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What is a character trope?
As I was researching the subject of character tropes, I narrowed down the definition of a trop to be as follows: a trope is something done so much that it becomes common. It’s something that is easily identified by the average person. In a nutshell, it’s a stereotype.
For example, if I tell you I’m writing a Regency about a rake, those of you familiar with Regencies will probably come up with an image of a hero with low moral standing. He probably sleeps around with multiple women, gambles, drinks, and “lives it up” on a nightly basis.
Another example, if I tell you that a hero in my contemporary romance is a geek, you probably have an image of someone who loves the pursuit of knowledge, is a virgin (and probably hasn’t dated much, if at all), is socially awkward, and most likely wears glasses. The trope not only conjures up personality traits but physical ones as well.
So when I talk about a character trope, I’m talking about using stereotypes to your advantage.
Why do we have character tropes?
The purpose of a character trope is to give your prospective readers an idea of whether or not your story is a good fit for them. Not everyone wants to read about a certain character. I know women who love the bad boy trope in romances. Me? I hate them. Give me the good guy over the bad boy any day. So if I see a romance with a bad boy trope, I won’t pick it up. Does this mean the bad boy trope is bad? No. It just means it’s not interesting to me. Just as some women don’t care for the good guy because the good guy is often portrayed as boring and predictable. The bad boy is exciting and sexy.
The character tropes in fiction can be used to your advantage. It will help narrow things down. Your job isn’t to attract every single reader on this planet. Your job is to find the readers interested in the kind of characters you like to write about. (This goes along for the plot points and genre, but for this post, we’re dealing with characters.)
So when picking the character types you’re using, think of your author brand. What kind of writer do you want to be known as? If you’re a romance writer, do you want to be known for writing about the bad boys, or do you prefer to write about the good guys?
I’m not saying you need to pick the same character trope for every book, but there should be a consistency somewhere in the kind of stories you write. For example, an author known for writing about good guy heroes will shock her readers if she suddenly chooses the bad boy hero. Why? Because the readers will expect a certain type of story when they get used to the author’s work.
The same works for genre. If you’re known for writing romance, you’re going to have a hard time selling horror. And the same also works for how explicit your books are. If you’re known for writing clean romances, you’re going to piss off a lot of readers if you suddenly add sex scenes.
My advice: pick the thing you enjoy most and stick with it. You have some leeway in what you can do, but you have to know your target audience’s expectations enough so you don’t upset your core readers. If in doubt, ask them what they like and don’t like. I do this in beta reads and in Facebook. The best way to find out what works and what doesn’t is by going directly to your readers.
Do character tropes have to be stagnant?
When you use a certain trope, does that character have to be that way through the entire book? For example: once a bad boy, always a bad boy?
The answer, I’m happy to say, is nope! Characters should be 3-dimensional. They should be as varied and complex as real people. People change over the course of a lifetime, so characters can change over the course of the book. Not all characters have to change, but you can definitely use change for some of them. For example, your bad boy can become a good guy by the end of the book. This is often why rakes are popular in Regencies. The hero doesn’t stay a rake for the whole book. In the end, he becomes a good guy because the heroine often changes him for the better.
The character doesn’t always have to change for the better. Depending on your genre, you can have good guy who, for one reason or another, decides to turn dark. If you end the book with the hero turning into a villain, then what you have is a sad ending. (Note: this will not be a romance. In romance, a villain can become a hero, but a hero must never become a villain. The readers will not be pleased.) So if you choose to let your character change, then be aware of the genre you’re writing in and the expectations of that genre.
Keep in mind the culture where your character comes from.
This is very relevant because we’re moving into a global market with ebooks. So when you’re writing, you may want to keep in mind that your culture’s definition of a certain character trope is different from another’s. For example, the roles of men and women are different in different cultures, so what a character can get away with in one country might not work in another.
Should this stop you from writing the story that you want to tell? Of course not. But if you are going to write a story about a character in another culture, then it would be a good idea to research how that culture views the kind of character you’re writing. What does a geek look like in another country? If you’re writing about a character in India, how will the geek be similar or different from one in the United States?
This applies to historical times as well as contemporary times. For example, when I wrote a series on a Native American tribe (the Mandans), I learned the bride’s family owned the lodges, the husband was to move in with her (and oftentimes would marry her sisters), and the wife/wives could throw out the husband for any reason they wanted. The husband only owned his horse, clothes, and his hunting gear. That is a different culture from the white people who inhabited the United States at that time. So to pretend the white culture and the Mandan culture were the same would have been a disservice to both sides.
I’d like to ask you about tropes in your own genre.
Browse through the genre you write in and check the description of the bestselling books that pop up in your search. Do you see certain character “types” emerging? Readers of genres tend to prefer certain kinds of characters more than others. I’d love to hear what you discover as you do your search. Do any images come to mind when you think of those tropes? Do you like them? Hate them? Do you plan to use them? And if so, how?