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Top 5 Tropes in Writing

According to the internet's bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia, a trope is the common use of figurative language, via word, phrase, or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech.

Tropes are used a lot in literature, some even to the point of cliche. Let's count down some of the tropes that I feel haven't reached this point yet.


5. The Quest

Credit - Python (Monty) Pictures Limited

A fundamental part of almost every single story ever told, certainly for the fantasy genre - we kick off today’s countdown with The Quest. The Quest involves the hero of the story dragging the supporting cast along with them as they endeavour to retrieve the McGuffin, defeat the villain of the week, rescue the princess, or really any impossible task that they are charged with completing.

This trope is quite often closely linked with the Chosen One trope, which I find really annoying as it keeps the focus of the story on one character with the rest of the arguably more interesting world relegated to the bench.

I really enjoy how The Quest’s open-ended objective and long travel times has the potential for stock, generic characters to interact with each other, growing and developing as the story progresses. Really, I enjoy this trope more for the potential it brings out in its characters more than The Quest itself.

One of my favourite films with this trope has to be Monty Python’s, The Holy Grail. It takes the trope and the conventions that go along with this trope and subverts it in the classic Pythonesque style. The characters develop over time and the main quest for the grail falls to the wayside as the humour of the characters interacting with each other and the world becomes the focal point of the film.

4. The Drifter

Credit - Paramount Pictures

The Drifter. A lone wanderer. Going where ever the wind takes them. Generally rolling into town just hoping to make some money, keep their head down, and move onto the next town. The Drifter’s motivation is simple and relatable, making them a sympathetic hero when he’s inevitably pulled into the townspeople’s struggles against his will to fight the good fight and save them from themselves before disappearing from their lives forever.

Watching The Drifter change throughout the story going from someone who doesn’t care about anyone except himself to caring about the entire town and people that they’ve only known for a short period of time is one of my favourite character arcs.

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series centred heavily around this trope through the title character as each new novel has him hopping off a bus or strolling out of an airport with just a bag and himself and he always ends up saving the day, one small town after the other.

3. The Grizzled Detective

Credit - Warner Bros.

A staple of the film noir genre, the grizzled detective is my favourite part of any type of murder mystery media. Every time I think of noir, I think of this detective sitting alone at the bar with cigarette smoke filling the room as a fan slowly swirls it all around. The no-nonsense attitude and cynicism this character brings to the page or screen is something I always enjoy seeing, especially when they’re thrust into a situation that’s well out of their element.

The way they play off other characters in the media also helps endear them to me. My favourite is when they are paired with a more optimistic character as the friction that develops is so much fun to watch play out as things progress.

Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard, from Blade Runner, was the first type of character I saw that fit into the Grizzled Detective trope, and ever since then, this has been one of my favourite type of characters to enjoy. Of course, it definitely helps that Blade Runner is an awesome film.

2. The Reluctant Hero

Credit - Columbia Pictures

A hero fights for many things. Love, friendship, justice. They fight to ensure the weak are protected and the tyrannical are kept in check. The Reluctant Hero doesn’t fight for these things… the reluctant hero doesn’t even want to fight to begin with!

They’ll always try to resolve things with their words, just like their mother taught them. Of course, this never works, and they’ll be forced to give the bad guys a lesson in the school of hard knocks, specialising in knuckle sandwiches. The Reluctant Hero can also be a Tragic Hero as fate and destiny delivers emotional gut-punch after emotional gut-punch. What I like most about this trope is that the character never ends up constantly whining about their lot in life. They gather themselves, dust themselves off, and become a stronger person because of it.

Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid is a textbook example of this trope. He’s so good at being a Reluctant Hero that he only uses his deadly martial arts training to beat up some rascally teenagers…

man, the 80’s sure were a different time.

1. The Sympathetic Villain

Credit - Warner Bros.

The villain. Darkness to the light. Evil incarnate. The purest form of everything bad about people. These are some of the common descriptions used for villains. This trope comes along and asks the all-important question:

What if the villain wasn’t those things?

This is easily my favourite trope because it leads to a more nuanced character than just your token and generic “evil for evil’s sake” character. The sympathetic villain has layers to them, which doesn’t just mean a tragic backstory. They have depth, goals aspirations and reasons for their actions apart from it’s what they’re meant to do. They’re pretty much the hero but just one twist that pushed them down their current path. They feel more fleshed out and I’ve enjoyed more “bad guys” like this than any amount of moustache twirling evil doers.

Roy Batty from Blade Runner shows just how interesting a Sympathetic Villain can be. His final monologue at the end of the film conveys his sadness that comes with the awareness of his impending death. It shows that he experienced life, he didn’t merely exist in it. The final moments remain with you long after watching and I feel gives the main distinguishing feature of the Sympathetic Villain compared to more contemporary villains. The Sympathetic Villain experiences things. Classic villains don’t, their only purpose is for the hero to defeat them.


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