Tropes, Archtypes, would you use them, avoid them, or try to twist and turn them?


Well-Known Member
Jul 26, 2021
Another one of the issues I have with "Internet Critics" is that a lot of them just complain endlessly (almost) about a story using tropes and archetypes. Usually along the complaint is along the lines of "We've seen this before, give us something new."

One thing I did like about Joss Wheedons work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was how often he was willing to subvert certain conventions, like having a powerful character called "The Judge" (whose apparently invulnerable to the weapons Buffy usually has access to) built up to be the Big Bad before he was resurrected only to be killed off by using a rocket launcher, a weapon neither Buffy nor the Judge have any real experience with and one the Judge wasn't made to counter. Usually a character like him would end up taking over the role of boss from the other bad guys, Angelus and Spike and Dru pretty much continue to play the boss role for the rest of the season.

But lets say you have something like the archetype of the drunk Sherif of a mining town, not able to operate until he's had his liquid breakfast, or lunch or supper to help him sleep. If you picture a character like that (or any other archetype or trope for that matter) and you just know your going to get nothing but criticism that might harm the sales of the book, would you still use that despite the "critics" complaints, avoid it, twist it have some other result (he's really drinking water he just wants people to think he's drunk) or try to do something else?

Or should we just ignore this kind of criticism and just write what we want to write, critics be damned?
Since the actual probability of me becoming a successful author subject to wide ranging unsolicited criticism is so small, I just write what I enjoy and think is a good story.

If it turns out to be an endless string of tropes and cliches, so what? I enjoy it!
JS Wiig makes a good point. Most of us won't experience a lot of internet critics, so why shape our work around them.

Even if we are ambitious, we should take them with a pinch of salt. They ae not always consistent, they are not always influential, they are not always portraying what audiences think and even when they are, they mightn't be your audience. A quick look at some of the heavy hitters around usually reveals a lot of different audiences out there, usually with different tolerances for different tropes.

If a writer is bent on commercial success, if they want to write the book equivalent of Four-quadrant movies (that is to say, movies appealing to both over and under 25s, and men and women (actually why are writers bent on commercial success messing around with fiction rather than screenplays anyway)), then in regards to tropes, archetypes et al, they are well advised to remember Hollywood's maxim of

Same But Different

Old but new. Familiar with a twist. Etc.etc. Or basically, take the archetypes we all know and love, and do something unexpected and exciting somewhere with them. Avoiding archetypes entirely is, even if possible, a bad commercial move. Ditto serving them with little thought. Find the happy medium.

But, in general, writing what the hell you want and worrying about it afterwards is a good rule.
Make your characters fully rounded with a mixed basket of characteristics. Two dimensional characters are more inclined to trope.
Complex characters still can, of course, but it is less obvious because there's, you know, more behavioural options. :unsure:
In order to make a story understandable, it must reflect common ideas and concepts that the reader already understands. To be interesting, the story needs to have a few elements that are unexpected. If a reader is overly aware of the commonplace, then the likely issue was not enough engagement with the unique. Go ahead and use common approaches and descriptions and save both the writer's brainpower and the readers for a few items of true interest.

By the way, the actual definitions of trope and archetype sound far more benign than the way they are sometimes used by critics.
By the way, the actual definitions of trope and archetype sound far more benign than the way they are sometimes used by critics.


Cliché is a better term than tropes. Archetypes are different inasmuch as they’re far more iconic. I often wonder how many reviewers or crits understand the difference between trope and cliché.
Or should we just ignore this kind of criticism and just write what we want to write, critics be damned?
Just get on and write your story the way you want to write it, otherwise you are turning yourself into a write-by-committee entity.
An excellent example of how to use tropes cliches and all things we've seen before in a new way is Robert Cargill's Day Zero. While all of it is familiar, it's *how* the familiar has been warped, modernised or seen from a different perspective that makes the novel a superbly fast read.

Write what you love, because you love it. The rest will come.
Yeah, well it depends on how shallow the trope/stereotype is. The thing with these elements is that they're frequent, but they're frequent because they work.

So @millymollymo has a point: The "twist" therefore comes as a key element to give these molds a unique personality. Character arcs may give a stereotyped character an opportunity to change, evolve and finally trascend the mold it was born from.

In terms of archetypes, the problem I have with them is that, if not managed properly, the character may become just a tool to serve the purpose of its archetype (rightful king that teaches the MC how to become a man, or the pure woman that turns a bad boy into a brave and righteous man), so it becomes rather predictable.
I think this whole trope-spotting thing is a bit of a waste of time, at least in terms of assessing quality. My feeling towards it is "Yes, you've spotted that character X is a 'loyal sidekick' or whatever, but so what? Is this book any good?" No book avoids using recognisable aspects, as they're the building-blocks of a story. The question to my mind is how well they are used.

The answer seems to me to be to write each character well and not to fall back on thin stereotypes. It's possible to start with a weak stereotype like "brooding tough guy" and then answer the questions of why he broods, whether he does anything else, what it takes to cheer him up and so on, which will make him much more believable.

Also, a lot of people on the internet know nothing about what they're talking about, especially on places like Youtube, and some of them are political crackpots using "criticism" to push their own cranky agendas. They're best avoided or ignored.
The things people see and recognise as tropes and archetypes are visible and recognisable precisely because they are popular. I would even go so far as to say they are the comfort foods of readers. And I'm all in favour of feeding readers what they want.

I think many new writers believe this a bad thing and try to self-consciously subvert the familiar instead of embracing it, but, then again, I am an old hack, so what do I know?
I’m halfway through Max Brooks’ World War Z and it is chalk-full of tropes and stereotyped characterizations. It’s sold millions of copies and is critically acclaimed. So who knows?
Reading through the comments here, and on other threads has certainly been an eye opener, as a lot of people are basically on the same page on most subjects, namely ignore "Internet Critics" for one :D It's got me thinking about how critics, especially internet critics just dump on everything and declare that a story is bad because of X Y or Z and the bad guy has a limp or a lisp or both or likes a colour the "critic" hates and is therefore a bad character for any or all of those reasons.

And that has reminded me of an episode of "Murder She Wrote" I was watching a while back, where the killer is a TV critic of a stage show Jessica Fletcher was helping put with, and we see video recordings of some of his "reviews" all of which are scathing and nasty and has nothing to do with the stage show itself, just his own vendetta against the cast and crew. I know that character was probably based on any number of real world critics up to that point (and god, the 80's feel so long ago now) but it seems to me a lot of internet critics are still very much in the mold that that character came out of.

This place is definitely a good place to learn from.

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