Tropes

I have a confession to make: for many, many years I did not understand what was meant by the word trope. I started writing long before Google could answer all our questions, or Alexa or Siri would provide information on topics we never considered asking about before the advent of such all-knowing apps.

I gradually came to understand, thanks to certain publishing houses, what was meant by the word and I thought that I would likely never be writing such things. My books didn’t fit the mold of billionaire cowboys or secret babies.

Or so I thought.

I attended a monthly presentation of my writer’s group a few months back and the topic was just this subject, only it focused more on characterization than on plot. To my surprise, I came to realize that I was guilty of using some of these stereotypes, even if in a superficial way, and it’s changed the way I look at my characters, especially my heroine. (A quick shout out to the presener, Katharine Ashe, for her insightful and eye-opening workshop!)

These characterization tropes included:

  • the misogynist – the woman-hater who just hasn’t met the right woman
  • the harasser – the guy you’d call HR about at work if you didn’t label him the hero
  • the rebuilder – he destroyed her, now he seeks to rebuild her
  • the exception – she’s the only woman in the world like this
  • the stooge – a woman so clumsy she can’t walk to the car without falling down

There were other plot tropes discussed – two people vastly unequal in terms of wealth or sexual experience, stalkers, coming to the rescue, the evil overly-sexed female who seeks to foil the H/H.

I think tropes are used because they are easy, or as easy as it gets in writing a book. They lend themselves to some fairly straightforward conflicts and resolutions and many readers like that “formula” for their books. But I think in a genre that is largely written by and for women, we need to do better. Now don’t think I’m waving a feminist flag here – I’m not intentionally doing that. I’ve nothing against feminism but I’m talking primarily about good fiction. The fact that it lends itself to strong female characters is just a bonus.

As writers, we need to push the boundaries at all times, on all subjects to move our genre forward, to attract new readers, and explore the topics that are meaningful to our audience. Could you imagine 30 years ago reading a story about female spies in WWII (The Alice Network) or a biracial romance set during the Civil War (An Extraordinary Union) or a female economist who hires a male prostitute (The Kiss Quotient)? When I starting reading romance in the early 80s, it was about virgins in their early twenties who fell for the wounded, rich, powerful male in his mid to late thirties.

Flip that trope. Smash it. Tweak it in new and exciting ways. Use this diverse, wonderfully chaotic world we live in to set the stage and background for your characters to explore. It can be frightening – what if your editor or reader don’t like it? Tropes are safe. Tropes sell.

So do things that break the story ceiling. Harry Potter. The Help. The Firm.

It won’t be easy but as they say, nothing good every comes without hard work. We’re writers. We’re used to hard work.

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