The Trope Police

Hello, friends! How’s the writing going?

Every so often on Twitter I offer some Query Trends, which are multiple instances of oddly specific things I see in my queries. Lately I’ve been thinking of trends on a larger scale. Not just genre trends, which come and go and come back again seemingly at random, but rather writing trends that I officially see as cliche.

So, what am I seeing that I’d love to see go away (or, at the very least, become severely lessened)?

 

Teenage girls who are super into photography.

Putting aside that the majority of “photography” is being done on iPhones with Snapchat and Instagram filters, let’s talk about this very impractical and expensive hobby that every teenage girl (and some boys!), regardless of background or economic status, seem to have. And not just a vague interest in photography – a full-on I will buy this sophisticated camera with various lenses and walk around with them all the time obsession. I see this in YA most often, but I also see it in Adult fiction with teen characters and, more recently, in the TV show Casual and the movie, Boyhood.

I’ll repeat how expensive of a hobby this is. It’s really expensive. These characters aren’t settling for point-and-shoot digital cameras. They have some serious equipment and in a lot of cases, these are characters specified as decidedly not rich. How are they paying for all of this?

Expenses aside, this hobby often feels forced. Has the “wannabe writer” cliche played out so photography was next “artsy” career path in line? It feels only mildly realistic and for as many teens legitimately interested in technique, I would guess that far more take selfies with friends at parties and call it a day.

We get it; your main character sees the world through a unique lens. But unless they’re Veronica Mars, and photography also comes in handy in their secret side job, consider that you’re possibly using a cliche for no real reason.

 

Powerful women as a technicality (or gimmick).

Regardless of what happens in November, I hope Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will help make a trope I hate finally go awayand that is the Female Character Falling Ass Backwards Into Power. My literal examples are all TV-related:

  • Veep, Male president resigns, female VP rises
  • Commander In Chief, Male president dies, female VP rises
  • Battlestar Gallactica, Everyone in the line of succession dies, female Sec. of Education becomes president (and is amazing, of course, but still)

Seriously, did no one think a woman could just, ya know, get elected? All by herself. Can’t we have even a fictional world where the people chose a woman voluntarily and not because a male option was dead? (But I digress…)

In not-so-literal examples, some trends I’ve noticed in submissions are:

  • Female athlete who learned everything from her dad, who may or may not be the coach of her team too.
  • Battle of the Sexes science fairs or class president elections.
  • Propelled into the plot because of a missing father.
  • Propelled into the plot because her father is the doctor/detective/scientist directly involved in the story.

In each of these stories, the girl is in the shadow of a more powerful man, and then – and only then – can she find her inner strength. It takes an “anything you can do, I can do better” approach to feminism that feels outdated.

I’d love to see a female athlete who trains with her Olympic medal winning mother. Or a lawyer (or future lawyer) who was inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Where’s my teenage Leslie Knope? Where’s my Katniss as an adult? Give me someone who isn’t just propelled into the plot, but drives the plot.

 

The “wild” best friend.

If Writer-Sarah may admit something up front – I’ve totally written the wild best friend story. Most of us who grew up to become writers probably had the wild best friend. I actually love the wild best friend. From Rayanne Graff in My So-Called Life to Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The complexities of friendship, in general, are always interesting to me. That said…

I’ve been noticing two different types, in published books and in even more manuscripts, usually dependent on gender:

  • Girls/Women: The friend who lives without fear of consequence. She says what she’s thinking, she flirts, she’s reckless, and she’s probably a little damaged. She pushes the main character to live life to the fullest and go beyond her comfort zone.
  • Boys/Men: The horndog. The slacker. He makes sexist comments, he gets high, he thinks the main character just needs to relax. He’s the id to the main character’s ego.

Both are cautionary tales. Both serve as windows and mirrors for the main character.

So if I love these types of stories so much, why am I sick of them?

