A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect. Think of it as a figure of speech. A figure of speech is a word or phrase used in a non-literal sense for rhetorical or vivid effect. These “figures of speech” could be a rhetorical device, motif or a cliché. Tropes make writer’s heads hurt because they want to write creatively without resorting to devices, motifs, or clichés. A trope is not a pain reliever; it’s a vise. And like all vices, it should be twisted by someone other than the author, to catch little mistakes like saying vice when you meant vise.
Assessing the ethics of literary tropes requires jumping over literary hoops, such as irony, metaphor, juxtaposition, and hyperbole, or themes such as “the noble bastard” or “the reluctant hero.”
The word trope comes from the Greek word tropos, meaning a turn or change of direction. Critics and scholars from the classical era studied tropes, but now a-days the definition shifts in the literary wind created by tropes. Where in classic rhetoric, a trope refers to a specific figure of speech or literary device, today it might not, although it could, if it wanted to.
A trope is always a rhetorical device, and an ethical challenge.
Rhetoric as a discipline is still touched by the shadow of ancient Greece. Rhetoric was defined famously by Aristotle as the “available means of persuasion,” codified into five canons in classical Rome, and has since been a central part of Western education to train speakers and writers to effectively move their audiences. However, particularly beginning in the mid-20th Century, the discipline’s understanding of rhetoric as a means of persuasion (or even manipulation) passed down from our ancient roots began to shift to a sense of rhetoric as matters of ethics and a concern for the other. It begs the question: As a discipline, how did we get to a point where ethical concerns have increasingly entered the rhetorical conversation.
The use of tropes crosses genre lines easily. For example, fantasy tropes are recurring images, themes, or devices that have become common conventions in that genre. A character who fulfills an important purpose, and whose responsibility is to resolve the plot’s main conflict — which will often be to save the world. Harry Potter, literally called “The Chosen One,” is a great example of using tropes in fantasy books.
Fire and brimstone, darkness and inhospitable lands, are the essence of fantasy writing. The “Evil Overlord” lives in a realm that reflects their wicked intentions, surrounded by their minions and followers. A fine example is in “Sleeping Beauty,” Maleficent’s castle is perched on a precarious and jagged mountain-top, looking over a land of darkness. She leads an army of minions and calls herself the “Mistress of All Evil.”
The moral imperatives in using literary tropes stem from three unseen cords—Ethics—Tropes—Attunement. The least understood of the three is attunement. Attunement is the reactiveness we have to another person in real life, or a character in a book, or story. An ethical assessment considers three connecting questions. “(1) Whether and how literature and ethics can provide reciprocal illumination, and how each field’s established lines of enquiry can help the other. (2) How literary studies and the philosophy of literature negotiate non-literal meaning, and the linguistic models, which the respective practices imply. (3) How the theories and practices of the two fields can be brought to bear on one another.”
Ethics is moral philosophy. Writing is communicating. Both involve systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Tropes are figures of speech—rhetorical devices. The ethics of communication blend into the ethics of using literary tropes. In both worlds, truth, honesty, and transparency are essential. So, whether you’re creating noble bastards or reluctant heroes you should be truthful, honest and transparent. Simple, eh?
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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