It is shocking how common it is in today’s artistic landscape for people to place so much emphasis on tropes. It doesn’t matter what medium they’re talking about; it can be movies, or books, or video games—anything so long as it tells a story. People distill everything into tropes, and obsess over the tropes stories share. Everyone seems to be stark-mad over whether or not something is cliché, and utterly convinced that, at the end of the day, X story and Y story are just “the same story”.
For those of you that may be unaware, a “trope” is the term for any concept that occurs within a story. For instance, a Damsel in Distress is a trope. So is a Big Bad Baddy of Badness, or a Sidekick, or a Comic Relief character. A cliché is simply a trope condemned as overused. Just about everything is a trope, or an example of a trope, because a trope is basically just any piece in the grand mosaic of Story.
Of course, tropes aren’t bad—they’re unavoidable, like atoms in a molecule. However, I am confused as to our obsession with tropes, and our emphasis upon them. Sure, tropes are there, but are they really even that important? Is it actually useful to think about our stories in the context of tropes? As a creator and a writer, I rarely think about my stories as assemblies of tropes, and I’ve never really heard another writer do so. If I have a comic relief character named Joey, I don’t think of him as my Comic Relief character, but as Joey. Why then should readers and critics think about him in any other way?
I was brought about to this question when reading On Fairy Stories, that inexpressibly excellent essay by J. R. R. Tolkien. In it, he says some very interesting, and fairly unpopular, things about the analysis of stories using what we would now call tropes (and I quote directly from an actual book I dug up and poured through without the mercy of find function or copy-paste):
“Such studies are, however, scientific (at least in intent); they are the pursuit of folklorists or anthropologists: that is of people using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence, or information, about matters in which they are interested. A perfectly legitimate procedure in itself – but ignorance or forgetfulness of the nature of a story (as a thing told in its entirety) has often led such inquirers into strange judgements. To investigators of this sort recurring similarities… seem specially important. So much so that students of folk-lore are apt to get off their own proper track, or to express themselves in misleading ‘shorthand’: misleading, in particular, if it gets out of their monographs into books about literature. They are inclined to say that any two stories that are built round the same folk-lore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are ‘the same stories’.
And Tolkien has a problem with this, as he elaborates:
Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature. It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.
And, after reading this, I had a sort of revelation. I’d never been one of those people to say two stories were somehow “the same story”—in fact that sort of thing always greatly bothered me—but, up till reading this again, I’d always sort of been a fan of tropes. To parse stories into little nice-sounding pieces and organize these pieces in scientific ways is quite a satisfying process. Tropes are wonderful as analytical tools, and, to be honest, they made me feel rather smart. But the trouble is, they’re just that—tools created for analysis, not creation or consumption. Tropes are scientific, not artistic.
And how can we, as people who claim to specialize in the criticism, analysis, and enjoyment of artistic work, make use of a system of dissection and classification that is so entirely unartistic? How can we anatomize stories into tropes that take the elements of said stories entirely out of their own context? How can we, as consumers of art, hope to benefit in examining stories by taking them to bits and leaving the actual story behind? How can we appreciate Gandalf if we just consider him another faceless Guide Character, or a stereotypical Old Wizard? How can we see films like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers for what they are we if just classify them as both stories about “teams of extraordinary people uniting to fight an enormous, unthinkable evil with a vague motive?”
And, most terribly of all, we consider this completely irrelevant and unfitting system as professional. As academic. We judge stories as assemblies of these unartistically and arbitrarily defined parts, as if the quality of paintings could be determined by the sort of paint they used rather than the use of this paint. How is this in any way useful or beneficial to us, as consumers of art; or to the stories, as artistic works?
Once again, I’m not trying to say tropes are necessarily bad—I just don’t see how they’re supposed to be useful. They make for fun analysis, but this sort of analysis does not serve either the consumption or the creation of art. Sure, you could argue that a knowledge of tropes could help a writer or creator in their work, and it could potentially be inspirational to them, but I’m not really sure this is the case as much as people seem to think. The best way to use tropes in writing is to think of ways to invert them—in other words, to make them less tropey. It’s like how the best compliment you can give fish is that it’s not fishy. If you don’t want things to be tropey, why even bother with tropes in the first place?
And then there’s the fact that the tropes stories contain don’t really mean anything, insofar as the story is concerned. Even the most overused clichés can be refreshing and excellent if they are properly pulled off within their own context, and the most new and fascinating ideas can be insufferable if poorly executed. Why then bother taking stories to bits in pursuit of tropes in the first place? What does it actually accomplish for us, as creators and enjoyers of art?
Personally, I am going to give tropes a wide berth in the future, if I can help it. I no longer see any value in analyzing stories outside of their own context, or pretending it’s impossible to be creative because all the tropes have already been used. Just because we’ve invented bricks doesn’t mean we can’t continue to make new buildings, and just because we have tropes doesn’t mean all our stories will inevitably be terminally similar.