Ah, tropes. They’re hated and despised the world over, and in my experience, particularly in fantasy. I’ve hears some people say they avoid fantasy altogether because of all the tropes.
A trope is “a word, phrase, or image used in a new and different way in order to create an artistic effect.” Source
Well, that wasn’t very helpful so let’s get into it. If you head over to TV Tropes, you’ll find exhaustive list of tropes from almost all genres in almost any category imaginable. If your work is dependent on avoiding all the tropes you can think of, you’re going to get discouraged fast.
In my opinion (and it’s just that, an opinion), if every work of fiction was hellbent on avoiding every trope ever created and being 100% original, than the world would be full of dreadfully boring stories. Tropes are tropes for a reason: they work.
The truth is, there’s nothing original under the sun and anyone who produces creative work usually finds this out at some point, to their dismay or relief. All art develops, reacts to, or expands upon what came before. Theatre would not be what it is today without Shakespeare or the Greeks. Fantasy would not be what it is now without Tolkien.
Harry Potter is full of tropes (chosen one, classic good vs. bad.) but is still a compelling, massively successful, and goos story. A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones has them as well, “subverted” at times, but they’re there. (Jon Snow has a mysterious past, Arya is a rebellious noble girl, etc.) Again, the tropes are worked in such a way that tell a good story. Disney and Pixar do this all the time in their films, but they’re wonderful and loved by all ages.
The key to storytelling is to do just that. Tell a compelling story, trope haters be damned. They need to be executed in such a way that is compelling, that works for the story and moves the audience.
So, you have some options here. Ignore tropes and just write what you want, try to tweak and change them as much as you like, or a combination of both. I’m personally a fan of the third.
So how can we tweak tropes in a way that are compelling but aren’t forced?
I’ll be vulnerable here and use one of the characters I’m working on as an example. My character is the daughter of a Lord and Lady, so she’s technically noble. However, her family isn’t part of the top tier of nobility, they’re more of what we might consider state senators in regards to politics. She wants to be an adventurer, but her parents want her to study politics and rule in order to marry to a higher lord and improve their station. They lock her in a tower with a bunch of scholars so she can study.
She has a love interest who she waits to come get her from the tower. When he writes to say that he’s chosen to end the relationship, she gets fed up and escapes the tower herself.
This is not the whole story, in fact this is more her backstory, but I’ll carry on to the point anyway.
So what do we have? We have a young noble woman locked in a tower. Sounds familiar. But, in this very basic example, she escapes herself on her own free will and desire. Her love interest doesn’t train really hard to become the #BestKnightEvrrrr and come rescue her.
That’s a basic example, but you can see my point. Tweak the tropes in a way that work for what you want to write. The rest of the story wouldn’t happen if she just sat around waiting.
So what else can we do? Let’s do some brainstorming. We’ll use fairytales in an attempt to have more universal examples.
Let’s use Sleeping Beauty, the tale has been warped from the original dozens of times, and has several variants (this isn’t a bad thing!), but let’s see what more can we do. We’ll use the more Disney version for our purposes.
Instead of keeping with the tale, an easy tweak is to switch the genders. That’s interesting enough. Have the woman fight her way to the tower and rescue Sleeping Handsome after several years of training and what not.
But let’s take it further. For example, maybe there’s a practical reason Sleeping Beauty (or Aurora, whatever) is put in the tower to sleep. Maybe the “evil” witch is the only one to somehow find out that Beauty has some power that will destroy the world if she uses it. It’s too risky to keep her awake, as she’s a danger to everyone, so the witch puts her to sleep for the sake of everyone. The King and Queen don’t want this for whatever reason (they don’t believe the witch, they need Beauty to marry to make a political alliance when she is of age, etc.) so they get the fairies to try and stop. It doesn’t completely stop it, but Beauty pricks her finger and sleeps anyway. As time passes, the legend is forgotten, and every eligible bachelor thinks it would be rad to rescue to lady and go down in history for doing so. She’s awoken, unaware of her power, and the characters have to figure out a way to stop impending doom, whatever that means.
Now, the movie Maleficent already did a good job of revamping and reworking the Sleeping Beauty story (that’s my opinion, I liked the movie). But look at what we did in 5 minutes of thought. It’s not Nobel Prize worthy, but it’s something. Maybe it’s been done before, maybe it hasn’t. The point still stands that tropes, cliches, and classics can be reworked and done to make them new, but still compelling.
The film, Maleficent, is a good example of what could be done to rework old stories: Tell them from a new perspective. Tell Beauty and the Beast from Gaston’s perspective (I’ve never seen the movie, so I know little on this.) Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s a good writing exercise for a few reasons: It opens up new opportunities and possibilities and it hones storytelling skills.
So here’s my parting advice: Embrace tropes and cliches, rework them, revamp them. Don’t hate them, don’t avoid them. Don’t try too hard to be “original” because you won’t be. You can tell a new, great, compelling tale no matter what.
In theatre (and other artistic fields as well) we use this phrase a lot: Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.