finding different types of story styles and authors you like.
To sum it up, clichés are old stereotypes such as “they all lived happily ever after” and “all that glitters isn’t gold,” where a trope is any type of predictable story element such as a wizard with a long white beard or the idea of enemies to lovers and even love triangles between characters.
How can they be beneficial?
Authors may choose to use clichés or tropes for a few reasons. One being that some go through seasons of popularity, two being to connect with their readers, and three, to better shape their characters.
You may have noticed patterns of popularity amongst certain genres or authors. If a book that contains a specific element sells well, other authors may pick up on that trope and create their own versions by including particular elements, character types, or settings in their works.
One popular example of this is George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series, inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series. Both of these stories surround a fantastic medieval setting that homes multiple races of people struggling to survive, a physical wall separating good and evil, future kings, and large armies.
Cliches may be worked into a story discreetly as to not reuse a phrase that has been repeated for ages. Authors may have characters learn lessons or have an overarching theme to their stories that can be paraphrased by a cliché. An example of this could be a girl choosing a love interest with riches over another with nothing and realizing that the less fortunate character had a better heart. Although predictable, this story may resonate with many readers.
Characters with unsurprising appearances or behaviors are also designed to draw out certain assumptions from readers. A villain with dark hair and a scary face will cause the reader to remember all of the characters they’ve read about with similar appearances, rounding out their character to be of similar morals or design. On the other hand, writers love to design characters that look one way but turn out another. A character appears as a dashing prince may turn out to be quite the villain.
A new take on an old design
Lastly, I’d like to look at how authors are still able to use the bones of these cliches and tropes without running out of ideas decades later.
We’ve all heard of the boy who cried wolf, but what if the boy called dragon, and what if one day the townspeople saw the dragon and tasked the boy with slaying it and saving the people? On his journey he had to climb a giant grapevine to find a golden sword hidden in a sky castle owned by a cyclops.
This story is no longer the boy who cried wolf, but has turned into a medieval action adventure building off of the famous wolf fable, Jack and the Beanstalk, as well as the story structure of humble villager turned hero.
Authors are able to escape the traps that are clichés and tropes by understanding that complete originality is not real. Every idea under the sun has been produced and in order to expand and continue creating, originality has turned into the taking of things around us and our own experiences and morphing them into something new.
I hope this article has helped you better understand the differences between cliches and tropes as well as why certain notions are popularized and how you can use them to your advantage.
The next time you pick up a book, be on the lookout for familiar story structures, characters, or settings and look for connections it may have with other books. It can be fun to try and figure out what the author’s intentions and inspirations were while writing.
Stay curious and happy reading!
Sources for this article include literaryterms.net, masterclass.com, and fictionhorizon.com