One of the most pervasive points of confusion in writing concerns a simple topic: clichés and tropes. From readers to professional writers, everyone seems to have a different idea of what these two words mean and how they work (or don’t work) in writing.
Fortunately, we’re here to provide the answers you need. We’re going to explore the difference between trope vs. cliche, examples of each one, and how to successfully integrate tropes into your stories. By the end, you’ll have all the answers you need to make your next story shine.
What is a cliché in literature?
A cliché is using certain phrases, expressions, devices, or archetypes that have been used too often in too many different places. Although the idea was once fresh and intriguing, readers and audiences have seen it so often that they’ve become desensitized; the concept no longer carries the meaning it once had, and becomes tiresome.
A cliché can really drag down the overall quality of your writing. That’s because your readers crave someone with a unique voice and vision, not something they’ve heard over and over. When you rely on them to craft a narrative, it means you’re spending more time trying to sound like everyone else and less time trying to sound like yourself!
Examples of clichés in writing
You don’t have to look far to encounter clichés in stories. For instance, countless books and board rooms both include the phrase “think outside the box”—a cliché so tired that you probably groaned just reading it. Writers who describe a deceased person as being “dead as a doornail” are using an old cliché. And at some point, we’ve all described avoiding something “like the plague,” or something vanishing “into thin air.” These are all clichés because they’re set phrases that have been used over and over across the years.
What is a trope in literature?
A trope is a familiar character type, plot point, setting, or writing style that has become instantly recognizable to readers. That’s because these patterns are deeply tied into particular genres. Selectively and tastefully using a common trope is a way of letting your reader know that you “speak the language” of a particular genre.
In the romance genre, “enemies to lovers” is a popular trope that was popularized by Jane Austen. Even though it’s well-worn territory, readers still love exploring this pattern and the new ways writers approach it.
While some modern writers disparage tropes as being hackneyed, they’re generally more respected as a writing convention than clichés are. That’s because a cliché involves copying a phrase of expression word-for-word rather than coming up with something new, while a trope allows creative writers an opportunity to put their own spin on something readers are likely to already recognize. When done right, a trope can help a story seem both familiar and innovative to your readers.
Examples of tropes in writing
Many tropes in writing are instantly familiar from some of our favorite books. For example, “the big, beefy guy is always inhumanly strong” describes everyone from the Goliath in the Bible to The Mountain from A Song of Ice and Fire. We’re also all familiar with the idea of lovers separated by social classes, as in The Great Gatsby, where the disparity between Daisy’s wealth and the poorer men who fall in love with her inform their actions and motivations.
What is the difference between cliché and trope?
The difference between a trope and a cliché is that tropes reflect pre-existing genre archetypes, and they’re helpful to writers because they come from storytelling patterns that have worked well for generations. A cliché reflects patterns that are no longer effective, and can even be derogatory or damaging.
Let’s take a deeper look at what separates these two literary devices.
1. Tropes are archetypal
Perhaps the best way to understand trope is through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Joseph Campbell was a scholar and literary professor who drew upon earlier work by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung to develop a series of literary archetypes into which readers can categorize multiple characters. According to Campbell’s theory, everyone from Homer’s Odysseus to Neo in the Matrix is effectively living out the same epic story—hence the name “a Thousand Faces”. Understanding how this myth works can help make your own writing both stronger and more relatable.
George Lucas credits Campbell’s theories with inspiring the beloved trope we see in the Star Wars trilogy. This is part of why it resonated so much with audiences: Luke Skywalker is a young boy who receives a magic sword, meets an older mentor, and storms a castle to save a princess. As much as Lucas was telling a unique science fiction story, he was also incorporating aspects of the King Arthur legend that most people are familiar with—a powerful trope.
2. Tropes are necessary
The biggest difference between a trope and a cliché is that in order to tell a great story, tropes are necessary; clichés are never necessary, and always weaken your story.
The reason they’re necessary is that they’re built into every single genre. Are you writing a western? Chances are that your story will be filled with trusty steeds, lone cowboys, and sheriffs holding out against chaos. That doesn’t mean you’re an unoriginal writer. Rather, these motifs have become an identifying point in the genre. And using an archetype such as “the lone cowboy” doesn’t mean you can’t subvert our expectations and do something unexpected.
But imagine that you’re writing a western and someone is spouting lines like “that’ll be the day” and calling everyone “pilgrim.” All this will really do is make audiences think of John Wayne. This is where the protagonist becomes a cliché, rather than a trope. It’s tough to sell audiences on a brand new character while you’re using clichés to make us think of someone else. By ditching cliché altogether and exploring the possibilities of these archetypes, you can do something new.
3. Tropes enhance character
Another difference is that a trope can be used to elevate character. One of the challenges inexperienced writers face is overcoming the idea that your story’s players need to fit into a predetermined cliché. Sure, there may be some wisdom in T.S. Eliot’s classic piece of advice “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” But to do this effectively, you then need to enhance these archetypes with your own unique ideas.
