The word trope has a few meanings, depending on the context. It can be a rhetorical literary device that changes the literal meaning of words, like a metaphor or irony. A trope can also be a commonly used literary motif, character type, or plot line that has become so pervasive that it is almost clichéd. 

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Table of contents

    Trope: meaning

    Originally a trope was an important part of rhetoric. The word 'trope' is derived from the Greek word for 'turn'. So, a trope was a 'turn of phrase' or a twist or turn in meaning. Traditionally, the term referred to literary devices like metaphors or any device that changed the literal meaning of words.

    Since the days of the Romans, tropes have been confused with schemes, which are supposed to be literary devices that don’t change the meaning of words. These include devices like repetition. However, this debate is ongoing and gets a bit convoluted, as what constitutes a change of meaning is difficult to define in absolutes.

    To make the definitions even more blurred, the word trope can now also be used to describe motifs, character types, and plot elements that are seen so often that their meaning is a form of shorthand. This type of trope can be found in film, literature, and TV.

    Trope: rhetorical

    Sticking to the figure of speech definition of a trope is a literary device that changes the literal meaning of words, the four key tropes are considered to be metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. This is due to their regular day-to-day use.

    Trope: examples

    Let's take a look at two of the most used rhetorical devices that are considered to be tropes in a little more detail.


    A metaphor is similar to a simile but rather than directly comparing two things by using words like 'like' and 'as', the metaphor is indirect. Maya Angelou’s poem 'Awaking in New York' (1983) uses a simile:

    I, an alarm, awake as a

    rumor of war,

    lie stretching into dawn,

    unasked and unheeded. (lines 8–11)

    In contrast, a metaphor compares 'A to B' without the use of connecting words like 'like' or 'as'. This can be used in many forms of literature from poems to plays and prose. A great example is Sylvia Plath’s poem helpfully titled 'Metaphors' (1959). The entire poem is a series of metaphors, with almost each line introducing at least one new one:

    I’m a riddle in nine syllables,

    An elephant, a ponderous house,

    A melon strolling on two tendrils. (lines 1–3)


    Irony has as many meanings as the word trope but in the context of literary devices, it can be more easily understood as either dramatic, situational, verbal, or structural irony.

    Dramatic irony

    Dramatic irony originated in Greek plays where it described a situation where the bigger picture was clear to the audience but not to all of the characters. An example of this can be seen in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597), where the audience knows that Juliet is only drugged, while Romeo thinks she is dead. This is also an example of the sub genre: tragic dramatic irony.

    Situational irony

    Situational irony is a situation that ends up being an almost direct opposite of what was anticipated and is often amusing as a result. A not so amusing example of situational irony is the plight of the mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (1798). The mariner finds himself at sea, surrounded by water, while dying of thirst.

    Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink (line 34)

    Verbal irony

    Verbal irony is similar to sarcasm where the speaker says the opposite of what they mean. Sarcasm is viewed as an unsophisticated or a more abrasive form of verbal irony, largely as it is used on a day to day basis in normal conversation. There are many examples of verbal irony in literature that can be spotted in Joseph Heller's Catch 22 (1961). A pretty famous line is directly related to the title and is an ironic commentary on needlessly petty or ineffectual bureaucracy.

    Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating.' (Chapter 2)

    Structural irony

    Structural irony is often used to describe literature that uses an unreliable narrator or a naïve hero, allowing the author to show how the narrative’s viewpoint is flawed. Similar to dramatic irony, the audience becomes aware of the situation being shown by the author, while the narrator does not. The Chris Nolan film Memento (2000) is a classic example of an unreliable narrator. The protagonist and narrator has anterograde amnesia. This causes him to lose his short-term memory and the ability to form any new ones. His condition makes him an unreliable narrator but also assists in creating a plot that questions any objective 'reliability'.

    Metonymy is the use of a single word or image to represent a wider concept. So for examples 'suits' or the image of a suit could be used to represent business people.

    A synecdoche is when a part of the whole is figuratively used to represent the whole. An example would be referring to 'my wheels' when meaning your car.

    Tropes: character tropes

    Moving away from the literary device meaning and into the commonly used character types or motifs, it is worth looking at a few tropes that have become almost clichéd due to their ubiquity. Many of these are character tropes. These kinds of tropes can be useful to create relatable and accessible characters but can also risk creating characters that are flat or undeveloped beyond a stereotypical type. Let's look at a few literary examples.

    The Chosen One

    This character trope is most commonly found in fantasy and science fiction novels or films. The Chosen One is usually the protagonist whose personal development or journey is central to the plot. They are often selected or even volunteer for an arduous task or dangerous adventure. Literary examples that have been made into films include Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Games (2008), Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997–2007), Bilbo Baggins in J.R.T Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937), and Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert's Dune (1965). In cinema, examples include Neo from The Matrix (1999) and Cale from Titan AE (2000).

    Cale: For your information, I happen to be Humanity's last great hope.

    Preed: I weep for the species'

    Science Fiction is a genre that spans literature, film, TV and even comics. Often featuring future societies, the main characteristic is the reference to technologies that do not yet exist. An example would be time travel or teleportation.

