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What Are Character Tropes?
The word “trope” refers to a common motif or pattern in a work of art. In the context of fiction, character tropes refer to common attributes or even entire stock characters. The word trope comes from the Greek word tropos meaning “to turn.” Originally it referred to rhetorical devices that a writer uses to develop an argument.
9 Common Character Tropes
Every genre of storytelling has its own stable of common character types, and as a storyteller it’s worth being aware of them. Here are nine of the most common:
- The chosen one: The chosen one is a common fantasy trope. Their identity typically revolves around a task that’s been set aside for them, which they typically pursue without much hesitation or complication. Like Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter, the chosen one is often, conveniently, an orphan.
- The damsel in distress: One of the most common and pernicious types of female character tropes, the damsel in distress, whatever form she takes, is a passive figure who exists mostly as an object for the hero to save. Even versions of the character who turn out to be a little more plucky than expected (think Princess Fiona from Shrek or Princess Leia from Star Wars) have become their own subset of this creaky old trope.
- The femme fatale: A mysterious and seductive woman who uses her sex appeal to seduce and entrap her enemies, the femme fatale is a popular character trope in hardboiled mysteries. In many ways, the femme fatale is an updated version of supernatural witches or sorceresses. It’s no spoiler to say that she nearly always leads men to destruction.
- The girl next door: The small-town girl with a heart of gold is, in many ways the opposite of the femme fatale. A common film and TV trope, the girl next door is innocent, kind, and wholesome. In other words, she’s the embodiment of domestic femininity and typically a candidate for the male protagonist’s love interest.
- The mad scientist: Going back to Dr. Frankenstein (or any number of sorcerer antecedents), the mad scientist is usually a villain, driven by an eccentric, antisocial personality and unrestrained hubris or a desire to play god. The mad scientist’s benign counterpart is the nerdy “absent-minded professor” who’s so engrossed by their work that they struggle to relate to “normal people.”
- The trusty sidekick: Like the damsel in distress, the trusty sidekick typically has no life outside their relationship to the main character and their quest. Whether the sidekick is a loyal companion, like Samwise in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a faithful butler, or a chatty best friend—as in any number of romance novels—their main quality is that they have no story of their own.
- The wise old man: Sometimes an actual wizard, sometimes just an old guy who’s seen his share, the wise old man is a long-enduring stock figure who usually imparts some special wisdom to the protagonist.
- The dumb muscle: Based on the idea that it’s impossible to be smart and fit at the same time, the dumb muscle is an exceedingly common minor character, especially in action and adventure stories. As a bad guy the dumb muscle is easily outsmarted or otherwise bested by the main character.
- The antihero: Antiheroes are typically cynical loners with major personality flaws, often darkly appealing bad boys. Like normal heroes, the antihero still drives the story, but often to a more amoral place. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, and the grittier versions of Batman are all prime examples of modern antiheroes. These days, antiheroes are almost as common as idealized heroes.
5 Tips for Avoiding Character Tropes
Character tropes aren’t good or bad in and of themselves. In some types of fiction, especially epics, satires, and more plot-driven forms of fiction, the use of stock characters can be expected and even desirable. The problem is when writers lean so heavily on these tropes that they’re no longer telling an original story. This is the point where archetypal characters can bleed into stereotypes. In order to avoid (or at least complicate) character tropes, you’ll need to develop a richer sense of your characters. Here are a few tips:
- Figure out what your characters really want. One reason writers lean on stereotypes is because they don’t know their characters well enough. Instead of playing to type, spend some time figuring out what really motivates your characters. Are they driven by a need to belong? By a thirst for knowledge? By a desire to be recognized? These super-objectives may lead your characters to buck their outward roles in interesting ways.
- Look for opportunities to subvert tropes. If you find yourself drawn to certain tropes, look for ways to undermine them. While this sort of self-conscious style may not be right for every story, it can be especially compelling in the context of genres that traditionally rely on tropes: Think fantasy novels, horror movies, love stories, westerns, and other popular genres.
- Get to know your characters outside the story. A common writing exercise is to develop backstories for your major characters. Imagine them in real life.