Clichés get a bad rap these days, but is it really deserved? After all, in a complicated world, where good doesn’t always triumph over evil, isn’t it nice to read a story in which boy wins girl, girl wins Hunger Games, and villain is hurled satisfyingly over a cliff while howling about revenge? I like to think of stories that feature these and other familiar tropes as fictional comfort food—a cozy break from a reality filled with tough setbacks, dizzying disappointments, and Real Housewives. Without further ado, here are a few of our favorite fictional clichés.
Boy Who Pretends He Doesn’t Love Girl (But He Really Does)
I’m a huge sucker for a story with a good Romantic Hero Who Initially Seems Like He Doesn’t Care About You One Bit, But in Fact He Loves You So Much God You Don’t Even Know. In fact, I’d argue that the early scenes in the first Twilight novel, when Bella knows little about the handsome Edward except that he seems like he can’t stand her (ALTHOUGH IN FACT, NAY, THE OPPOSITE IS TRUE!) were my favorite part of the whole series. That period was rife with sexual tension and possibility; Edward was most appealing to me when he was brooding, mysterious, and just out of reach. That’s potentially a sign I have emotional problems, but anyway. It’s about those seemingly untouchable romantic heroes (Mr. Rochester, Mr. Darcy, dare I say Christian Grey during the first few chapters of Fifty Shades of Grey) who give the impression of utter disinterest—when, really, it’s all they can do to bite their knuckles and glare smolderingly into the middle distance as the objects of their secret obsession wander by.
The Gruff Older Character Whose Life is Changed by a Precocious Child
I love these stories—and not just because redemption through the wholesome love of an innocent child is the most adorable form of redemption, although it is. These tales tend to feature a cantankerous, set-in-their-ways adult who is slowly changed for the better by the unexpected appearance of a child—my favorite example being stern Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables. Marilla may have initially done her best to give young Anne the cold shoulder, but it was pretty obvious to everyone involved that Anne’s industrial-strength charm was about to unleash a relentless blowtorch of loving affection upon her guardian’s icy defenses. Marilla, you never stood a chance. Other hallowed members of the Reluctant Guardian Who is Secretly Waiting for Love to Blossom in Their Crusty Old Heart pantheon include Macon Leary, the crabby grump who unexpectedly falls for an eccentric woman and her frail son in Anne Tyler’s brilliant novel The Accidental Tourist, and of course the crotchety, irascible Thomas Oakley from Michelle Magorian’s sweet World War–II tearjerker Goodnight Mister Tom.
The Plain Jane Who Gets Her Man
In the seminal gothic romance Jane Eyre, our heroine literally is a plain Jane—but the well-worn story of the less-than-conventionally attractive (or even “ugly-duckling”) heroine who nonetheless manages to ride off into the sunset with some Grade-A, Top-Sirloin Romantic Hero Beefcake didn’t stop there; both classic and contemporary novels are full of the old standby. From sad-sack Bridget Jones in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, who feels totally insecure about her looks and yet manages to win the affection of dreamboat Mark Darcy, to Jennifer Weiner’s dowdy underdog heroine Cannie Shapiro in Good In Bed, to the unlikely love affair between frumpy middle-aged Lenny Abramov and the beautiful young ingénue Eunice Park in Gary Shteyngart’s blistering modern dystopian tale Super Sad True Love Story, stories in which inner beauty is recognized (and rewarded with well-deserved hot lovin’) is something I’ll always be a sucker for.
The Unlikely Hero of Humble Origins
Long before Harry Potter rose from obscurity to fight an earth-shattering battle against Lord Voldemort, we’ve loved celebrating underdog heroes from unexpected places. Look at David vs. Goliath, the tiny hobbit Frodo vs. the enormously powerful evil of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, and, more recently, plucky young Katniss Everdeen vs. The entire Capitol in The Hunger Games. I’ll even include Janet Evanovich’s klutzy Jersey girl bounty hunter Stephanie Plum in this category, along with the precocious child-genius heroine from Matilda, and A Wrinkle in Time’s awkward but bright teen Meg Wallace. Stories of unlikely heroes and heroines help remind us that everyday people can achieve extraordinary things—and who doesn’t mind that theme being repeated a few hundred times?
The Love Triangle
Lack of hoverboards aside, one of the great failures of modern science is our continued inability to combine two different yet equally compelling individuals to form one perfect superperson. (On the day we are finally able to do this, I look forward to getting better acquainted with a combination of my husband and Tom Hardy cuddling this pitbull puppy.) The cliché of having to choose between two dashing romantic partners is well-represented in fiction, and it’s been around even longer than Archie’s perennial Betty vs. Veronica conundrum. In the turn of the century New York society of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer was forced to choose between the bland but lovely (and socially approved) May Welland and the fiery, provocative Countess Olenska. These days, we have Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games vacillating between thrilling risk-taker Gale and doggedly devoted Peeta. And don’t even get me started on Bella Swan’s dilemma between hothead Jacob and cold-blooded Edward in Twilight. These kinds of impossible choices keep readers guessing and also keep them invested in the story—and who hasn’t had to make a similarly difficult decision at some point in their lives? Although for me it’s usually “Coke or Sprite?” and not “Dreamy vampire or sexy werewolf?” Oh, well.
What beloved tropes are we forgetting?