Tropes aren’t always a bad thing, are they? Like racial or gender-based stereotypes, there is usually a nugget (or volume) of truth behind them, and many times they are true for a large part of the population, but they might not be true for individuals.
So how can we use tropes in our stories? Like stereotypes, you can embrace them, but realize that they are just broad strokes. Individuals aren’t always going to follow them to the letter.
Stereotypes can be used as somewhat of a shortcut, allowing the reader to fill in all the information about a character without having to go into depth on that particular person’s history. You’ll see this done all the time in tv shows or movies.
A girl is at a bar, some dude-bro comes up trying to buy her a drink, she refuses. He mouths off to her and leaves. You don’t have to know anything else about this guy to know he’s a douchebag and it wouldn’t surprise you if he a) tries to get handsy with her later, b) tries to pick a fight (usually drunken) with another guy later, or c) is waiting outside to catcall her. Douchebags, right? But done well, you don’t have to go into this dude’s history of why he’s this way, we all know someone like this, and we can fill in the blank. You can give just enough information about a character, then let the reader fill in the blanks based on the zeitgeist about that trope or stereotype. As long as he’s not a main character and is only on screen/page long enough to give something for the MC to bump into along the way, it’s usually pretty harmless and easy to use a trope like this.
Big black woman who says “mmm, hmm” and likes painting her nails?
Uptight career woman who’s trying to have it all in NYC?
Deadbeat divorced dad late to pick up his daughter?
Flamboyantly gay stylish dude?
The teenage boy who is trying to peek into the girls locker rooms?
All stereotypes, but I’ve seen each of these done well, and done badly.
Let’s take the “all divorced dads are deadbeats” stereotype, and compare it to a common trope we see in tv shows and movies.
Are some divorced dads deadbeats? Sure, and there were probably enough deadbeat dads out there to start up the stereotype, such that it’s become a fairly common joke on sitcoms and movies. It’s easy to do because almost everyone knows the stereotype, so it’s very simple to setup a scenario and introduce a character with a passing reference to her dad. Let’s say we meet Suzie, who’s sitting outside the school waiting for a parent to come pick her up. Maybe she has a conversation with a teacher about her dad coming to pick her up. We’ve been introduced to the deadbeat dad trope. Would it surprise you if a frazzled man drives up in a beat-down car? Where would you expect him to live? Some apartment complex with no furniture and a lot of other divorced and sad dads?
None of this is surprising. What would be surprising is if the dad drives up in a sports car, with cool shades and a nice suit. He was only late because he was helping someone else fix their tire, or he got caught in unexpected traffic. Going with the second scenario is harder to do, because the character practically writes himself if you stick with the stereotype. There’s not really anything “wrong” with using the stereotype, but you can do better, and good writing demands pushing the boundaries and not being lazy.
This actually sparks an idea in my head, and I think I might run with this for a few days, specially since I’m going to be in Austin for almost a week soon and I’ll need to have some blog posts pre-written. How about we take a random trope each day and hash it out in a good and bad way?