    The Damsel in Distress

    One of the oldest female tropes, this role is often referred to as existing purely to support the narrative of a hero coming to the rescue. Traditionally the hero was male. This may be a simplistic view of a multifaceted myth that survives until today, despite the greater levels of gender equality achieved by most modern societies. Older examples exist in the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales like Rapunzel (1812) and Snow White (1812). Mythic examples date back to examples like the Greek legend of Andromeda. Her beauty famously upset the sea nymphs, who then demanded her sacrifice as retribution.

    Some more modern examples include Olive Oyl, who always needed to be rescued by Popeye, despite gaining her own spinach related superhuman strength. Popeye was a character in a famous cartoon that was popular during the 1930s and 1940s. Characters such as Sam Black Crow in Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) knowingly play with this trope. Sam needs help, in this particular case, a lift, but is also highly capable, aware and intelligent.

    ''Because I'm a damsel in distress,” she said, “and you are a knight in whatever. A really dirty car.''

    The Dumb Muscle

    This well-worn trope is common across literature and film. Based on the misconception that it is not possible to be fit, muscular, and intelligent, the Dumb Muscle character is typically a secondary one. Usually, the protagonist outwits this character or the 'muscle' is merely a supporting role henchmen. Literary examples include Boxer from George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945). An example in novels and film where this trope is subverted is Conan the Barbarian (1953 - 1955), a muscular but tactical genius who speaks several languages. Terry Pratchett humourously played with this trope with his troll characters in Moving Pictures (1990):

    William de Worde: William de Worde. Ankh-Morpork Times.

    Detritus: I don't read dat.

    De Worde: We'll put out a large print edition.

    Detritus: Ho, ho, dat very funny. But fick as I am, I'm still the one saying you can't go past.

    Do you think that tropes are stereotypes? Do you think that subversions of character tropes create more rounded characters or just another type of flat representation? Why?

    Tropes: romance tropes

    Within the romance genre, tropes are pretty ubiquitous. Romance as a theme or genre is not new but has remained popular since the days of the ancient Greeks, through the times of Shakespeare right up to current best-selling authors like Jasmine Guillory. Within the genre, a few age-old plot lines and situations have been reworked into newish versions or variations on the theme. Let's take a look at a few key romance novel tropes.

    Romance as a genre is, of course, about the type of human relationships that are not platonic. Typically works of literature or film in this genre have a central theme that involves love. Traditionally these works tended to end happily but that is not the case with more modern versions.

    The Love Triangle

    Designed to create tension and appeal most to those who like to pick a side, the love triangle usually involves two rivals competing for the love of the third person. Dating back to examples like the legend of King Arthur, whose wife Guinevere was cheating on him with his best friend, Sir Lancelot, the love triangle now has a few different permutations. Literary examples include D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), which caused a scandal and was banned in the United Kingdom due to representations of an inter-class love triangle.

    More recent examples include Sarah Water’s Tipping the Velvet (1998) which features a Victorian-era love triangle between three women, with the protagonist Nan choosing her partner more wisely the second time around. In mainstream teenage romcom films these love triangles are often linked to character tropes, so there may be a rivalry between 'polar opposites' such as the Bad Boy vs Nice Guy or the Nerdy Girl vs the Cheerleader. This trope within a trope has survived since the days of Grease (1978) up to the Rory, Dean and Jess triangle of the Gilmore Girls (2002-2007) series.

    Enemies to Lovers

    This romance trope was popularised by Jane Austen who took it mainstream with the publication of her novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813). In this novel, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy take a disliking to each other due to her prejudice and his pride. Over the course of the book, these handicaps are overcome and the two fall in love.

    Motivated by the idea that strong emotions beget strong emotions, with undercurrents of unresolved sexual tension, this hate-to-love story arc now exists in novels, films, and series. More recent examples include Buffy and Spike from the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), who seemingly went from trying to kill each other to being completely in love.

    Why do you think that these tropes have lasted for so long? Can you think of other current examples from literature, films or series?

    Trope - Key takeaways

    • The word trope has different meanings in different contexts. It can mean a literary device that changes the meaning of words or an often-used literary character, motif, or plot line.

    • Examples of tropes as a literary device include metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony.

    • Metaphors are different from similes, as they do not use the words 'like' or 'as' when making comparisons. Irony can be verbal, situational, dramatic, or structural.

    • Examples of character tropes include the Damsel in Distress, Dumb Muscle, and The Chosen One.

    • Romance tropes can include the Love Triangle and Enemies to Lovers and are seen in genres from literature to film and series.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Trope

    What is a trope?

    A trope can be a literary device like a metaphor or irony. It can also be a commonly used literary character or plot line.

    What is a trope in literature?

    In literature, a trope is usually a literary device that changed the meaning of words, like a metaphor or irony.

    It can also be a well-known character type, motif or plot line.

    What is an example of a trope?

    An example of a trope is a metaphor.

    What is a rhetorical trope?

    A rhetorical trope is a figure of speech or literary device that changes the meaning of words. This could be a metaphor or even irony.

    What is a trope in a novel?

    In a novel, a trope could be rhetorical like a metaphor or the use of irony. It could also be a well known type of character such as The Chosen One or even a plot line.

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