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8 Common Tropes in Children’s Literature: How to Subvert Them


This post is part of a series on How to Write Children’s Books

Converting common tropes is a great way to give children’s literature a fresh, modern twist. Learn how to challenge traditional narratives and create unique stories for children. From the chosen one to the magical animal companion, we’ll identify eight tropes and how to turn them on their heads.

1. The Chosen One: The trope of the Chosen One is ubiquitous in children’s literature, where a seemingly ordinary child discovers they possess extraordinary abilities or destinies. Usually, they are destined to save the world or fulfill a great prophesy While this trope can inspire young readers to believe in their own potential, it can also perpetuate the idea that greatness is predetermined and exclusive to a select few. It can be empowering for young readers to see themselves as the hero, but it’s also important to give the character unique qualities and challenges that make them stand out from other chosen ones so it doesn’t lead to predictability and lack of character development. For example, writers can introduce moments of self-doubt and inner conflict leading to the personal growth of the character rather than solely relying on their “chosen” status.

Examples of The Chosen One include Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, and Katniss Everdeen.

2. The Mysterious Mentor: A common trope in children’s literature is the presence of a wise and enigmatic mentor who guides the young protagonist on their journey. This archetype serves as a source of knowledge, guidance, and support for the main character. However, it is important to avoid making the mentor infallible or all-knowing, as this can hinder character development and create unrealistic expectations for real-life mentors. Instead, writers can introduce flaws, inner conflicts, and limitations to these mentors, allowing them to grow alongside the young protagonist. By incorporating moments of vulnerability and personal growth for the mentor, writers can create a more realistic and relatable relationship between mentor and mentee. Examples of this trope include characters like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Dumbledore from Harry Potter, and Yoda from Star Wars.

3. The Absent or Evil Parents: This trope often sets the stage for a child’s adventure, as they navigate a world without parental guidance. While this can create opportunities for independence and self-discovery, it can also perpetuate negative stereotypes about parents. To subvert this trope, writers can explore the reasons behind the absent or evil parents, delving into their own struggles and complexities. By giving them depth and nuance, writers can challenge the notion of a one-dimensional antagonist or absent figure. Additionally, it is important to provide alternative role models or parental figures who offer guidance and support to the protagonist. This can help counterbalance the negative portrayal of parents and highlight the importance of community and chosen families. Ultimately, by incorporating diverse and multifaceted parental figures, writers can create a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of familial rel8tionships in children’s literature.

Examples of evil or absent parents in children’s literature include Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, the Dursleys from Harry Potter, and Mrs. Coulter from His Dark Materials.

4. The Evil Villain: In many children’s books, the antagonist is portrayed as purely evil, with no redeeming qualities or understandable motivations. While this type of villain can serve a clear purpose in the plot, it can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes and paint a simplistic view of good versus evil. To subvert this trope, writers can explore the backstory and motivations of the villain, delving into their past traumas or desires that led them down a destructive path. This not only adds depth to the character but also creates opportunities for empathy and understanding from readers. Additionally, having a complex and multifaceted villain can create more suspense and tension as readers are unsure of their next move.

Examples of evil villains include Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians, Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter, and the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia.

5. The Reformed/Redeemed Villain: This common trope involves an initially evil character who undergoes a transformation to become good. While it can be satisfying to see villains repent for their wrongdoings and join forces with the protagonists, it’s important to avoid oversimplifying the process of redemption. It takes time and effort for individuals to change their beliefs and actions significantly, especially if they have been deeply ingrained in them for a long time. Therefore, writers should ensure that the reformation of these characters is realistically portrayed with struggles and setbacks along the way.

Examples of a reformed or redeemed villain include Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, Snape in Harry Potter, and Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

6. The Mirror Villain: This trope involves an antagonist who mirrors certain traits or characteristics of the protagonist, often serving as their dark reflection or foil. While this can create an interesting dynamic between hero and villain, it can also fall into clichéd patterns if not done carefully. To avoid this, writers should ensure that both characters have distinct personalities and motivations that go beyond being opposites of each other. Examples of mirror villains include Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, and President Snow in The Hunger Games.

7.The Underdog vs The Overpowered Villain: Another common trope in children’s literature is pitting an underdog protagonist against an overpowered villain who seems unbeatable. This creates a sense of struggle and tension throughout the story as readers root for the hero to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. However, it’s important for writers to ensure that the protagonist’s victory doesn’t come too easily or feel forced. The underdog should face real challenges and setbacks along the way, forcing them to rely on their resourcefulness, intelligence, and inner strength to defeat the villain. This can create a more satisfying and believable narrative, as readers witness the protagonist’s growth and development throughout their journey. Examples of the underdog vs the overpowered villain include Eragon vs Galbatorix in the Inheritance Cycle, Harry Potter vs Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, and Katniss Everdeen vs President Snow in The Hunger Games.

8. The Magical Creature: From talking animals to mythical creatures, this trope adds whimsy and enchantment to children’s literature. These creatures offer comfort and companionship to young protagonists. While this trope can foster a love and respect for animals, it runs the risk of oversimplifying the complex relationship between humans and animals. To utilize this trope effectively, it’s important to avoid falling into stereotypes by giving these characters unique personalities and motivations. Writers can explore the animal’s own thoughts, emotions, and motivations, elevating them from mere sidekicks to fully realized characters with their own agency. By giving them an active role in the plot and exploring their desires, fears, and flaws, writers can breathe life into these magical beings.

Examples of magical creatures in children’s literature include Percy Jackson’s companions, Hagrid’s pets in the Harry Potter series, and Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia.

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