Anybody who watches cartoons or anime might recognize today’s topic: tropes. These literary devices act as a mostly visual way (at least, on screen) for the creator of a work to quickly and easily convey a concept to their audience. They can take many forms: a figure of speech, a character type, a plot device, a location or location type, a pattern of storytelling, a sub-plot, and other repeatable elements.
I originally intended to focuses on the anime Silver Spoon for today’s post, but after whipping out a Fairly Oddparents reference, I couldn’t stop myself. The series sucked me in with its abundant tropes, clichés, and stereotypes (which are all related, as you will see shortly). For the sake of keeping this post at a reasonable blog length, I didn’t cover every example (or even one tenth of them) appearing in this ongoing series. If you have a favorite example that didn’t make the cut, be sure to share it in the comments! I would love to see which ones you like.
Hey, I’ve Seen this Before!
Did somebody oversleep and run to school with a piece of toast in their mouth? You’ve got a trope! Did a romantic scene feature beautiful tropical trees and a placid lake? You’ve got a trope! Did an unsavory character in dark clothing with a thin mustache and shifty eyes slink in and declare their evil ways? You probably didn’t need them to proclaim their badguy status because… You’ve got a trope!
Although often considered the mark of lazy writing, these literary devices are not inherently bad. They allow an author to quickly communicate an idea without spending too much time elaborating on it. Imagine if the last cartoon you watched spent five or more minutes elaborating on the personality of every single side character. That’s nearly half of its 10-12 minute episode run time per character. Doing so would really take away from the main story and characters, slowing the pace and bogging everything down. Instead, the writer or artist can throw in a few characters with pre-established types: the aloof cool kid, the absent parent, the shy poet. These character types quickly establish each character’s role and clues the viewer in on their purpose and personality.
Let’s take a look at a few examples found in Butch Hartman’s The Fairly Oddparents.
The most common examples are character tropes. As discussed above, character types appear in cartoons in order to quickly establish background characters’ personalities and relations to the story or other characters.
Timmy’s friends AJ and Chester, for example, represent the genius friend/idiot friend combo. One is a brainiac, while the other arguably wouldn’t find his way out of a paper bag even with a map. Both types of characters typically fall into the unpopular category at school, with AJ and Chester being no exception. Audience members have seen this character dynamic in other series, and don’t require an in-depth explanation. They know what to expect, and draw the correct assumption that Timmy is most likely as unpopular as his friends.
Speaking of Timmy’s popularity, a trope might also convey larger concepts such as social structures. In The Fairly Oddparents, we see a common social hierarchy: the popularity food chain. This hierarchy often comes in to convey where the main character stands in relation to their peers, as well as quickly establish more information about the story’s setting.
It’s easy to spot the popular kids Trixie, Veronica, Tad, and Chad in The Fairly Oddparents. They are well dressed, travel as a group, and say disdainful things about their peers. Additionally, they never miss an opportunity to brag about their family’s massive wealth, relying on it to get them into and out of every situation they come across.
In order to demonstrate that the main character, Timmy, is not on the same social level as them, the popular kids regularly treat Timmy poorly. Trixie even refers to him as “Empty Bus Seat,” indicating his low standing in the social order. With the inclusion of these characters, Hartman sets Timmy up as the unpopular underdog, and shows that the world he lives in is just as unfairly tipped in favor of money and status as our own.
These characters also allow Hartman to create contrast, cause tension, draw parallels, and achieve other desired effects throughout the series.
Everybody usually has their favorite episode type: the beach trip; the everybody-swaps-bodies; the school festival; the year that so-and-so almost ruined Christmas (because, sadly, the other holidays rarely ever get their own special episodes…). Narrative patterns like these are also tropes. Many creative works will use similar episode storylines for a variety of reasons. They often introduce new information about the characters while using a familiar narrative to do so. The audience easily settles into the familiar pattern, freeing them to focus on the characters rather than getting caught up in the conflict of the episode.
First season alone contains a number of notable tropes without even looking at the other 9+:
The trope of a child becoming trapped in an adult body appears in the episode “The Big Problem,” the first full-length episode following the shorts released for Oh Yeah! Cartoons. Tired of being picked on and pushed around by older kids and adults in his life, Timmy wishes to become an adult. He expects to enjoy all of the privileges that come with adulthood, but it all blows up in his face (as often happens with this type of episode) when he fails to consider the drawbacks and responsibilities of adult life. Episodes like this often appear in order to highlight the similarities and differences between children and adults, as well as demonstrating that adult life isn’t all fun and games like it sometimes seems.
Successful use of a trope requires some level of ingenuity as well. If every child-in-an-adult-body episode was exactly the same, nobody would like them. Hartman does this brilliantly. The episode serves to establish Timmy’s relationship with the adults in his life, as well as shining a light on Timmy’s tendency to try and take the easy way out. Using this particular story arc also allows Hartman to introduce the concept that Fairies can only grant the wishes of children. As soon as Timmy ages to adulthood, Cosmo and Wanda lose the ability to grant him wishes and receive a new child assignment. The same concept could have been established using dialogue, but using dialogue for key concepts often creates flat characters and boring conversations that feel forced and fake.
Other trope episodes include “Power Mad!” (characters enter a videogame world), “Transparents” (characters pretend to be someone’s parents to get them out of trouble), and “Tiny Timmy” (characters shrink and enter another character’s body only to discover a literal civilization inside). And what kind of late 90’s, early 2000’s cartoon would it be without the “Christmas Everyday!” episode? The first season concludes with an episode in which Timmy wishes for Christmas every day. Naturally, the wish backfires, leaving Timmy and his Fairies to set things right.
