Tropes are not cliches. I need to make that clear right now. “Trope” just means an overarching pattern or theme that tends to pop up in media. A “cliche” is when that trope is used to death.
Examples of tropes would be the golden trio (that is, a group of three best friends out to save the world), evil empires, conveniently-placed mentor characters, etc. Examples of cliches are “dumb blondes,” the fact that you can never get a cell phone signal in a horror movie, and the mandatory “Nooooooo!” scene that was cringey even in Star Wars V.
Basically, cliches are almost never good and should be purged from your writing if at all possible. They’re evil. But tropes in general are not. And in fact, they can be really cool, even mandatory for certain genres. The best tropes allow for a lot of creative freedom while still adhering to the spirit of the trope in question. Hell, the superhero genre is so popular these days specifically because people want to see the tropes “good will always defeat evil” and “power of friendship/teamwork.”
Now that we all know the difference between tropes and cliches, here are my top five favorite tropes in the sci-fi/fantasy genres.
Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass
The CMHB is a relatively new trope, but it’s quickly gained traction. This is the character that, at first glance, seems to be designed purely for comic relief. They’re cracking jokes, bugging the other characters, and overall are just acting very goofy. But then, danger! The villain is attacking our heroes! Surely the comic relief will flee the scene, or if they can’t, be taken captive by the villain and perhaps held hostage.
Except . . . that’s not what happens because the comic relief is a total badass and beats the shit out of the villain. No problem.
This is a trope that is designed specifically to subvert the traditional comic relief trope. And that’s a good thing! It’s really fun because the end result–when done correctly–is a fan favorite character who is both hilarious and awesome. The best example is Iroh from the show Avatar: the Last Airbender, but Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood also has some good ones, namely Hughes and Ling.
This trope is just a case of the big ol’ fuzzies. Sometimes this is the ragtag team of heroes, each of them scarred or damaged in their own way, who build a family together. Think most superhero teams, like the Avengers or Teen Titans. Sometimes it’s a single character–usually from some sort of abusive environment, or perhaps an orphan–who gets adopted into a much more functional family unit, like how Harry Potter is basically an honorary Weasley.
Either way, at least one character who has been severely hurt in the past is now getting the love and happiness that they so much deserve. And they’re usually taking down a few bad guys along the way.
This is probably the oldest trope in Western media. It’s in the goddamn Bible. There’s just something about an underdog, a character who by every right should get trampled to dust and coming out on top, that’s really intriguing to people. These days, it’s practically mandatory to have the underdog be the main character in a YA novel (Hunger Games is the most notorious example).
For me personally, it might just be because I’m a woman and a feminist, and I like to see characters triumph over insurmountable odds that are similar to mine. If this tiny team of teenage heroes can topple an empire, then my friends and I can continue to fight the patriarchy.
Enemies to Friends (related trope: the Redeemed Villain)
So there’s this guy, right? You hate this guy. The first day you meet, you get into a fight, and it goes downhill from there. You constantly compete with each other, you hate being in the same room together, and if it were up to you this guy would be bundled in a boat and shipped off to Antarctica for the rest of their lives.
Except . . . well, some time passes. Maybe you were enemies in high school and come back ten years later during the reunion, or are forced to work together on a group project in the office, or have to work together to survive the zombie apocalypse. Either way, you realize that this guy actually isn’t so bad, and vice versa. And before you know it, you’re actually friends!
I really like this trope, and I’m honestly not sure why. Maybe it’s the Buddhist in me, but I tend to be of the belief that almost any group of people can get along if they just pull their heads out of their asses for five minutes.
It’s even better if the enemy was not just a rival, but an actual enemy who Sees The Light and joins Team Good Guy. Avatar: the Last Airbender did this extremely well with Zuko, who spends two and a half seasons being Team Avatar’s worst nightmare before realizing that his evil overlord father is a bag of dicks and joins the team, becoming friends with each team member in turn.
The Struggling Paragon
I’m down for almost any kind of protagonist so long as they’re engaging. They can be the perfect paragon, an anti-hero, a group of underage teenagers who would rather be failing math class than fighting monsters, etc. I’m not picky. It’s all in the execution.
However, my ultimate favorite protagonist is what I like to call the struggling paragon. Paragons are the “classic hero.” Think Superman or Captain America. They’re the kind of people who do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do, and are also charismatic enough to draw a lot of followers.
Struggling paragons are those who grapple with just what the “right thing” is. We’ve seen this in Game of Thrones, where the two paragons–Jon and Dany–both respectively have to navigate what the morally right thing is, knowing that even the best choice is going to have some collateral. We also see it in ATLA, but I’ve used that example so much it’s become its own cliche. (Seriously, go watch that show. It’s incredible.)
I like this trope because it gives me a character that I can one hundred percent root for while also adding a solid dose of realism to the picture, and a good writer will take this as an opportunity to throw in a lot of tension, too. My favorite example to date is Kaladin from The Stormlight Archive. In book two he has to decide if the morally right thing to do is to stop one of his men from assassinating the king. Most people would automatically say “Uh, duh!” Except this king is terrible at his job, and, in Kaladin’s eyes, doing far more harm than good. Getting rid of him would pave the way for another, much more competent character to take his place. It’s tense, it provides a ton of character development, and is overall just really fun to play with.
What are your favorite SFF tropes? Let us know in the comments!