20 Tropes to Avoid in Your Writing

Tropes are a double-edged sword for writers. At their best, they serve as a shorthand to communicate complex concepts with simple, familiar phrases, characters, or situations. At their worst, they make our writing trite, predictable, and flat. 

Excellent writing can make sure our tropes are at their best, but even then there are some tropes so overdone, so problematic, that they’re best avoided. A complete list would fill a whole web page, but here are the top offenders we’ve seen in the current climate. 

20 Tropes and Cliches All Writers Should Avoid

1. Starting With the Weather, a Dream, or a Mirror

All three of these things show up in so many books that editors, agents, and readers roll their eyes a little bit when they see them on the page. Weather is supposed to set the tone. Dreams are supposed to reveal inner depths, then “shock” the reader as the protagonist awakes. Mirrors are a frame with which to physically describe the protagonist. 

All of them work. All of them are overdone. There are better and more creative ways to fulfill those goals, and we should use them. 

2. Brawn with no Brain

The big galloot, dumb jock, mindless soldier, etc isn’t just an overdone stereotype…it borders on intolerant depictions. If we have a character who just must fit this mold, break it a little by giving them deep knowledge in a specific topic. Maybe build their character some by exploring why they’re an expert in model trains, sewing, astronomy, or what have you. 

3. Brain with no Brawn

The flip side of the brain with no brawn trope, and bad news for the same reasons. It’s best avoided, or subverted by giving them some sort of physical skill or ability. 

Be especially careful if you give the brain a physical or mental disability. It’s tempting to write a brain in a wheelchair, or an intelligent character who’s on the autism spectrum, but also very easy to write this insensitively. Unless you have close knowledge that helps you write this authentically, you’re probably better off writing a different way. 

4. Bad Guy Monologues

This is such a common trope that they made fun of it in The Incredibles. Don’t wait to expose the bad guy’s plot when he has a chance to speak with your protagonist. Give hints and clues throughout the story for both your protagonist and your reader to pick up. Then, when the inevitable confrontation hits, the bad guy can confirm what you’ve been hinting at in just a few quick lines — or just through his actions on the page. 

5. Femme Fatale

Once upon a time, this was a sexist trope for the noir genre: women evil to the core who ensnare the protagonist and make them fall. Later, it became a bad sort of feminist trope that showed women as powerful, but still also portrayed them as evil. 

This is the 21st century, and no character (male, female, or otherwise) should be this one dimensional. It’s okay to have a woman bring men to their fall, but only if she’s a fully realized individual with clear goals, background, and a reason for being independent of the men around her. 

6. “It Was All a Dream”

This — along with any other ending that takes away the stakes readers have been riding with the whole story — steals a satisfying ending. There’s no other way to say it, and no reason to use this tired storytelling dinosaur. You'll never be able to make this as satisfying as Bob Newhart did.

7. Orphans

This is especially common in young adult fiction, along with broken homes of many stripes. Sure, you’ve read some great stories about orphans because the death of a parent gives immediate emotional attachment and simplifies the story. No, audiences aren’t into it anymore. Even Disney is getting made fun of because of this now.

8. The Suffering Sidekick

Sidekicks are great, even necessary. Every protagonist needs some supporting characters. What we need to avoid is the ever-loyal sidekick who sticks with the hero no matter what, and for no apparent reason. Sidekicks should get enough time and exposition for the reader to understand why they love the protagonist, why they’re willing to put up with risk and hardship for them, and (especially) why they’re content to stay out of the spotlight.

Want to do a sidekick right? Sam Gamgee was the main character the whole time…

9. All the -isms

Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, transphobia, and all the other forms of prejudice have no place in our stories…which means excising all the tropes based on race, nationality, gender, sexuality, income, ability, and all the rest. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t have those features as integral parts of our characters. It just means we should never use stereotypical and insensitive descriptions and portrayals. Likewise, it doesn’t mean we can never approach issues of prejudice in our work. It just means we have a duty to do it as responsibly and sensitively as possible. 

10. Monolithic Evil

The bad guy doesn’t think he’s the bad guy in any story. No matter how destructive his plans, he believes he’s doing what’s necessary to attain his goals. The more we explore that in our writing, the better our stories will be. 

Likewise, in complex worlds with multiple villains, evil won’t get along with evil just because both are evil. Rivalries, jealousies, and paranoia all feed conflict — and help open creative opportunities our protagonists can use to defeat their foes. 

11. The Lone Wolf

Once upon a time, this was the law of the protagonist: one (usually a) man against the world who needs no help from anybody. Thing is, audiences are smarter now and realize nobody can truly succeed that way. The lone hero who never accepts help is a little bit of an a-hole, and doesn’t work for modern audiences. 