Comics inside of Cartoons
World building elements such as magic systems, television shows, or hover cars are also tropes. Authors can provide some fast world building by including everyday things that their viewers can relate to such as comics, cartoons, or other media from the fictional world. These elements reveal characters’ personalities, add commentary on real social issues, or make characters more real and relatable.
Timmy loves reading The Crimson Chin comics. Every month, he eagerly awaits the next issue, devours it, and repeats. Whenever he doesn’t want to wait, he simply wishes himself into the heavily inked panels (look, another common story arc!). These superhero comics add depth to Timmy’s personality and to the world as a whole.
Turning the Cliché Trope into a Joke
Unfortunately, when used too often, either in the same work or in multiple, tropes become a problem. If ten series on the same network utilized a scene where a character falls down the stairs and wakes up in another world, things would start to feel a little stale. Audience members would grow bored. They know what’s going to happen and knowing yanks them out of the immersive experience of watching. When this happens, the well thought-out device becomes a dastardly cliché. Just like a pair of underwear worn unwashed for a month, nobody likes clichés.
One of the things that I love best about Hartman’s work is that he often takes clichés and skillfully flips them into jokes. He sees tired tropes turning into clichés and shines a spotlight on them so brightly that they become jokes in his works.
Take a look at Timmy’s mom and dad. Who are these characters? Simply Timmy’s mom and dad. No explanation needed. They act as the authority in Timmy’s life, the symbol of traditional family structure, and the oblivious parents who don’t understand their son’s life. Parents appear in many stories with no further explanation behind them, presenting the assumption that the character simply needed a mom and dad. In many series, especially older cartoons, moms and dads rarely receive names because their only purpose is to represent the authority and family structure in a character’s life. Hartman takes this and turns it into a running gag in his series.
What are the names of Timmy’s mom and dad? Why, their names are…. Actually, we never learn their true names. The episode “Father Time” addresses the question when Timmy travels back in time and meets his parents’ childhood selves. Whenever someone goes to say either character’s name, a conveniently timed loud sound drowns them out, and the audience catches the follow-up of “but you can call me Dad/Mom.” Accordingly, we can only assume that their names are Mom and Dad.
When used carelessly, Tropes can easily become stereotypes by mistake. If a character or location isn’t fleshed out enough, they tend to take on vague concepts often used to characterize a particular type of person or place, creating a stereotype or cliché. People generally feel negatively toward stereotypes as they do not reflect the true characteristics of the people or locations being portrayed. In many cases, stereotypes present harmful representations of people or groups.
For an example, let’s consider the popular girl mentioned earlier, Trixie Tang. Trixie seems like the stereotypical popular girl. She cares about makeup, her social standing, clothes, and anything girly. On top of that, she treats all unpopular kids with disdain (or simply acts like she can’t see them) and sucks up to the adults around her who can get her what she wants. Characters in her role typically don’t care about the less popular kids, carry around a snarky attitude, obsess over their looks, and float through life in relative bliss.
In many cases, stereotypes and clichés are not only boring, but also harmful. Many create a generalization of what a particular type of person acts like, whether maliciously or not, that makes it seem like all people who identify that way must act similarly. Like other popular girl stereotypes, Trixie does not accurately represent real girls and young women who consider themselves to be popular. Sure, there may be a number of individuals who act similarly in real life, but this is not true of all popular girls and young women. Every person is their own unique individual with layers upon layers that shape their personal and social identities.
At first, Trixie receives very little screen time with which to build her personality and show her as anything but a cookie-cutter representation of popular girls. Anybody who has seen the gender-swapping episode “The Boy Who Would Be Queen” knows that Trixie just puts on the stereotype persona for the sake of her popularity. She actually really likes The Crimson Chin comics, and admits that she wishes girls could do more boy stuff and vice-versa.
Bonus: If the popular-girl-secretly-does-unpopular-things storyline seems familiar to you… you guessed it—you’ve got a trope! The concept comes up in countless other narratives in order to convey the idea that people are deeper than their social presentation allows others to see.
Bet You Didn’t See This Coming!
Overall, tropes are useful literary devices that allow creators to develop and convey new ideas using familiar sequences, characters, locations, or other narrative elements. They work as a type of short-hand utilized by all, understood by most.
Now that you know what they’re all about, it’s time to tackle finding some and identifying their significance on your own! You can find them in your favorite games, shows, movies, books… they’re everywhere in pop culture. If you’re coming up blank, here are a few suggestions to get you started. Come back and share what you find!
- The competent new kid (The Backstagers)
- Annoying laugh (Spongebob Squarepants)
- Salvage pirates (Firefly)
- Carrying a cutlass between your teeth (Muppet Treasure Island)
- Superheroes wear capes (The Incredibles)
- A bus full of innocent people put in danger (Detective Conan/Case Closed)
- Body swapped (Gravity Falls)
- School festival (Ouran High School Host Club)
- It was all a dream (The Wizard of Oz)
- Your hero is a jerk in reality (bonus points for finding an example! I’m chagrined to admit that I drew a huge blank here!)
If you’re an anime fan and want to see more examples, check out KawaiiPaperPandas’ great post listing ten of the most common occurrences and cliches in anime!
I wanted to extend a huge thank-you to the amazing minds over at TVtropes.org for their ongoing work in discussing and rounding up tropes in the narrative worlds around us. Their extensive work helped me to put simple names to long-winded ideas. If you enjoyed reading about this literary device and want to learn more about it, check them out!
And as always, if you have a literary device you want to know more about, or a game, comic, show, or movie that you want to see make an appearance on the blog, leave a shout-out in the comments!