By the time a cliché becomes a cliché, readers all over the world are familiar with it. So when you craft your story around a cliché, your readers no longer see an “original” character. Instead, they see the crazy quiltwork of different figures you have “borrowed” from.
Meanwhile, a trope functions a bit like “secret sauce” in good stories. You can use a trope and still create characters that are complex and engaging. At the same time, the character’s trope helps him come across as an old friend to audiences rather than someone new and otherwise alien.
One fun literary example of a cliché comes from Voltaire’s Candide. In that book, Professor Pangloss keeps spouting then-clichés about Leibniz and his theories of optimism. Voltaire keeps inflicting bad things on Pangloss and those around him, but the beleaguered professor keeps insisting that everything’s okay because they live in “the best of all possible worlds.”
In that same book, the titular Candide is a great example of a character effectively built from a trope. Candide is the classic simple-minded man with a heart of gold. We cheer for his honesty and simplicity in the face of a deceitful and complex world, and we long to see him grow and change throughout his adventures.
Voltaire’s novel is effectively a masterclass on the differences between tropes vs. clichés. Because he frequently spouts clichés, Professor Pangloss is seen as a character to be criticized and mocked. But Candide is made of the same trope that would later create Forrest Gump, yet each of these simple characters still comes across as fully-formed and distinct.
When should you use a trope in a story?
When it comes to characters, flesh out the character in your mind first. What are their motivations? What are their pain points, and what kind of morality do they subscribe to? Once you know the answers to these questions, you’ll know which tropes may be appropriate.
Let’s return to the idea of trope in Western fiction. The lone cowboy and the embattled sheriff are two very familiar tropes, but they belong to two very different types of characters. A lone cowboy, after all, is a wanderer driven by mysterious motivations (usually revenge). An embattled sheriff, meanwhile, is usually a pigheaded local driven almost entirely by his sense of justice. Specifically, he’s willing to die before he lets chaos and crime eat away at the law and order he helped create.
These ideas are also informative when it comes to shaping conflict as well as characters. As soon as you decide to have a lone cowboy, it necessitates giving him the right challenge, such as saving a town that has been taken over by a villainous criminal. And the use of the lone cowboy certainly invites the writer to emphasize his interior conflict. What is it that keeps such a figure wandering from town to town rather than settling down? And how do we view the inherent tragedy of a man who can save everyone else but cannot save himself from his own inner demons?
As you can see, the simple decision to use a familiar literary trope can help give your story a structure, your characters a motivation, and your readers something they can understand and relate to.
Can a trope be a cliché?
One question that writers struggle with is whether a trope can also become a cliché. This can happen when a trope becomes so popular and repeated that its appearance starts to be a turn-off for readers.
In cinema, one of the best examples of this is the American western. Westerns were the superhero movies of their time, enjoying just as much widespread popularity. Eventually, though, the cinematic landscape became saturated with them and audiences started to doubt the originality and innovation of the films.
Audiences often conflates the terms “cliché” and “trope.” That’s why breathless internet articles will write about the “clichés” they hate in genres like science fiction. You may notice that 99 out of 100 times, these articles are actually complaining about tropes.
These complaints are still useful for your own work, though. By the time we’re drowning in think pieces about how annoying a certain trope has gotten, it’s time to retire it for a few years. And don’t bring it back out unless you have something truly original to do with it!
3 tips for how to write tropes instead of clichés
Now you know how easy it is for your readers to confuse trope and cliché. How, then, can you avoid clichés and use tropes mindfully instead?
1. Use your trope intentionally
Making sure you’re using tropes intentionally is critical to effective writing. The thing about clichés is that they often sneak into your work. That’s because as writers, we try to find the perfect phrasing and often end up accidentally reaching for phrases we’ve heard a million times before. By using a trope intentionally and mindfully, you can experience the joy of using a familiar pattern while also giving yourself the freedom to do something new and compelling with it.
2. Never stop researching your genre
If you’re writing a sci-fi novel, you should spend your spare time really soaking in great sci-fi novels, movies, and TV shows. This is helpful in a couple of significant ways. For one thing, understanding the genre better can help you to flesh out your own story in interesting ways. And for another thing, understanding the genre helps you mindfully apply a trope without turning it into a cliché.
Not only can this provide inspiration for different tropes to use, but it lets you know how other great creators used these tropes. And it’s only by knowing what everyone else did that you can truly innovate.
3. Add your own spin
Finally, try to put your own spin on a trope when you write your story. Start asking yourself what disappointed you about the tropes you’ve encountered before, and what you wished writers would have done differently. Just like that, you have inspiration for the different directions you can take with your own characters and story!
Navigating cliché vs. trope: how to take your storytelling to the next level
Now you know the important differences between cliché and trope. And one cliché that ’80s fans of GI Joe have been spouting for decades is that “knowing is half the battle.”
While that’s true, keep in mind that nobody gets to quit when the battle is only halfway over. Now it’s time to put that knowledge to use. Specifically, it’s time to cut those annoying clichés out of what you’ve written, while adding tropes that enhance your characters, plot, and setting.