17 Literary Tropes That Need to Die

Ever feel like every book you pick up is just recycling the same old characters and plot devices? Whether it’s the never ending repeat of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet or the umpteenth attempt to recapture the mega-success of the of some of publishing’s biggest hitters with poor imitations, we’re desperate for something new. So without further ado, these are tropes we’re ready to retire.

The Secretly Beautiful Crippling Insecure Brunette:
We can probably blame Elizabeth Bennet for this never-ending trope, she’s quirky! She’s bookish! She’s not quite pretty enough to tempt Mr. Darcy, but everyone ends up loving her anyway. Yet somehow this has been twisted into countless brunette women with crippling self-esteem issues who spend their entire character arc despairing of not being attractive enough for the lead. Throw in the prerequisite hatred and shaming of a busty blonde character and you’ve got your go-to YA novel heroine.

Female Protagonists That Ignore Their Mental Health Issues
Why do female protagonists in psychological thrillers with mental health issues not take care of them and then magically overcome them when the time calls for it? Why can’t there be a badass woman who takes her antidepressants and practices self-care? She can still suspect she’s witnessed a murder and be all the more ready to endure her harrowing adventure.

Constantly Shifting Eyeballs
“His eyes darkened.” Like, is this supposed to mean he is so wildly aroused that his pupils have dilated enough to take over his whole eyes? Is bitch possessed by a demon? This phrase makes me tear my hair out.

Hating Their Way Into Love
On a further Pride and Prejudice related note, as much as we love some Mr. Darcy, the whole “first they hated each other and then they fell in love” trope is overdone to death. In real life, if you meet someone and your first instinct is that they are an asshole, then they probably are. Trust your gut! The guy who makes fun of your socioeconomic background and just in general annoys you probably isn’t Mr. Right.

Pigtail Pulling to Show They Care
Why are male characters mean to the main character because they like her? A person is who they portray themselves to be and the female characters who just overlook all the horrible things the guy says or does is just setting up for failure. Occasionally this trope can be done well (see The Hating Game – they are horrible to each other) but most of the time it’s just bad news.

Supremely Persistent Guys Who Don’t Take No For An Answer
This 100% perpetuates rape culture. It LITERALLY teaches men (or anyone) that you can get someone to bend to your will if you’re just persistent enough and ignore their “go away”‘s and “no’s.”
The scene: guy meets girl, he repulses her. She tells him to get lost. He says “Nah, you’ll learn to love me. I’m not going away.” Then some variant of this conversation happens again for the next 3/4 of the movie until finally, through “never giving up” and “I always knew you’d love me in time,” or whatever, she MAGICALLY gives in to him and lets go of everything about him she didn’t like before and forgets about the 1,000x she asked him to leave her alone and he completely disrespected her wishes. This shit is TOXIC and teaches people (boys/men in particular) the absolute, complete wrong way on how to pursue someone you’re interested in, and (maybe even more importantly) how to deal with rejection in a healthy manner.

Entirely Unnecessary Love Triangles to Prolong a Series
I want a female protagonist who f*cking knows what she wants and doesn’t waver. Maybe she isn’t even interested romantically in the male protagonist at all. Where are my platonic relationships at? Why can’t a male and female lead beat the bad guys together as friends? Also, sorry, it’s not cool to string people along until you make up your mind who you like more and then get upset when the one you didn’t pick doesn’t want to be around you because you broke their heart/picked the toxic relationship.

The Kind of a Dick NYC Girl Whose Job Can’t Support Her Lifestyle
She’s inevitably in publishing but spends no time in her actual job because she’s too busy living the fabulous life of designer everything, “it” parties, and weekends in the Hamptons. Her world view ends at in the boroughs and money is a thing other people have to worry about. Despite her only personality component being narcissism and a superiority complex, everyone wants to be her and somehow she always gets the top job and the guy in the end, without any real effort.

Suppressed Magic I Never Learn To Use But Bursts Out Perfectly At The Right Time In Every Battle
This magic power that takes others lifetimes to learn and channel miraculously manifests right at the exact moment you need it and saves the world? Cool, tell me about your trust fund next.

Sisters Who Hate Each Other
Why is it a rule that all sisters have to have deep seated issues with one another (that are generally due to some misunderstanding with a guy in their youth) and spend any and all interactions judging and hating each other? Why can’t there ever be supportive sisters who help and love one another without resentment? Additionally why must one of them always be a crippling screw up who is broke, makes bad decisions with men, and hates their older sibling for their stability?

