Clichés and Tropes: What They Are and How To Use Them

Cli•ché [klee-shey]


1. A trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea. That has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox.


Trope [trohp]


1. Devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.



Clichés and tropes are both necessary and something that creators try their hardest to break or overcome. People from both sides of the coin—audience and producer—crave originality and yet they love their love chevrons, zero to hero stories and bad boys. It’s a very love/hate relationship that we, the people, have going on with our entertainment. As I mentioned three already I will be talking about those as well as white knights and damsels in distress and how we both love them and hate them—and how to use them correctly if you’re going to use them!

Love chevrons: we see them everywhere and girls have expected that if the main character is a female, she has two guys who are fighting over her and she needs to choose. Now. It’s life or death. We’ve seen them in the Twilight Series, The Hunger Games Trilogy and in Pretties, the second book of the Uglies series. These are books written from three different authors. Twilight, as we all know, has Bella who is torn between her vampire love, Edward, and her werewolf best friend, Jacob. This went on for the better part of the series (four books in total), and it got the audience riled up to the point where they were choosing “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob”. In The Hunger Games it never reached that point, but there was still strife between those that felt Katniss should love Peeta and those that believed she and Gale were meant to be (which lasted only about two of the three books (there was more focus put on the rebellion instead of the love chevron). In Pretties, Tally Youngblood has to choose between David and Zane, although this only lasts for about half of the book in actuality. Still, teen romance is riddled with this trope and many are starting to avoid anything that even hints at having a love chevron in it while others are addicted and that’s all they will read.


So how do you approach a love chevron correctly? Cautiously, very cautiously. You don’t want to overwhelm your readers and have them cringing because the entire story revolves around it, yet ignoring one that might be beneficial to you as an author would be a bad idea. If people are caught up in it, if it adds to the characters and their development or the plot in some way—by all means use it, but don’t make it the main part of the story. People don’t always like drama and love chevrons are dramatic, so be careful with this device.

Zero to hero is what you see in many stories: Classic Superheroes (Spiderman), The Night Angel Trilogy, and even in the beloved Lord of the Rings. Spiderman, for instance, was a stereotypical nerd in highschool until he was bitten by a spider and suddenly had all of these really frickin’ cool super powers. In the Night Angel trilogy the main character (who ends up going by many names) literally starts out on the streets and once he apprentices with an assassin he quickly rises up to surpass even his master. In Lord of the Rings you have four unwitting hobbits who go off on an adventure that turns each one of them into a hero for the ages. All three of these examples are amazing pieces of work, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some flops.

Especially if the zero to hero isn’t explained in some way (magically helped, natural character development, science on the verge of being magic, etc.) this device ends up not being a winner. The problem with this trope is when it doesn’t make sense, or everyone in that story is a zero to hero all around the same time. This is best used if you know how to pace a story and explain a change with enough detail that no one’s asking questions.

Bad boys are a clichéd character type. They are usually clad in leather or go shirtless for the majority of their scenes. Their morals and values are questionable and seem to live their life in a grey area. Damon from the Vampire Diaries, Sawyer in Lost and Ezio in the Assassin Creed videogames are all classics in this regard. And yet all three can also be considered ‘ladies men’, as women tend to flock to them. So how can you use this character type to your advantage? Need a dark, brooding, morally questionable character—we’ve got just the guy for you! No seriously, if you have a part that needs to cover the morally grey area, this is your best bet.


White Knights, on the other hand, are virtuous and tend to ride in and save the day. It’s the hero complex, but only with women. Pretty much every Disney Prince is a White Knight, as are Robin Hood and Arthur in Arthurian Legend. Can these characters be useful? Certainly they can! If your story could use a character who must always swoop in and save the girl, then you have your trope served on a silver platter. Clearly it is a well used character type, and there are no real instances of it going wrong—maybe just parodied. Enchanted, for one, parodied this character type with the well-meaning Prince, but he ended up with only being a white knight and having practically no other qualities.

The final trope I’m going to talk about is the damsel in distress. Most will say this is outdated and with the feminist movement I would have to agree. Princess Peach from the Mario Brothers games, Anastasia in 50 Shades of Grey and Ann in King Kong are strong examples of this character type. Are they desirable? Only to boost a white knight’s ego. Of course, you’re talking to a feminist, so of course I’m going to say that. They can be useful in spurring a story along, but ultimately the folly that authors fall into is their character being too shallow and not getting any helping of character development. If you are going to use it, my suggestion is to then broaden out the character so she (the damsel) gets to start protecting herself and saving herself.


Mostly these tropes are exactly that: overused and under-appreciated. However, if the device is used correctly in your work it could be an amazing journey from start to finish. Remember that some people might hate that clichéd character or love chevron, but there will be another person out there that can’t get enough of it and eats up anything that falls into that category.


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