Tropes: A Guest Post by Juliet McKenna (Worldbuilding Wednesday 13)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

This week I present an excellent post on tropes by Juliet E. McKenna. She’s recently released her Aldabreshin Compass series in ebook format. It’s a story I can’t recommend enough for its fantastic setting and characters and story. In fact, check out that link for some excellent posts on worldbuilding.


I asked Juliet to write about tropes because I think that if used wisely they can be a useful tool when thinking about worldbuilding.



Juliet E. McKenna


Just what is a trope and what should you do with it?

It’s one of those words batted back and forth in creative writing conversations, and if everyone else nods wisely but you don’t actually know what it means mostly you’ll mostly sit quietly and try to work out what it means from context.

Unless you can stealthily look up a definition in an online dictionary. Though that may not be overly helpful. According to the Concise OED, it’s ‘a figurative (e.g. metaphorical or ironical) use of a word’, from the Greek/Latin for ‘to turn’. Merriam Webster is more useful. ‘A common or overused theme or device’.

Oh, so it’s another word for cliché? Yes and no, and this is why this particular word has become useful in discussions about plot, character, setting and all the other intricacies of creating convincing fiction. ‘Cliché’ invariably has negative associations. A cliché is a woman spilling red wine on a white dress or tablecloth in the first five minutes of a TV crime show. You just know that’ll be mirrored by blood before the closing credits – or before the first adverts.

But let’s not forget that a classic can often be a cliché that’s simply been really well presented. There are only so many plots after all. The number varies from thirty six to seven, depending on which writers’ handbook you read. Some strip all these down to two essentials, literal or metaphorical; ‘someone goes on a journey’ and ‘a stranger comes to town’. Those who go still further insist these are the same thing, just from two different perspectives. More than that, especially in genre writing, some much-repeated plot elements are essential. If you’re writing a murder mystery, there pretty much has to be a dead body somewhere – without or without a wine/blood-stained dress.

The vital thing to remember is it’s not what you do but the way that you do it. The difference between cliché and trope is akin to the difference between stereotype and archetype. The wiser, older man offering guidance is an archetype in fiction. The very word ‘Mentor’ was originally the name of Odysseus’s trusted advisor. Someone playing this role can be a useful writerly tool. But if all a story has is an old man who turns up to offer plot-crucial information when the narrative stalls, that’s a stereotype. That character has to be integrated into the world and the story’s relationships to be a memorable individual as well as one who resonates with the reader’s familiarity with the archetype. Then you have mentors as different as Polonius in Hamlet, Belgarath in the Belgariad and Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

In the same way, recognising tropes becomes an essential writerly skill. Then you can look at what other writers have done with them and find your own, distinctive take. Because what the people reading your work – from agents and editors though to the stranger picking your novel up in a bookstore – are looking for is a unique blend of the familiar and the unanticipated. Otherwise you’ll get the same sort of rejection letters as my first and thankfully unpublished epic adventure. ‘There’s nothing to distinguish this from the half dozen other competent fantasy novels that have crossed my desk this week.’

That blunt assessment helped me understand how to work effectively with well-established tropes in my epic fantasy writing. In my Tales of Einarinn, a young woman goes on a quest to unravel the mysteries of magical artefacts – because she’s initially blackmailed and after that, she’s in it for the money. How’s that going to affect her decision making? In The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, the central character is an honourable feudal lord in the high heroic tradition – which means he doesn’t question unpalatable aspects of his absolute power. So can the reader entirely trust the world view of a good man with massive blind spots? In The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, rival dukes are battling for the crown in classic epic fantasy fashion. Only the ordinary folk who suffer in such warfare have decided they’re sick and tired of it. What happens to a feudal elite when those they’re ruling withdraw their co-operation? In The Hadrumal Crisis, I take a look at a frequently unexplored question in fantasy; why don’t wizards rule the world? All too often, the answer seems to be ‘because they’re jolly decent chaps, like Gandalf’. Well, what happens if they’re not?

So you can use tropes to draw readers into your story and then surprise them with a plot twist at the outset. How about setting up a mighty hero with a magic sword departing on a quest, only to have him fall off his horse and break his neck, leaving someone wholly unexpected to pick up that burden? An old woman whose wisdom is countered by her infirmity. A young man with domestic responsibilities which he can’t simply abandon. Let’s not forget how unusual The Lord of the Rings was at the time of its publication. Quests before that were all about retrieving an item of power, not destroying it. Great heroes did great deeds, not humble everyman Hobbits.

As you become practised at spotting tropes you can start to actively use them within your writing. As your story progresses, you can use familiarity to fulfil readers’ expectations and maintain the swift pace of a narrative, saving everyone time and pages. As your tale approaches its climax, you can offer up a range of possible plot options and keep the reader guessing which way events will turn. Is this Thermopylae, Roncevaux or Helm’s Deep? Not that your readers need to know the specifics of those particular battles. They’ve seen these tropes play out in countless movies and books. Will there be a valiant last stand? Will treachery undermine all heroics? Will anyone escape, how and at what cost? Will there be a last minute reprieve? Or something else entirely?

Something else entirely is what you should aim for and the more famous or familiar a trope is, the harder it becomes to do something genuinely unexpected with it. Is anyone going to come up with a convincing new twist on the ‘no man born of woman can slay me’ prophecy after William Shakespeare has given us Macduff from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, and Tolkien offers Dernhelm’s defiant cry ‘But no living man am I!’.

As for tediously repeated tropes, the woman seeking revenge on her rapist and the man seeking revenge on whoever killed his girlfriend/wife/mother really have been done and done again ad nauseam across so many genres and narrative forms. A talented writer might well come up with a new take on these but still fail to find an audience because the familiarity of that premise has now bred such contempt that no one even bothers to read past the first page or watch more than the first five minutes.

So pick your tropes carefully, and always remember to only use them as a starting point or as a writerly tool. You also need all the other elements that make up compelling fiction; fully realised characters, a gripping plot, a convincing setting. Otherwise you still risk falling into stereotype and cliché. What you’re aiming for is that elusive balance between offering your readers the reassurance of archetype and the rewards of the unexpected.



Next week: Trope Study: The Forced Marriage

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny, The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives, Writing Outside Your Own Experience, Narrative Maps, Writing Women Characters into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas