The literary tropes I cannot live without

So NaNoWriMo begins tomorrow and I hope ALL of you are doing it or plan to do it because it’s some of the most fun I have ever had. Sure the novel you produce is probably not top quality (then again, none of my novels are top notch) but the thrill of just a month and writing like a lunatic is so much fun.

Anyway, in honor of the start of NaNoWriMo, which is tomorrow, I decided to make a list of my favorite character and 1 theme tropes that, without fail, I manage to squeeze into every longer work I’ve written.

1. The Antihero

antihero: a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in noble qualities

I love antiheroes and my current favorite is Deadpool. They are just such great characters and really add an extra dimension to whatever work they’re in. No longer is there just the perfect protagonist, but there is also this other protagonist who you want to feel sympathetic for but then you just take a second look and go, wait, that guy should be a bad guy!

But they’re not. In some instances, antiheroes even rise to be the heroes (anyone remember Carton from Tale of Two Cities?)

As the definition suggests an antihero is obviously lacking in some noble traits. Deadpool, for example, goes through phases where he wants to help people, but generally falls back into his groove of hacking and slashing for pay (he is a mercenary). He’ll honestly try to help, but the main problem is that his help is killing people. It’s what he does best after all and he has no issue with it.

Maybe for your NaNoWriMo you could have fun exploring an anti-hero. What are their biggest flaws? How do they try to redeem themselves? And, under their veneer of carelessness and personal indulgence, do they want something more?

2. The Dark Rider

I couldn’t find a definition for this one. Maybe I made it up, but, really, this archetype is so pervasive that I find it hard for me to have imagined it. There’s the headless horseman. The ringwraiths(as pictured above) from Lord of the Rings. There’s one in every fantasy book I’ve ever read, really.

The dark rider is definitely one of my top character archetypes because it is, really, just embodied, primal fear. What’s so scary about a man? Well we don’t know if he’s carrying weapons. How about a shadowy figure of a man? Well we don’t know if he’s carrying weapons or if we’re just hallucinating. How about a shadowy figure of a man on a horse? Why are you asking me: just get out of here and keep running!

It’s also a great archetype because never was the dark rider a dark rider always. They have some backstory that made them fall into base desire and hunger. Like the Ringwraiths in Lord of the Rings, who became as they were because of their hunger for the ring. Or like the headless horseman, who was once a man who had a head and a life and a family, until someone cut it off. It’s frightening in the sense that, as the backstory is delved into, the reader may realize that they have just as much propensity to become this dark figure as those who have already become it. Although the reader might be missing a horse or a piece of tack or two.

3. Personified Death

I love Death. Like the character in Supernatural who is sagacious and witty. Or the character in Prachett’s Discworld who tries very hard to relate with every soul he reaps. I love how death is what we fear the most, but Death as a character is something many of us have come to love.

As a character, Death is very flexible. In fact, he is entirely up to the author’s imagination. He can be a harsh end or a kindly companion or even a mildly befuddled social worker. He is whatever is made of him (or her, even) and that just adds so much to novels.

Characters don’t just die, they go on to Death. Death who gives closure to the reader (because sometimes, let’s face it, you hold onto vain hope that character somehow survived the beheading). Death can also offer comic relief in tense moments or provide poignant foreshadowing when visiting a character in dreams. Death is something we can never understand and never relate to, but it is always something that the reader sympathizes with.

Which is why Death is so much fun! He’s a blank slate that doesn’t need much explanation for why he is the way he is; reader’s take him at face value and that is just a wonderful thing.

4. The Snotty rich brat

The snotty rich kid is someone we already met. You can probably name one or two that are in (or have been in) your life. They’re somewhat overused in teenage novels, I will admit; and hardly used in adult ones because “you should be past such one-dimensional characters!”

But I love them. I always need a snotty rich kid in my works. They add such a good comparison point for your protagonist. They can easily bring the worst out of your protagonist–start a fight, make them take drastic action in revenge–and they don’t have to be the antagonist. Sometimes novels can get pretty boring if there is one antagonist that generates all the conflicts. A snotty rich kid, though, trails behind the action, picking out nails the protagonist has just hammered into place.

Sure they can be one-dimensional, but they can also be multidimensional. It’s really up to the author how much depth they give this archetype and I always find it interesting to see what nuances the author gives. If you look really closely, you might see a snotty rich kid from the author’s childhood wrapped up in that character and that is always a lot of fun.

5. Deus ex Machina

The Deus ex Machina is one of the most anticlimatic weapons in a existence. My AP English teacher always sort of sneered at it. I did too, especially in Beowulf; like, really? the magical sword just happened to be right there?

Then I read American Gods by Neil Gaiman and the Deus ex Machina is wonderful. It has to be used in the right setting and the fourth wall should be broken. The characters have to be in the midst of the fight when the magical sword appears and wonder “why did that happen?” “Is this even allowed to happen? Did someone break the universe?”

Otherwise, the Deus ex Machina is ridiculous. It’s like you’re sitting at the table with a bowl of dry cereal and quietly crying because you poured your cereal before you knew you were out of milk. Then, as one silent drop falls into the bowl of sahara-level dry fruit loops, milk magically appears in your bowl. Then you–rather than questioning the milk and its origins–happily eat your now milky cereal.

See how ridiculous?

But if it’s treated well, you actually wonder why the hell milk just magically appeared, then it adds a good side of humor to your story. Especially in fantasy writing (which is mostly what I write), the Deus ex Machina is sometimes treated to passively. It has to be recognized as a Deus ex Machina and certainly as something that the characters will think too good to be true. Then you have a nice spice to your story that helps the reader sympathize all that much more.

Leave a comment–if you so dare–about your favorite literary trope. Or tell me why you like one of mine (which are fabulous, I know /tosses hair).

Now go off and write! Or dream up ideas to write! And stay tuned for my progress on NaNoWriMo, which begins in less than 24 hours!



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