Fiction editors read a lot of books. While reading all these books, we notice the tropes that exist in many of the storylines. (A trope is a commonly recurring literary and rhetorical device, motif, or cliché in creative works.) Sometimes, tropes are used on purpose. They can be used when an author is writing to market. The author figures out what the readers want to read, what is trending in the book market, and that is what they give them. If that is your goal, it is a great strategy. And many readers like it because they really do want to see the trope in their books. However, other readers want things to be mixed up a little more. They want fresh, new takes on the problems characters face. There isn’t one right way to be a reader and it is great that we have authors that can satisfy both kinds of readers mentioned here. However, there are certain tropes that we could probably do without no matter who you are writing for.
I asked some of my fellow editors about tropes that really bug them. These are some of the common responses regarding tropes about women and how they are represented in fiction.
- The phrase “Not like other girls.”
Can we find another way to describe the woman who just caught your eye? I have a couple issues with this description. The first is that you could describe any woman that way. There are always generalizations we can make about groups of people, but we all know that each person is an individual and not like everyone else. Another issue I have is that phrase doesn’t tell the reader anything about the person. It tells them what they are not, but still in a vague way. Instead of using that phrase, give us details about the woman and we will get a much better sense of who the character is.
2. When an ugly/frumpy/uptight girl’s life changes forever after she puts on some makeup and shows some cleavage.
This transformation likely happened after she met a mysterious, slightly handsome man who convinced her to leave her frumpy ways. Now, she doesn’t need glasses (Apparently glasses severely obstruct beauty.), she wears super cute clothes that show off her body, and of course, she laughs more and is always happy because she is in loooove. I take issue with this because it makes it seem as though her character development is both related to finding love as well as conforming to society’s view of beauty. In reality, falling in love is not a long-term solution to happiness. Also, conforming to the beauty standards of society will not give you happiness. Wearing things that make you comfortable with the body you have will help you a lot more on that path toward happiness. If those clothes conform to society’s ideals, great. If they don’t, that’s great too. If you want to write a story where the girl finds love, let’s make sure she doesn’t need to change who she is and that she doesn’t solve all her problems just by finding a man.
3. Guy still gets the girl after being a jerk the whole time.
Girl has always secretly loved Guy. Something either great or terrible happens to Guy. Guy starts acting like a total juice pouch. Girl reveals her love to him and is the only one who really understands him. Guy does some soul searching for a few days and then apologizes. Guy gets Girl. The end. Can we stop telling girls that it’s a good idea to keep chasing a guy who acts like a jerk? And that if we love them enough it will all be okay in the end? Sometimes loving someone isn’t enough. And sometimes if someone acts like a jerk in response to this situation, that is likely how they will act in response to other situations. You know what I’d like to see? I story that starts when the girl reveals that she used to love the guy. He then realizes he’s been a jerk and the rest of the story is him working to become a better person and then finally wins her back—or better yet, falls for someone else—after really growing as a person and learning how to handle the good and bad things that come in life.
4. New widow is in a bind because her husband never told her anything about the finances.
Now she is in huge debt because the husband gambled it all away or took foolish risks or was being blackmailed for something he did. Sadly, this is a reflection of what sometimes actually happens to people. Let’s all be more aware of these kinds of things! Spouses, share important and/or troubling information with your spouse! Authors, if you’re going to use this trope, be creative with the solution to the problem. Not every woman needs a man to come help her out of her troubles.
5. Female characters with green, cat-like eyes.
No man can ever resist this woman. Alternatively, she will have violet eyes. There is a 90% chance that she has curls that just won’t behave. Ok, let’s break this down. Do you mean cat-like because of her makeup? Probably not. Her eyes are human. They are allowed to be green. Personally, I have brown eyes. So do most people. I’d like to read about more people falling in love with gorgeous brown eyes. Yeah, green and blue eyes are cool, but aren’t my eyes? Now, violet eyes. That’s not really a thing unless you are a person with albinism, and even then, that doesn’t guarantee that you have purple eyes. And the curls that just won’t behave? Honestly, that’s realistic but we’ve heard it before. Let’s spice up how we talk about curly hair.
6. Women that think they are “too tall” or “too slim.”
Why can’t they love their height? I have a tall friend who loves to wear high heels and be even taller. If they have to dislike being tall, can they come to realize throughout the course of the story that they actually do like being tall? And I don’t know a woman anywhere who thinks she is too slim. Maybe if she had an eating disorder, has gone through therapy and treatment for it and is able to realize that she needs to put on a few more pounds to reach a healthy weight. But, unless the book is about a woman in the process of dealing with an eating disorder, thinking she is “too slim” just doesn’t make sense. Authors, I challenge you to find a way to describe your characters without them criticizing themselves. It would be great if readers were surrounded with books that showed them how to love themselves and have confidence in their bodies.
7. Where are the older women with good storylines?
I haven’t read many books that had older women as the main character. This is likely due to the fact that I mainly read and work with Young and New Adult Fiction. However, the editors I talked to told me it’s an issue. Life doesn’t stop after a woman’s kids leave home or she reaches middle age. She keeps living and interacting with others and having issues and triumphs in her life. There are stories all over the place. Let’s tap into them.
8. The frail and/or cynical woman who ends up being irresistible to the man who is protecting her.
Like I said before, not all women need a man to save or protect them. If there is a man helping a woman, they do not need to fall in love. It is totally possible for women and men to have platonic relationships. Speaking of frail women, let’s keep in mind a realistic “frail/bird-like frame” to cup-size ratio.
9. When something awful happens, there is an overbearing mother to blame.
Often, mothers are hysterical. Or they are fierce mothers who cannot possibly be tender. Let’s get one thing straight. Moms are warriors. They are strong, capable, and full of love. Yes, sometimes moms mess up. Everyone does. But we don’t need to always put moms in a bad light. Also, moms do have a lot of emotions but that doesn’t mean they are hysterical. Want to know a secret? We all have those same emotions. Some people express them openly and others do not. Women do not lose control of their emotions just because they become a mother. Also, just because a woman is fierce in one situation does not mean she cannot be tender in another situation. Let’s remember that mothers are dynamic humans just like the rest of us and portray them that way in our books.
10. The super-successful female protagonist is the only attractive character.
All the other females are old, fat, or frumpy, and resent the protagonist with a fiery passion. There is also a tendency to make the slightly overweight woman the “bad” character or the sidekick. Contrary to popular belief, a woman’s ability to be a smart and successful person who wins the guy, finds the treasure, or gets the reward, is not related to her physical attributes or weight. Let’s write about real people.
Whether we realize it or not, our worldview is influenced by the things we read. Authors have the chance to reach so many people with each book they write. It is important for characters to have flaws and things they need to work on. It is also important for them to grow and work toward fixing those issues. Let’s work on writing books that will portray women well and help readers that are struggling with the same issues as the characters in the book.
Are there tropes you are tired of seeing in fiction? Tropes you like seeing? Tell me about it in the comments!