Character Tropes in Writing

Bang!  The saloon doors crash open.  All eyes are on the newcomer…

Do I really need to describe this guy?  We all know what he looks like, because he’s an easy trope: the “Mysterious Gunslinger”.

Ring!  Tammy, a beautiful brunette with a crush on the Captain of the football team, picks up the phone.  It’s Brad, her dorky best friend since First Grade.

Want to bet money that they’re an item by the end of the movie?  You better believe Brad is a trope.  He’s the “Dork Next Door”.

A-hyuk!  Tyrone is a Bayou-born, deep-fried son of the swamps.

Just how dumb is this guy, really?  Slow down a sec, because this trope is tricky.  He might be the “Idiot Southerner”, or he might be the “Genius in Disguise”.  Whatever the case, we’d find out pretty quick.

By now, the concept I’m getting at should be fairly clear.  A trope, in the sense that I’m using it here, is a “ready-built” character.  We’re familiar with them, even if we wouldn’t be able to name them.  A trope is not necessarily a boring or flat character—that would be a cliche.  (We want to stay clear of those.)  Unlike cliches, character tropes are not always bad.  In fact, it can be difficult—maybe even impossible—to avoid using them.

In a sense, every character out there fits into some sort of easy pocket.  You’ll find character tropes nestled in the deepest folds of the greatest classic literature:

John Steinbeck cashed in on the “Smart and Callused Little Guy with a Soft Spot for the Dumb but Sweet Big Guy” (George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men).  Then we have the “Soulless Harlot”, Cathy (East of Eden).

Charles Dickens was a sucker for character tropes: Wilkins Micawber, the “Eternal Optimist” (Great Expectations), Josiah Bounderby, the “Avaricious Capitalist” (Hard Times), Smike, the “Pitiful Dimwit” (Nicholas Nickleby), and so on.

Rudyard Kipling utilized some character tropes in earnest that, over the last hundred or so years, have been relegated to the realm of satire: “White Man Venerated by Natives” (The Man Who Would be King), “English Boy Gone Native” (Kim), “Native Boy Gone Animal” (The Jungle Book), et cetera.

The authors listed above used character tropes effectively (at least insofar as fame, fortune, and literary success are concerned; you be the judge of the characters themselves).  Part of what makes them work is that the authors were innovative with those tropes.  Bear in mind that being innovative with character tropes doesn’t necessarily involve taking the “opposite” of what you’d expect to find and inserting it into that character.  (I’m talking about the “Nerdy Black Guy”, or the “Cheerleader who Scores 1600 on her SATs”.)  Being innovative is the exciting part, when you as a writer get to take something we’re all familiar with and making something new of it.

After all, a believable character is really just a sliver of the great pie of Human Character—one or several aspects of what we have all observed in the natures of those around us, and within ourselves.  Interesting events capture our imaginations, but interesting people inspire.

For a very entertaining and thorough look at character tropes, as well as the many other types of tropes that exist, I encourage you to check out TV Tropes.  Click around a bit.  You will not be disappointed.


About jackfrey
Jack Frey lives somewhere in Northeast Asia with his wife and two young boys. He finds the letter K to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the consonants, in both its upper and lowercase forms. Like many of us, he is currently seeking publication of his first novel.

3 Responses to Character Tropes in Writing

  1. Carol Barclay says:

    I’m glad to see you are back in the swing of things! I am determined to get back to the Conumdrum Party and there are plenty of tropes and antitropes attending. Love, Mom

  2. Pingback: 4 Aspects of Scene Stealing Tricksters and How They Work | Rie Sheridan Rose – The Bardabee Poet

  3. Pingback: TROPES IN ONE VOICE: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler | Barda Book Talk

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