Character Tropes

character trope

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What is a character trope?

As I was researching the subject of character tropes, I narrowed down the definition of a trop to be as follows: a trope is something done so much that it becomes common.  It’s something that is easily identified by the average person.  In a nutshell, it’s a stereotype.

For example, if I tell you I’m writing a Regency about a rake, those of you familiar with Regencies will probably come up with an image of a hero with low moral standing.  He probably sleeps around with multiple women, gambles, drinks, and “lives it up” on a nightly basis.

Another example, if I tell you that a hero in my contemporary romance is a geek, you probably have an image of someone who loves the pursuit of knowledge, is a virgin (and probably hasn’t dated much, if at all), is socially awkward, and most likely wears glasses.  The trope not only conjures up personality traits but physical ones as well.

So when I talk about a character trope, I’m talking about using stereotypes to your advantage.


Why do we have character tropes?

The purpose of a character trope is to give your prospective readers an idea of whether or not your story is a good fit for them.  Not everyone wants to read about a certain character.  I know women who love the bad boy trope in romances.  Me?  I hate them.  Give me the good guy over the bad boy any day.  So if I see a romance with a bad boy trope, I won’t pick it up.  Does this mean the bad boy trope is bad?  No.  It just means it’s not interesting to me.  Just as some women don’t care for the good guy because the good guy is often portrayed as boring and predictable.  The bad boy is exciting and sexy.

The character tropes in fiction can be used to your advantage.  It will help narrow things down.  Your job isn’t to attract every single reader on this planet.  Your job is to find the readers interested in the kind of characters you like to write about.  (This goes along for the plot points and genre, but for this post, we’re dealing with characters.)

So when picking the character types you’re using, think of your author brand.  What kind of writer do you want to be known as?  If you’re a romance writer, do you want to be known for writing about the bad boys, or do you prefer to write about the good guys?

I’m not saying you need to pick the same character trope for every book, but there should be a consistency somewhere in the kind of stories you write.  For example, an author known for writing about good guy heroes will shock her readers if she suddenly chooses the bad boy hero.  Why?  Because the readers will expect a certain type of story when they get used to the author’s work.

The same works for genre.  If you’re known for writing romance, you’re going to have a hard time selling horror.  And the same also works for how explicit your books are.  If you’re known for writing clean romances, you’re going to piss off a lot of readers if you suddenly add sex scenes.

My advice: pick the thing you enjoy most and stick with it.  You have some leeway in what you can do, but you have to know your target audience’s expectations enough so you don’t upset your core readers.  If in doubt, ask them what they like and don’t like.  I do this in beta reads and in Facebook.  The best way to find out what works and what doesn’t is by going directly to your readers.

Do character tropes have to be stagnant?

When you use a certain trope, does that character have to be that way through the entire book?  For example: once a bad boy, always a bad boy?

The answer, I’m happy to say, is nope!  Characters should be 3-dimensional.  They should be as varied and complex as real people.  People change over the course of a lifetime, so characters can change over the course of the book.  Not all characters have to change, but you can definitely use change for some of them.  For example, your bad boy can become a good guy by the end of the book.  This is often why rakes are popular in Regencies.  The hero doesn’t stay a rake for the whole book.  In the end, he becomes a good guy because the heroine often changes him for the better.

The character doesn’t always have to change for the better.  Depending on your genre, you can have good guy who, for one reason or another, decides to turn dark.  If you end the book with the hero turning into a villain, then what you have is a sad ending.  (Note: this will not be a romance.  In romance, a villain can become a hero, but a hero must never become a villain.  The readers will not be pleased.)  So if you choose to let your character change, then be aware of the genre you’re writing in and the expectations of that genre.

Keep in mind the culture where your character comes from.

This is very relevant because we’re moving into a global market with ebooks.  So when you’re writing, you may want to keep in mind that your culture’s definition of a certain character trope is different from another’s. For example, the roles of men and women are different in different cultures, so what a character can get away with in one country might not work in another.

Should this stop you from writing the story that you want to tell?  Of course not.  But if you are going to write a story about a character in another culture, then it would be a good idea to research how that culture views the kind of character you’re writing.  What does a geek look like in another country?  If you’re writing about a character in India, how will the geek be similar or different from one in the United States?

This applies to historical times as well as contemporary times.  For example, when I wrote a series on a Native American tribe (the Mandans), I learned the bride’s family owned the lodges, the husband was to move in with her (and oftentimes would marry her sisters), and the wife/wives could throw out the husband for any reason they wanted.  The husband only owned his horse, clothes, and his hunting gear.  That is a different culture from the white people who inhabited the United States at that time.  So to pretend the white culture and the Mandan culture were the same would have been a disservice to both sides.

I’d like to ask you about tropes in your own genre.  

Browse through the genre you write in and check the description of the bestselling books that pop up in your search.  Do you see certain character “types” emerging?  Readers of genres tend to prefer certain kinds of characters more than others.  I’d love to hear what you discover as you do your search.  Do any images come to mind when you think of those tropes?  Do you like them?  Hate them?  Do you plan to use them?  And if so, how?

