Tropes and Narratives

Tropes are an essential part of storytelling. An author uses tropes as a starting point for story and character development. Defining what a trope is difficult in the abstract, so let's just look at some examples.

Some classic tropes are:

  • The damsel in distress: There is a damsel, she has been captured by some evil character, and the hero must rescue her to save the day (this is an often overused trope in video games in particular).
  • The superhero: A seemingly normal human character has been bestowed superhuman powers, and must save mankind from some evil force, who often has their own superpowers. Mankind is initially distrustful of the superhero, but comes to appreciate them once they save the day.
  • The superhero fight scene at the end of the movie: our superhero movie always ends with a final battle between good and evil. The fight goes back and forth, with it looking like a close call, but good wins in the end (see happy ending trope).
  • The kiss between superhero and love interest at the end of the superhero movie after the fight scene: tropes can cover just a single encounter.

While they may sound formulaic or cliched, tropes are very useful literary devices. By relying on concepts and narratives the viewer already knows they help the viewer settle in to a story. The viewer can feel comfortable with the story as they understand the basic storyline already - for we all know roughly how a rom-com plays out. This allows the reader to focus on the events elements and characters which make this story unique.

A writer can also twist tropes - making an unexpected departure from the typical storyline to catch the reader off guard, or may avoid tropes altogether, particularly powerful for the main storyline. Consider a movie like Memento, where a character with short term memory loss must figure out what he's doing, and the movie is played to us effectively backward, which is not a classic, or formulaic trope.

Tropes and narratives are undoubtedly as old as stories themselves, and for storytelling they seem very effective and useful.

I have been thinking a lot though, about narratives and tropes in "real life" and whether they are useful, or harmful.

Each of us is undoubtedly unique - but we see tropes around us every day.

  • The strict father
  • The know it all
  • The high school drop out
  • The layabout.

These are tropes from real-life that we all understand, and have either experienced, seen, or are at least aware of. Like in storytelling, these tropes can be helpful. We can infer how the quiet loner that we see at the office is likely to act at home, socialising, at the pub. We can surmise that a harsh father is perhaps not the best husband, or the kindest of souls.

But there are a lot of downsides to labelling people, and seeing these tropes everywhere. They don't allow for nuance - we assume the lazy layabout will be late with everything - even though they may just really enjoy taking it easy at the weekend and are otherwise well put together and punctual.

The trope in reality also doesn't account for our uniqueness. The power of a trope in storytelling is it allows the writer to more easily convey the uniqueness of the story and the characters. But I'm not so sure tropes for the real world do the same. Life is messy, we make snap judgements of people and situations. There is no master storyteller weaving a well put together over the course of 2 hours or 500 pages - with the time and space to convert that nuance. We spot laziness, we assume lazy in about 30 seconds.

Breaking free from tropes is hard. During university I frequently broke things: I am tall with long clumsy limbs, and I am not particularly mindful. This became known as my "range of damage" - anything in that range was at danger from my flailing.

At first it was an amusing narrative, I suppose. Whenever anything broke in a 10 foot radius of me it was attributed to my "range of damage" even if it was in no way my fault.

Once a narrative is in place, we can't help but fit things into that narrative. People love patterns, we can create them from randomness, so we want to fit things into a narrative. That mug broke when Phil picked it up - well it makes more sense that it's was Phil's fault as it fits his "range of damage" narrative pretty well.

Eight years later, I have grown up, I have more control of my limbs, but the narrative stands. I still hear that phrase from time to time when things go awry (or nearly do), and perhaps will never escape it.

The really stifling thing about tropes though, is when we start to believe them ourselves, and live our lives as if there is some path, some narrative that we are supposed to follow.

This is especially insidious when the stories we believe to be true about ourselves are imposed on us by other people.

As children growing up we absorb expectations, stories, tropes, about the way we are and the way we should be. When we are forming the meaning of “who we are” it is easy for us to believe these stories and take them to be our own.

Growing up I built a story of who I am based not on my own "plan" but on the stories and expectations other people held about me. The introvert. The high achiever. The potential doctor or high flying finance person. Only recently did I realise that my identity and "plan" was almost entirely constructed by other people, and that every experience decision and mistake I've made was compared to and squeezed into that narrative - rather than just being a part of my own story.

Maybe it's time to discard narratives. Do we need a story or a plan for our lives? Sure we can have goals, and values, and things we care about - but doesn't having a predefined story restrict what we can be? The only story that really matters is the one that we live, and you can only know what it is once you've lived it.

I'll leave you with a really relevant quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

"Mountains like these and travelers in the mountains and events that happen to them here are found not only in Zen literature but in the tales of every major religion.

The allegory of a physical mountain for the spiritual one that stands between each soul and its goal is an easy and natural one to make.

Like those in the valley behind us, most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships.

Some travel into the mountains accompanied by experienced guides who know the best and least dangerous routes by which they arrive at their destination.

Still others, inexperienced and untrusting, attempt to make their own routes.

Few of these are successful, but occasionally some, by sheer will and luck and grace, do make it.

Once there they become more aware than any of the others that there’s no single or fixed number of routes.

There are as many routes as there are individual souls."