5 Popular Tropes in Fiction

Published 28 Apr 2020
by Anca Antoci

What are tropes and how do they differ from clichés

I’ve sometimes seen the words trope and cliché used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same and the difference between them stems from execution.

A trope is a recurring theme in literature while a cliché is when that trope has been used to death and it’s predictable. So basically, all cliché are tropes, but depending on how they’re done, not all tropes become a cliché.

So, why is it important to figure out what are the tropes you like? Because once you know what you like, it’s much easier to find books that cater to your taste and avoid trope you dislike.

Here are 5 Popular Tropes in Fiction, also my favorite tropes (but most of them are not genre-specific).

1. The Underdog

This is one of the oldest tropes in literature. Probably, the first reference is in the Bible, the David and Goliath battle story. What makes this trope so appealing? Well, there’s just something incredibly rewarding about seeing the average Joe succeed against all odds.

Whether in real life or fiction I always stand for the little one. It makes you root for the protagonist because deep down we all identify with the underdog, we all face overwhelming situations and we need to know that there is hope even when the odds are against you.

The good thing about the underdog trope is that the underdog never loses (in fiction). In these stories, the protagonist always wins, often at the last moment and surprising everyone but the reader.

If you often find yourself cheering for the little guy, here are several novels that fit the underdog trope to inspire your reading list. And if you have read any of them, please leave your thoughts on it in the comment section below, or a link to your review if that’s the case.

2. Morally gray character

What are morally gray characters and why do they appeal to people? Since no one in this world is 100% good or bad, you can assume that most people fall somewhere in between. This trope encompasses a great variety of nuances. For instance, we love a flawed protagonist who sometimes makes bad choices for the right reasons.

Who doesn’t love a good redemption arc and you can’t get redemption unless you’ve done something questionable first? Depending on what they’ve done, it can sometimes get difficult to root for them, but they’re some of the best characters you’ve ever read.

I especially love a morally gray villain. The perfect villain doesn’t necessarily need to be pure evil because it’s unrealistic. Nobody is evil for the sake of it, there must be a driving force behind it whether it’s a tragic past, the need for revenge, or a curse (the fantasy genre is rich in opportunities to become the villain).  Chris Colfer once said that “A villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.”

Whether it’s the hero or the villain of the story, we love morally gray characters because they’re realistic and therefore relatable. Evil for the sake of evil or 100 % good makes us roll our eyes. Why? Because it’s neither believable nor relatable. We want multidimensional characters because they have layers, both qualities and flaws are on display and they make stories that are exciting to read.

Here are popular options for this trope:

3. Mythological/magical creatures

I love this trope because it’s specific to the fantasy genre which you probably know by now that it’s my favorite. If you haven’t figured it out by now, just look at the name of this website.

The best part of this trope is that it’s limited only by the writer’s imagination. You can use established mythology (Greek gods, Norse mythology, vampires, mermaids, unicorns, gargoyles, in this case, sky is the limit!), or imagine a new one. Or you can use established mythological creatures but change the rules.

Let’s talk vampires for instance. They started as the bad guys in horror stories and migrated to teenage romance stories. Think of Anne Rice’s vampires, they are closer to the traditional vampire myth. Her vampires are monsters that guise as humans and need human blood to sustain themselves. Also, they burn in sunlight.

However, in Twilight, Stephanie Meyer invented a new reason to keep her vampires out of sunlight. It’s not that they burst into flame, but they sparkle. Also, just like in traditional mythology, her vampires need blood to survive but not necessarily human (although human blood tastes best).

In The Others series, Anne Bishop portrays vampires as part of an ancient species call Terra Indigene that is as old as the Earth (actually it’s an Earth-like world called Namid). Her vampires are simply a different species, they were never human, to begin with. They feed on blood but they don’t necessarily need to bite for that, they can do it by mere touch. Also, they can transform into smoke at will. Being alive (unlike the traditional vampires) means they can have babies.


In my book, Forget Me Not (Chimera, Book1) I retain some of the traditional vampire mythology such as being a resurrected human who needs to drink blood to survive. Their moral compass is shaped by their life experience which is vastly greater than any human. Imagine how much wiser you’d be having lived through the centuries. Also, I played around with the concept of chimera as I didn’t use it like it was described in Greek Mythology.

In my universe, chimera are people with two sets of DNA (human and animal) and are able to shift forms. Also, witches, who cannot shift but they have the ability to perform magic. They were exiled on Earth from their own realm, Eden, and live amongst unsuspecting humans.

Vampires in my universe are viewed as second class citizens amongst chimera because they were made, not born.

So basically, I took bits and pieces from established mythology and made up the rest. That’s the fun of it! It never gets old!

This is just scratching the surface, (because talking about all mythological creatures and their differences could fill a book).

If you like such creatures, I suggest you give these books a try:

4. Forbidden romance / star-crossed lovers.

We love forbidden romance because it’s not easy, it’s not boring and the conflict drives the story. The more obstacles there are in front of them, the more they have to work for it and in the end, when they finally get together it feels earned, as opposed to the insta-romance we often find in stories.

When two people who appear to love each other are forced apart either by circumstances, family, culture, religion, war, and they struggle to overcome those obstacles it makes you rut for them to succeed. And when that happens, it’s a satisfying conclusion.

5. Dead or missing parents

Now, this one is probably the most controversial of all. This trope is a little overused especially in the YA novels but there is a strong reason behind it and the reason is that parents get in the way. Now before you get your pants in a twist and tell me just how wrong I am, think about the plot.

No, seriously how can a teenager save the world when she has to go to school, has homework to do, has to spend time with her family, has chores, curfews, and sometimes gets grounded? But authors use this trope to explain the absence of otherwise worried parents on one hand, and to build hardship and drama on the other.

It creates a breaking point. The effect such a loss would have on a teenager is full of dramatic opportunities. Having no one guide and protect them, to count on during difficult times leaves the protagonist without a safety net. When things get hard they have to rely only on their own forces. Having to pull yourself up by your bootstraps creates great character arcs. It’s part of why we love reading about their stories, because in real life that would never happen.

You’ll find this trope in many YA novels, below are only several examples.

I hope you enjoyed my post about 5 Popular Tropes in Fiction!