Because they’re all starting to sound the same. In YA, it’s the best friend pulling the main character into a plot, teaching them things about life. In Adult, it’s the best friend who remains so in-name-only even though it’s obvious the main character outgrew them. They become a symbol for The Road Not Taken as opposed to being actual people.

Why else am I sick of these friends?

Because I am SO ready for the “wild best friend” to be our main character! They are clearly the more interesting friend. They deserve more than teaching the main character a valuable lesson, or making the main character feel better about their “boring” life. They deserve to have their own story told.

***

I’ve said before (here) that it’s OK if you’re not completely original. Premises are always going to sound similar; it’s how you interpret them and make them your own that counts. So, sure, a few tropes might slip in and no one will care if the rest of the book is amazing and unique. Cliches aren’t the worst thing in the world, but for a debut author they can be the difference between an offer and a rejection.

 

(OK, if the only thing holding me back in a manuscript is an overused character trope, I’ll probably opt for having a conversation with the author or asking for an R&R.)

 

Keep writing, friends! When your photography-loving main character goes to search for her missing photojournalist dad and takes her wild best friend with her, remember we’re still rooting for you! But maybe just tone it down a bit. 🙂

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11 thoughts on “The Trope Police

  1. I really enjoy your feminist perspective, Sarah.

    On the topic of the powerful women as a technicality, I’ve heard that subtrope you describe where a man ‘makes’ a woman linked back to the Pygmalion myth, in which a man literally marries an ivory sculpture and basically gives birth to a woman. Now I see it everywhere: The Winter’s Tale, Annie Hall, The Phantom of the Opera, Titanic (Jack helps Rose speak out and assert her independence from her suffocating family and fiance), The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Bernard’s play of course, Pretty Woman (in which creator and created are united at the end).

    In a story like Million Dollar Baby, the thing that disappoints me the most is that audiences and reviewers don’t seem to realise that the character arc happens to the Clint Eastwood character, not to the Hilary Swank character. He’s the one who goes from a miserable git to a somewhat redeemed man — Swank’s character changes in circumstance (from alive to dead, another problematic trope of course), but she starts and ends the story basically the same determined person. Basically, I’m adding to what you’ve already said with: It’s almost impossible to write a story *about* a girl/woman made by a man without the story actually being about the man.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your insights, Sarah! I’m also getting a little bit tired of hearing about the “strong woman,” but I hadn’t thought her out in quite the same way as you. I hadn’t noticed women being propelled by male idols. It’s an interesting perspective!

    What irks me about the “strong woman” is that she is always bending gender roles. She’s a high powered scientist or kick ass cop or executive lawyer. It’s as if we’re saying “you can be a strong woman…but only if you act like a man.”

    I would love to see more celebration of strong women who happen to enjoy singing their kids lullabies or cooking delicate recipes or practicing ballet. Mrs. Darling, in Peter Pan, springs to mind. She is all feminine grace, yet JM Barrie makes it quite clear that she can’t be kept under any one’s thumbs (with her romantic mind full of hidden boxes and the kiss in the right hand corner of her mouth, which no one can get). What a woman!

    If you don’t mind, I’d love to re-blog this post! I very rarely re-blog posts, but I think my followers would enjoy your insight.

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  3. I agree about the wild best friend. They’re in everything I pick up lately, especially movies, and I’d rather hear their story.

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  4. Good point, Sarah–if the “wild best friend” is more interesting that the MC, maybe you have the wrong protagonist for your novel. Great thought. 🙂

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  5. This made me laugh. 🙂 Thank you for your insight! I actually was not aware of the teen-photographer trope.
    I am curious: What is your take on using dreams to convey meaning/foreshadow? I have heard a number of agents list this as a peeve and a turn-off. My own opinion is a bit biased, since I have used dreams this way in the past.

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      1. What if they are memories coming back? Or is that *cringes* even more of a trope?

        Thank you for replying! It is really interesting to hear about this from someone who goes through (likely hundreds, if not more) manuscripts a year.

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