Tropes are unavoidable in the world of genre fiction. In fact, readers expect a certain level of “tropiness” in storytelling. However, one could also argue that the reader doesn’t want to notice the trope. If it smacks them in the face, well, they might just toss the book across the room, labeling it derivative nonsense.
Not sure what a trope is? Trope = a common or overused theme or device.
Such as: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl back. Practically every romance novel or romantic comedy written in the twentieth century had a bit of this trope in it. Sure, it may vary. Girl loses boy instead or Girl tells boy to shove off, but the basis of all romance is providing the reader with their Happily Ever After.
One of the most common tropes EVER is the orphan child destined/thrust into greatness or, at the very least, part of an interesting event. With this one trope, I could be describing the hero or heroine from hundreds, if not thousands, of fantasy, middle grade, science fiction, literary fiction, comic books and a zillion movies.
Don’t believe me? The devil is in the details. And as a writer, the details and inner life you give the character is what is going to elevate your story beyond the usual cliches.
For argument’s sake, let’s make the orphan a boy. But, this isn’t enough. Let’s give him more, shall we?
- Cruel relatives. If I give him a wand and send him to a wizard school – poof – Harry Potter. If he enters a giant magical peach – James and the Giant Peach. Or forget magic – his own sister (basically all the women around him) treat him badly and he comes into his fortune because he helped an escaped convict – Pip (Great Expectations)
- Caring relatives. Raise him on a world with two suns and hand him a light saber – Luke Skywalker. Or, he’s an alien from outer space, his planet long dead and behold – Superman! Or his parents are gunned down in alley before his eyes. Bam! Batman! If he lives in a hole in the ground and is bequeathed a magic ring – Frodo Baggins
- No relatives. Poor or living on his own, surviving with his wits – Oliver Twist, Huckleberry Finn, David Copperfield, James Bond.
- Animal relatives. Throw in a jungle and some apes – Tarzan is born. Or, if you like historical myth, two orphans raised by a she-wolf – Romulus and Remus – founders of Rome. Oh, but wait, if the animals talk then it could be Mowgli from A Jungle Book.
And don’t think there aren’t any orphan girls. Let’s not forget: Cinderella, Heidi, Dorothy Gale, Snow White, Pollyanna, Jane Eyre, Anne Shirley, Little Orphan Annie.
Oh my! The list goes on and on!
One thing these characters have in common besides their orphan status – these are all considered classic characters either in film or literature (sometimes both). The trope was merely the stepping off point to their greatness. Their creators went beyond the cliché. Made us care about these characters and turn that page (or watch the movie again and again).
So, a word to the wise. Go beyond the trope. Really, your readers will thank you for it.