Lessons I’ve Learned While Writing: All the Good Ideas Are Taken And Why That’s OK


James’s Note: This article is all about making old story tropes fresh and interesting. Old stories told in a new way are some of my favorites. We also talk about my favorite trope twist, the Magic Pixie Dream Girl.


TLDR: There are no new ideas, so feel free to use the old ones, just do them well, or in a new or thoughtful way.

A lot of new writers jealously guard their story ideas, convinced that they have some revolutionary new concept no one has ever heard of before. This makes them paranoid of people stealing their story ideas.

I hate to break it to them, but their ideas aren’t new. It’s all been done before. There is nothing new under the sun.

If it’s been done a lot, we call it a trope. If it’s been done to death, we call it a cliche.

And for the most part, people are tired of them. People are tired of the same stories. Some of the worst offenders are The Chosen One, Evil Overlord, and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Does that mean you can’t use these tropes?

Absolutely not.

It does mean if you are going to retread old territory, do it in a new, or at least fun, way.

So let’s look at these tropes.

Chosen One:

This is maybe the most done to death trope in fantasy. 

Take an uninteresting main character with no skills who gets to be the hero just because he is chosen by Fate.

So how do you fix this one?

For this one, we can look to Harry Potter.

Yes, there is a prophecy and Harry was chosen, but JK Rowling really plays up the self-fulfilling prophecy element.

All the things that make Harry special are specifically given to him by Voldemort because he was trying to stop the prophesy.

 Harry doesn’t have to face him just because he was chosen by Fate, he chooses to face him because of Voldemort’s actions.

As a result of tipping the trope on its side, we have a much more interesting Chosen One.

Evil Overlord:

This is maybe the oldest cliche and the easiest to fix.

Sauron from Lord of the Rings is a great example of the evil Overlord cliche, because he is an ominous evil presence with literally zero personality.

You fix this, amazingly, by simply giving your villain, oh, you know, a personality.

Make sure your antagonist has motivations, backstory, an inner life, and maybe even some feelings.

For good examples of this, I’m going to say like 90% of animes.

Most of them have some pretty compelling villains.

If you’re looking for something more mainstream, look at Loki from the Thor movies and Killmonger from Black Panther.

Both villains were so well fleshed out that they kind of outshone their respective Heroes.

Which brings us to maybe my favorite here.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl:

This cliche is based on the idea that you have an angsty male protagonist two meets a whimsical girl who teaches him the meaning of life and how to have fun.

It’s usually considered trite because the girl has little to no personality or purpose outside of helping the main character grow.

You see it a lot in relationship dramas. You can also argue that Jack from Titanic is a boy version of the trope.

And I’ll totally agree, when done this way, it sucks.

However, I’ll argue that there is a related but different trope that I call the Magic Pixie Dream Girl.

What’s the difference?

The magic pixie dream girl does not necessarily exist just to be a love interest.

She does tend to be an over idealized girl. 

She’s fun and whimsical and competent. 

She usually has interesting life experiences, and will pop up with the weirdest skills just when they’re most needed.

She’s also wise-beyond-her-years, quirky, and adorable.

Is she realistic? Maybe not.

Do I freaking love this trope? 

Absolutely.

There are some great examples.

 Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia Is maybe the most classic example.

She is everything a magic pixie dream girl should be, but is saved from manic territory by actually being more fleshed-out than her male counterpart.

We learn more about her family and past than we do his.

Death from Neil gaiman’s Sandman series is another.

She’s funny and cute and loves everyone she takes to the sunless lands.

There’s something oddly comforting about the personification of death being depicted as adorable.

Without risk of spoilers, I can say there will be a magic pixie dream girl in the Witcher Man’s future.

Now, I might be a little biased, because my wife absolutely fits this trope as well.

So, at the end of the day, never be afraid to retell a story.

The Wheel of Time rips off Lord of the Rings.

The graveyard book by Neil Gaiman is just the Jungle Book retold with dead people.

Make it fun, make it interesting, and put a new spin on it.

Don’t be afraid to reinvent the wheel.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. This was a well done exploration of common tropes. I think you can explore this subject even further. Other than that, good job, Wes. Let’s hear some more of your thoughts on this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

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