I’m a fan of literary tropes. They are a metaphorical soundtrack to the novel I’m reading. They are Lego blocks moulded by the collective imagination that help us quickly to build a story we’ll enjoy. I particularly enjoy trope twisting, a kind of ParKour for novelists, helping my imagination leap from the expected to the original.
Yet it is possible to go a trope too far, usually when the trope has mutated into an underlying idea or emotion that I find unpleasant.
Here are my top three avoid-if-you can tropes:
The Eternal Triangle
When they’re done well, romantic triangles can be fun.
A woman having to choose between the affections of two highly desirable men who are not only besotted by her but willing to compete for her favour is a fantasy so far away from most people’s experience that it is irresistible.
What turns me off is when the triangle becomes eternal. When the woman refuses to choose. When having a choice becomes more important than who is chosen. I have no moral objection to this. I dislike it because it kills the momentum of the story, stalls the development of the characters and erodes my empathy for everyone involved. The worst examples I’ve encountered are in Urban Fantasy. When the participants are immortal, the triangle really can be eternal.
Thrillers that turn women into victims
Nothing turns me off faster than a thriller that turns women into victims, especially victims that get raped/tortured/murdered to move the plot along.
This trope isn’t about the women as individuals. It’s about women as an easy and somehow deserving target of violence and hate.
The worst uses of this trope are the ones that take a voyeuristic delight in the destruction of the women: their humiliation, their awareness of their helplessness, their pain. I don’t need this in my head.
I liked Derek Miller’s advice to thriller writers: if you’ve written a thriller where a woman gets killed, swap the genders of your characters and see if the story still works.
The stalk and kill tropes have evolved now so that the most likely target is a strong, brave woman who will put up a fight. She’ll still lose of course. Which I think exposes the misogynistic glee that powers this trope.
The Genius Serial Killer
I think of this as the “Criminal Minds” trope. It lionises the serial killer. It shows them as clever, daring and powerful.
“Yes, they may be broken and of course they’re evil,” the trope says, “but boy do they burn brightly.”
At its worst, this trope becomes a sort of death porn that speaks to the fantasies of men who feel diminished by having to stay within the boundaries of civilised behaviour and who get a thrill from the idea that someone out there is smart enough and tough enough to do it again and again and get away with it.
I admire Val McDermid’s writing but I can no longer bring myself to read her Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series.