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Tropes, Cliches, And The Genres That Love Them

stack of books. tropes by genre. romance, sci-fi, historical fiction, horror, dystopian, fantasy. illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy


Cliches—Relatable, But Bad

A cliche is "a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of orginal thought." Maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, but I'm gonna be a loose cannon and open this can of worms: sometimes we need cliches; they ain't all bad. My lack of original thought has been confirmed, or maybe I'm just thinking outside the box.

By nature a cliche is negative, but much like head hopping, a cliche can be unmade through the opinion that it is not a cliche. That it is not just commonplace but exactly what is needed, an unoriginal phrase or idea that is shared by all of us. It's relatable.

Tropes—A Cliche With A Top Hat And A Monacle

Tropes are complicated cliches. A cliché in a top hat, holding a monocle and smoking a pipe. Stare at it too long, and you realize it's just another bloke with more gilding.

Most stories will use some kind of trope or tropes, there are so many of them, and at this point, they are unavoidable. A trope in itself is a common or reoccurring theme, motif, or characterization used in storytelling. They tend to be larger story elements rather than single cliched lines. That they are larger gives them more room for the all-important original, though. Sure, it's a story about a chosen one, orphaned by who the prophecy foretells will defeat the big bad evil, but he's also a boy wizard attending a school called Hogwarts. Unoriginal, zested up with the original.

Some media actively uses tropes to inform their story, breaking the fourth wall with a wink and nod and direct reference to the trope it is dipping into.

Tropes and The Genres That Love Them

Some tropes are downright offensive and frowned upon, and some are expected. Some are offensive and yet expected. It depends on the genre of book. Tropes and book genres go hand in hand. No one is overly surprised when they stumble upon the arranged marriage trope in a historical romance or fantasy book. Still, it's not as expected in a contemporary mystery novel or thriller. The happily ever after trope is basically a requirement for every romance novel and is near-to-required in a lot of fantasy and YA books.

I relied heavily on Reddit for these lists, so many thanks to all those tireless heroes of writing advice and questions. Historical fiction tropes were admittedly a struggle. And many on my list are more akin to plot holes rather than tropes and could even be stretched to flat-out inconsistencies.

Tropes Loved By All Genres

  • Abnormally skilled teens

  • As the prophecy foretold

  • Damage ideation—specialness resulting directly from abuse

  • Incompetent adults, all of them, every single adult is incompetent

  • Mary-Sue/ Gary Sue

  • Misunderstandings that could be solved with a single conversation

  • Not like other girls

  • The chosen one

  • The refrigerated women

  • The reluctant hero/ heroine/ themeroine (Personally, I blame the refusal of the call for this trope)

  • Tragic backstory

  • Ugly duckling to swan through a makeup over

Horror Tropes

Illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy. Typewriter. book genres. horror. blood running down a page.

  • 'Sexy' writing style with a brutal storyline

  • Animal killings

  • Everyone dies except the hero/ heroine/ themerione

  • Fake-out death

  • Haunted house

  • Isolation

  • It was all a dream

  • Never-ending night

  • Phones that don't work for x reasons

  • Small-town horror

  • The real monsters were the ones we made along the way

  • Twist endings

  • Unreliable narrator

Mystery Tropes

Illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy. Typewriter. book genres. mystery. torch. light and dark

  • Alcoholic detective

  • Cynical detective with a dark past

  • Cynical detective with a heart of gold

  • Energetic go-getter rookie

  • Female murder victims murdered in brutal ways

  • Incompetent police

  • Innocent characters that lie for no reason

  • Mentally ill/ LBGTQ+ did it

  • Refrigerated women

  • Sherlock Holmes in a different hat

  • The best friend sidekick

  • The butler did it

  • Twist ending

  • Unreliable narrator

Romance Tropes

Illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy. Typewriter. book genres. romance. hearts

  • Abuse as love

  • Arranged marriage

  • Bad boy with a heart of gold

  • Clumsy female protagonist

  • Enemies to lovers

  • Fated love

  • Love at first lust

  • Love at first sight

  • Not like other girls

  • The love triangle

  • The ugly ducking character transforming into a swan (the makeover scene)

Science Fiction Tropes

Illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy. Fantasy. Typewriter. book genres. rocket. sci-fi

  • Abandoned Earth for unspecified/ vague ‘reasons’

  • AI—Robots have souls to

  • AI—What is love, strange human?

  • Amnesia/ memory loss, so the main character has to have the story explained to him/ her/ them

  • Analogies for social/political/economic paradigms

  • Call a rabbit a "Smeerp"—Taking an existing word and making it sound more 'spacey.'

  • Convenient communication device that lets everyone understand each other regardless of language

  • Descriptive/ flowery language that is vague and explains nothing

  • Earth humans are the best and coolest; everyone else sucks. 'Merica!

  • Everyone, everywhere, regardless of space and time, speaks the same language

  • Evil government overlords

  • Female characters that lack any depth

  • Good versus evil

  • Guns, but more modern, but still basically guns

  • Magic masquerading as unexplained advancements in technology

  • Space aristocracy

  • Stakes that are too big (the word is ending, the universe is ending, evil shall reign eternal)

  • The doodad that does cool tech stuff but isn't explained

Fantasy Tropes

Illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy. Typewriter. book genres. fantasy. dragon. octopus

  • Abuse as character building/ specialness

  • Age gap 'romances' (4000-year-old vampire/ wizard 'falls in love' with a teenager)

  • Damsel in distress/ heroic man

  • Elemental magic

  • Fantasy masquerading as romance

  • Good versus evil

  • Idealized poverty

  • Magic has died out

  • Magic tied to emotions

  • Male/ female friendships are forbidden without romance

  • Medieval setting

  • New found power discovered at the EXACT right moment to win the day

  • Noble/ special bloodlines (frequently related to magical ability)

  • Orphaned hero/ dead parents

  • Royal Bastard

  • Secret Heir

Dystopian Tropes

Illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy. Typewriter. book genres. dystopian. cracked typewriter

  • Evil/ corrupt governments/ leaders (apparently, there is no future except one where the government is even suckier than the current ones)

  • Good versus evil

  • Incompetent adults

  • Love triangles

  • Minimal world building

  • Multiple POVs (usually third person limited with chapters written in different perspectives)

  • Prophecies

  • Ragtag group of teens

  • Romance tropes dialed up to 11

  • Romanticized hardship

  • Soulmates

  • Specialness/ Chosen one

  • Teenage led revolution

  • Ugly duckling to swan through a makeup over

  • Unrealistically over-developed skillset (fighting, magic, leadership, hunting, etc.)

Historical Fiction Tropes

Illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy. Typewriter. book genres. historical fiction

  • Arranged marriage

  • Everyone is clean

  • Horses/ carriages are cars that use hay instead of petrol

  • Idiot female protagonist

  • It's romantic, not gross

  • Modern standards of beauty applied to historical stories

  • Not like other boys

  • Not like other girls

  • Plucky female protagonist

  • What racism? Never heard of it.

  • What sexism? Never heard of it


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