Harlequin Historical author Michelle Styles gives a brief explanation of what a trope is and why they are important, plus a giveway of her latest
Earlier this month, the copyright violation case against Kate Walker was dismissed with prejudice. An unpublished author had accused Kate Walker of stealing her ideas and had taken the case to court. If the unpublished author had know more about tropes, she would have saved everyone a lot of time and grief as the judge unequivocally declared Kate Walker innocent.What is a trope?
A trope is the name for a metaphorical use of words. It describes various common plots, characters and themes. Sometimes people confuse trope with troupe (a company of performers) but the correct word is trope. These plots, themes and characters have been used since time immemorial and no one has the right to own them. Copyright covers the expression of characters, plots and themes but not the ideas themselves. In short copyright covers that which is unique about an author – her voice.
It is perhaps easiest to think of a trope as detailed architect drawings of a house. You might even have the representation of various items of furniture. But the drawing is very different to actually being in a furnished house, particularly one which has been lived in for awhile. The story which the author creates and has copyright protection for is the finished and lived in house. It is unique because the author’s voice runs through it. Just like the inhabitant of the house’s taste runs through the house and it could belong to no one else. The tropes cannot be copyright protected.
It is important to realise that there is nothing new under the sun in terms of plot. As Robin Lane Fox makes clear in his book Travelling Heroes, Homer stood on the shoulders of story tellers who had come before him and uses bits from other stories. Travelling Heroes is a fascinating read if you are interested in such things. But if Homer couldn’t create an original plot thousands of years ago, we should stop worrying about it as well and should concentrate on the things which do make stories unique.Other authors such as Joseph Campbell (Hero of a Thousand Faces) and Maureen Murdock ( The Heroine’s Journey) make the point that there are only a few plots which resonate through out time And the same archetypal characters occur time and again.
There are many tropes in romance. Little Red Riding meets the Big Bad Wolf is currently popular. 50 Shades of Grey uses this trope. In the case of 50 Shades, the heroine relies on her magic hoo-ha rather than the woodcutter to get her out of trouble. Other tropes include Cinderella, Reunion stories where the couple have split up, Marriage of Convenience, Amnesia, Tart with a Heart or Pregnant Bride. It is helpful to know them because then if you are writing a story, you can know the scenes a faire (naturally arising from the plot scenes) which need to occur. What is the point of a murder mystery story if you never have a scene where the murderer is uncovered? If you have a pregnant heroine, it is normally best to let the reader know what happens when she gives birth. If you have star –crossed lovers, the family does need to find out about them.
Similarly with characters, an author only has the right to her detailed and very unique character. You cannot copyright a tall dark handsome hero with a stepmother and two brothers. It is far too generic. It needs to be specific in order to make your character move than a line drawing or sketch. A lay person has to be able to recognise that character as unique individual rather than an archetype in order for that character to be protected. Again it goes back to voice and the way the author tells her story. It is not so much about the character but the way the character is expressed on the page which makes that character become unique in the reader’s mind.
Everyone has her unique voice. It is important to use it to tell stories which are as old as time in a fresh and new way.
If you are interested in reading the full text of the judgement (and the analysis of what can be protected starts on page 8) you can do so here.
Because my book An Ideal Husband? is officially published on 5 April, I am doing a giveaway. The trope for An ideal Husband? is a fake engagement and if you have a fake engagement, there does have to be a scene where they are found out. I had a great deal of fun writing the story and hope readers enjoy it.
UPDATE I drew Karen H's name out of the hat and a copy will be sent to her.