Inverted Tropes

These days, the term trope is often used as a sign of derision, but not all tropes are bad! There are times to use them, times to subvert them, and times to invert them. As long as the story is well written, you can use almost any tropes that fit your story.

These are my final notes from WorldCon 80, otherwise known as ChiCon 8. The panelists for the titular panel were: Foz Meadows, Micaiah Johnson, Tim Waggoner, and moderated by Paul Price. The description was as follows.

The Fanlore Wiki defines trope inversion as “when an existing trope is […] flipped on its head, defying the audience’s expectations.” Many writers are digging into the weeds of going against convention for a variety of reasons: to highlight the issues of a trope, to explore a new avenue in an old story, and to just have a good time. Panelists will discuss examples of inverted tropes, reasons why writers experiment with trope inversion, what tropes they’d loved to see challenged, and more.

What are tropes?

Tropes are story elements that can be shared from writer to writers, like legos or playground equipment. They’re often attached to a specific genre or set of genres. Fans of book series exist, often because they love the tropes in the stories, that’s how the reader can find “more of the same, but different”. While some people think romance or mysteries or manga are more formulaic, tropes are useful for every genre, because they help the stories resonate and connect with their readers.

Tropes are neither good nor bad, they’re just established narrative patterns. While they can be cliche, they don’t have to be written that way. Tropes exist in the space between ‘conventional narratives’, which are big and broad, and cliches, which are very specific.

We can’t run out of tropes because new ones keep getting created, as old ones keep evolving.

For inverted tropes? That still counts as using it!

Watching the standard tropes evolve, or shift, and new ones emerge can be reflective of society’s expectations — and fears. Plus, analyzing which tropes are more popular in different countries can provide insights into that culture.

In the US, we have movies about Skynet and its single soul taking over. In Japan, they created Ghost in the Shell, where a single cyborg is hacked. In the US, we have toxic waste creating superheroes, in Japan, that same toxic waste creates Kaiji, giant monsters like Godzilla. The historical inspirations for both countries seem pretty self-evident.

Some inverted tropes evolve to become the common trope. In early stories of automatons, they were the moral center. Then, as they became more possible, automatons/AI became a source of fear. And now, we’re starting to revert to the earlier form.

Tropes are best subverted when the writer understands — either consciously or subconsciously — why the trope exists and how it works. Otherwise, modifying the trope or twisting it can land flat or expose the weaknesses in the trope, at the cost of a good story.

While you can choose any trope to use or invert, they’re more effective when you invert a recognizable trope.

Inversion versus Subversion

For ‘the butler did it’ trope, in the inversion, the butler would be innocent. In a subversion, the butler would be guilty, but it was for a good reason and everyone was helping.

Ways to invert common tropes

  • inverting the “hero’s journey” or “main character’s exploration” can have a barren wasteland person dissing the big city, or the writer flipping the gaze of who the main character is, and who is the sidekick.
  • make “happily ever after” look nothing like what the character expected
  • for portal fantasy — take away the usual implied safeties. Make time pass back home and physical injuries permanent
  • for isekai manga – the one summoned to save the day could be denied help or the wrong person is summoned
  • Good vs Evil can be inverted by flipping who really is the bad guy or by making everything morally ambiguous. But, other variants often turn into creeping nihilism.

Note: If a trope is required for the genre, you should not break or invert it. Happily ever afters, or at least, Happy for nows are required in Romance. Sure, you can write a romantic story with a tragic ending, but it won’t sell well as a Romance. You can write a murder mystery or thriller where the sense of danger goes down as the story progresses, but it won’t sell well.

Some tropes invert poorly. Stories where ‘the oppressed become the oppressors’ are hard to write well without coming across as justification for why one side was oppressed. In the U.S., books where the elite race is black, and the workers are white, especially when written by white authors, often fall into “they don’t know their place” tropes, playing into earlier fears about white people becoming ‘less’. Or, turn into ‘feel good’ novels, written to show how progressive the author is.

Just because you invert or subvert a trope doesn’t necessarily make your story good. The writing has to be able to back it up.

Recommendations


Do you have any favorite tropes? Any favorite inversions?
Do you have any good suggestions?

Inverted Tropes

3 Comments

  1. When a trope reflects a real world prejudice? In France, instead of the Very British trope of the butler did it, there exists “the orphan/adopted person” did it. The reason is the extreme prejudice against orphans as being inherently bad people, carrying the sins of the father or mother. Adopted children are orphans taken into the innocent amd good family and “no good will come of it.” But, if one is a writer of crime or psychological fiction for French readers, would inverting the orphan story work or be rejected?

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