Younger Woman Dates Man Twice Her Age And Learns New Things About What She Wants in a Relationship
She’s attracted to him because he’s mature and stable (and not AT ALL because of his money or her daddy issues). In the end, she always leaves him for a guy her own age, but it’s always a journey that teaches her maturity. Honestly, I’ve noticed this more in movies and TV shows, but I think we can agree that most men willing to date women a small fraction of their age probably aren’t a maturing influence.

The Prerequisite Ugly Best Friend
The female best friends where the protagonist is the “less attractive” of the two and can’t believe it when guy X or guy Y are attracted to her versus her friend and then they have a falling out because women can only be friends if there is an innate inequality in how men respond to them.

Southern Girls That Only Exist in Jack Daniel’s Commercials
Writers who have never set foot in the south and write southern girls who get their bona fides through daisy duke shorts, wild hair, saying y’all and impressing all the men by being able to shoot a whisky. They’ve always got gravelly voices and give off a half-feral feel and drive a pickup truck. Not every woman below the Mason Dixon line is out of a Carrie Underwood song.

Pregnancy as a Plot Device
Pregnancy is the most annoying thing in a book series or when introduced at the end of a longer novel. It’s like the author literally can’t think of anything else interesting to happen to a female character, so they just have her get knocked up. Whether she keeps the baby or not, or even if it’s just a pregnancy scare, it’s always treated as a big soul-searching moment that the character uses to redefine her life. I think this has it’s time and place, but also women are capable of redefining their lives and maturing without babies being involved!

So You’re a Woman In Your 30s – You Must Be Divorced & Bitter or a Virgin Librarian
Apparently your thirties exist just to punish you for the decisions you made in your twenties. Somehow no matter your relationship status you’re destined to regret it and your life will only move forward once you’ve chosen to embrace a life of bitterness and wine or high neck sweaters and blushing.

Male Leads Must Be In Law Enforcement
Is there a romance book out there in which the male lead isn’t a FBI agent, a Marshall, or ex-military? Is having a permanent license to carry a weapon a prerequisite for being marriage material? And do all law enforcement men pick up spouses while on cases? Is sleeping with the vic really a part of the job? “Hey, this is crazy, I just met you and someone wants to kill you but I’m ex Secret Service or Special Ops and only I can protect you so let’s go to this cabin in the woods I have and screw.”

Epic Heroes Who Are Only Alive Because of the Sidekicks
Sorry Harry, but you kind of sucked at magic and Hermione’s brains are about all that kept you kicking until the end. And Katniss you really only got out of the arena thanks to Peeta and your crew sending you help. Heroes don’t have to be perfect and everyone needs a little help from their friends, but it would be nice if they could do SOMETHING for themselves from time to time.

Contributors: Hope Racine, Alexandra Dent, Rachel Ginder, Darrian Duckworth, Lindsey Collins, & Maggie Stough

View Comment (1)
  • First, I saw The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall? I think? One of my “middle-shelf” aka the Place of Honor favorite books. Second, I stumbled on here while researching literary tropes, and I’ve gotta say, this was one of the more enjoyable posts I’ve read, mostly because you went outside the regular “trope” box and found some good ones. One’s I *may or may not* be guilty of using…ahem.

    I will sometimes measure my novels against these types of blogs and more often than not, I can say “Whew, dodged those bullets,” because I don’t write genre (and to be fair, genre writers kinda have to use certain tropes or…they fall outside the genre, god forbid).

    Ah, but then other times, like with this one, I spend waaaaayyy too much time internally justifying my choice of ___: “So, it’s not that her pregnancy is the biggest THING, I mean women get pregnant and it IS a life-changing event, unlike male sperm production…” hahaha

    I will say this: there are reasons sisters are always at each others’ throats. Sisters are insane. The other one, not you/me/our hero(ine? Our cis-gendered female protagonist? No idea the PC-term for that, sorry). I loved the troubled-damaged man/heart of gold, the inverse of the prostitute/heart of gold. Both damaged by the other gender, presumably. The brunette who is self-esteem challenged…I don’t know a woman who isn’t, hair-color notwithstanding. But yes, if that’s the sole motivation behind the female protag, then you’ve got a cardboard character, not a 3-D.

    And also… if every guy just asked once, every sister was awesome-supportive, every female lead perfectly gorgeous, and mentally stable…(sorry, I had to take a moment and control my maniacal laughter)…in other words, while tropes, could it also be said that these are classic, if not necessary conflicts in literary fiction that, if unused, would not only read like a boring journal, it would read like a fictional journal, because in real life, we actually bump up against all this stuff, all the time, and then the writer gets to make up stories that sort of reflect real life conflicts, only hopefully darker, larger, more stunning (and entertaining) than real life.

    Because face it, we’re simply glorified entertainers. Well, I am, anyway.

    Anyway, loads of fun and thank you!

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