One exception here: a lone wolf who realizes they need help as part of their character arc still works. For now. Until that one gets overdone, too. 

12. Glamorizing Infidelity

I’m not sure where this trope started, but it’s been here for a long time. Most readers agree it’s bad behavior, but so many books make it part of the core plot — because it creates multiple lazy obstacles to put in the protagonists’ path. We can get more creative and do better. 

13. Poor Communication

This scourge of romantic comedies frustrates readers everywhere. Although poor and missed communications can be an excellent obstacle in a protagonist’s path, no story or plot point should ever rely solely on a misunderstanding that could be cleared up with a five-minute conversation. 

See also: plots based on missing vital information that could easily be delivered with a phone call or text message. There’s a whole swath of horror and mystery story that’s out of reach because cell phones exist. That’s just the way of things now. 

14. The Honorable Warrior

Okay. Listen. We love Lieutenant Worf, Sir Galahad, and all the rest, but this trope is getting tired for two reasons. 

First, it’s too one-dimensional for characters in modern fiction. Nobody can have “honorable warrior” as their whole personality. Even Worf had daddy issues. It’s fine to start with the stalwart stereotype, but add to it until you’ve created somebody entirely new.

Even worse, especially if you make the warrior honorable because they’re Klingon, or Japanese, or what have you, it’s bordering on racism. Cultures are not monolithic, and treating any culture — even fictional ones — like they are is dangerous ground. 

15. The Mary Sue

A Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) is a super-competent character who does everything well with no real explanation as to why. It was coined by Paula Smith in 1973, describing idealized female characters in Star Trek, but are found throughout fiction of all genres. 

What makes characters most interesting is their flaws, challenges, and shortcomings. If we write a character who has none, that character is nowhere near as interesting as they should be. 

16. The Woman as Prize

Yes, your protagonist can have a compelling love story as a subplot to your novel. It’s expected in most genres. That said, the love interest must be a fully realized character with their own ambitions and personality. She cannot exist solely as something for the antagonist to threaten and for the protagonist to win. 

“Man as prize” is also worth avoiding, but in the current cultural climate you can get away with it sometimes. If you do it well. Especially if you’re funny. 

17. The Ugly Duckling

Ugly duckling narratives happen any time a character is portrayed as physically unattractive, then realized later that they’ve been beautiful all along. The problem with these is that there’s nothing wrong with not looking like a cover model and being perfectly happy about it. 

Modern stories should avoid making physical attractiveness a value of its own, and focus on the myriad forms of internal beauty like compassion, wit, charm, and intelligence. 

18. Kids With Adult Dialogue

This might be the only trope on this list that’s done accidentally but frustratingly common. It’s simple to see, but sometimes complex to solve. Kids should talk like kids, from a kid’s perspective, using a kid’s vocabulary. When they speak like adults, readers notice. 

Going back and fixing all of a character’s dialogue can be time-consuming, especially if you spot it late, but it will make your story better. 

That said, kids aren't idiots. You don't have to completely dumb them down to nonsensicality.

19. The Magical _______

Your magical negro, manic pixie dream girl, fabulous gay friend, and all of their contemporaries all fill a niche that’s all too common in fiction. Although they can be seen as showing the (insert group here) positively, they’re still shown (a) as a stereotype, and (b) subordinate to the protagonist. 

They also don’t make sense. The magical _____ trope is based on a sub-character having abilities beyond what’s normally achievable. Modern stories demand real people, even in fiction that has actual magic. (Especially in fiction that has actual magic…)

20. The United Characters of Benetton

For those too young to remember the 90s, the clothing brand Benetton had an ad campaign featuring rainbow-hued groups of people (often children), with a token representative of various ethnic groups in each photo shoot or tv ad. 

There is nothing wrong with representation in our stories, but it’s important to avoid tokenism, appropriation, and stereotypes. All of these are subtle forms of the -isms we talked about earlier. They’re better than hate speech, but we should try to write as authentically as possible whenever we can.

The Simplest Solution

Okay. You have the list. But what if you already spent a lot of time on a story that includes one or more items on it? Or what if your work includes one, but you really, really, really like it? Getting rid of the trope altogether is one solution, but it might take too much work and/or break your heart.

If that’s the case, you can subvert the trope or call it out. Subvert the trope by changing a key element — for example, making an ugly duckling always physically unattractive but succeed anyway through their personality and intelligence. 

By contrast, calling out a trope means breaking the fourth wall just a little by having a character in your work point out how cliche or stereotypical it is. For example, having a brain with no brawn character who makes fun of that factor in his dialogue.

Applying either of those can help you get all the benefits of the trope without the risks of problematic or stale writing.