About Ruth Ann Nordin

Ruth Ann Nordin mainly writes historical western romances and Regencies. From time to time, she branches out to other genres, but her first love is historical romance. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband and a couple of children. To find out more about her books, go to
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11 Responses to Character Tropes

  1. Oh, horror is well known for its character tropes: virgin girl, the brooding boyfriend, the horror fan or creeper who people immediately think is behind the killings. I think if used right, each of these can be interesting and fun.
    The one trope I hate and absolutely refuse to use is the brain-damaged killer, where someone with an intellectual impairment or brain damage becomes a remorseless killer. Examples include Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th movies (though he’s also got mommy issues and a history of being horribly bullied, so maybe his killings stem from other problems), Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, and Twisty the Clown from American Horror Story: Freak Show. I’ve known plenty of people with intellectual impairments, and I’m on the spectrum, and I bristle every time someone makes fun of us. Turning us into killers, when we’re normally very sweet and harmless, is just wrong.

    • I chuckled at the virgin girl and brooding boyfriends. I recognize those tropes. 🙂 You’re right. There is usually some horror fan or creepy person who is suspected of being the killer but isn’t. I hadn’t thought of that one.

      I agree with you about the intellectual impairment. I don’t like that type of killer. I have a couple of friends who have family members who also fall into that spectrum, and they wouldn’t hurt anyone.

      I think one of the reasons I did enjoy the Hannibal and Scream TV series as much as I did was because the killer was highly intelligent and could stay one step ahead of the police. They were purposeful in how they did things, and to me, that makes for the creepiest kind of killer.

      To answer your question about when I’ll be reading your books, I wasn’t able to go on vacation this past week because we all came down with another round of the cold. (I’ve been sick for most of the summer.) So we’ll make another attempt in a couple weeks. Hopefully, then I can sit by the pool and get the reading in. It would be nice to sit back and relax for a change. But I plan to start on the first book in the series this week. As you know, I’m not a fast reader. 🙂

      Did you see Stranger Things on Netflix? I really enjoyed that one.

      • I’m actually skipping that one so I can watch the last season of Penny Dreadful. Good luck going on your vacation. I hope you have fun.
        And speaking of Scream, I think I know who the killer is this season. I think it’s a character who seems to have an alibi but there are large gaps where we’re not sure where they are, which could be their opportunity to commit a murder.

        • Penny Dreadful is on my list. I haven’t seen that one yet.

          I thought the killer in scream was that teacher, but she’s dead so I was wrong. My next guess was Kieran (not sure if that’s spelled right). After watching the last episode, I thought he could have taped his own mouth and made it look like he was almost a victim. The only reason I suspect him is because it’s too easy to “hate” Eli and there seems to be a romance ready to go between Emma and Eli developing. If I was writing the series, that’s the direction I would go in. But we will see. 🙂 Whatever happens I hope Audrey, Noah, and Brooke survive the season. I love those characters the most.

          • Me too. But I think it’s Zoey Vaughn; some of her behavior in the past couple of episodes has been a bit disturbing, she left school during the events of the first season due to “issues’ her parents discovered, and she has a dislike for Audrey, which would explain why she went for Audrey’s girlfriend, and torments Audrey now. Not to mention in the most recent episode, she interrupted her make-out session with Noah because of a phone call he was going to ignore, and then presumably sent Emma the recording of Audrey just because she could. My bet’s on her being the killer.

      • Funny you should mention Stranger Things. My youngest son texted me tonight and told me I HAD to watch this.

  2. When I read, I don’t always choose the same type of hero. I like bad boys…as long as they can be reformed. I like your beta heroes because they are so sweet. I especially like those who have some reason not to feel self-confident, and the shero gets to change that. But I also like the confident men. So as long as the book is well written, and I can feel for the character in some way, I can enjoy the book. I do tend to like stronger women rather than whiners, but I also like to read about women who don’t have the self-confidence and grow to have it.

    As far as what I write? I tend to write heroes who are damaged in some way and are redeemed in the end. They usually start out pretty dark. Usually. 🙂

    • Your heroes are still sweet, even if they are damaged. 🙂 They have a heart. When I think of the typical bad boy, I think of someone who isn’t really sorry for anything. They tend to be full alpha. Controlling. Demanding. And the heroine just ends up falling at their feet and doing whatever they want. If a hero starts out as a jerk and becomes a sweetheart, then I’m all for that. But typically, that is not what I end up seeing. Usually, the love between the hero and heroine are based on his terms, or he ends up getting away with all the jerky things he did with a simple “sorry” and we’re supposed to believe the couple can truly have a happily ever after. All I see is a guy who’s going to cheat on her in a few years when he gets bored. Ironically, Star Wars episode 7 showed Han and Leia not having the best marriage in the world. They spent most of their time apart and not all that happy. To me, that’s actually realistic so kudos to Disney for being willing to write things that way. I was always a Luke Skywalker kind of girl. 😉 If I had been George Lucas, Luke and Leia would never have been brother and sister, and they would have ended up together. I think that would have been a happy marriage.

      Enough on that tangent.

      I agree with the strong heroine! Not all stories call for it, but I actually the ones that know what they want and go for it. Ironically, those tend to be my least popular.

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