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World-building: Trope worlds (In-depth guide)

World-building: Trope worlds (In-depth guide) World-building: Trope worlds (In-depth guide)
In this article:

    What is a trope world?

    A trope world is a world that is based on the conventions of the story’s subgenre. The story’s world differs from our regular world in significant ways, but the rules of those differences are pretty similar from story to story. The society depicted is different from our society, but all the settings share a recognizable set of characteristics determined by the subgenre of the story. Examples of subgenres that rely on Trope Worlds are regency romance, werewolf, and mafia. 

    The new and the familiar

    All stories balance the new and the familiar, but in the Trope World setting, the emphasis should be on what is familiar and shared among the subgenre. 

    Trope Worlds promises a certain reading experience based on commonly understood features of the world. If a Regency romance doesn’t have a ton and strict rules about marriage and sex, it’s not fulfilling the basic Trope World conventions of the genre. Similarly, if a werewolf story doesn’t have a pack structure and the concept of “mates,” it’s not fulfilling reader expectations for the Trope World. In both cases, the dedicated readers of these subgenres are likely to be disappointed in the story because they came to the story with certain expectations of the world based on the subgenre. 

    It can be fun to play with reader expectations, but the purpose of the Trope World is to fulfill those reader expectations. Readers who like Trope Worlds like the sense of continuity across stories, and when you’re writing in a Trope World subgenre, you should be aware of those reader expectations and fulfill them at least in part. If you’re not prepared to fulfill at least some Trope World expectations, you might want to reconsider the genre you’re writing. For example, if you want to write a romance novel set in 1815 with working-class main characters whose main external conflict is around enclosure and rising industrialization, you may have written a romance novel set in the Regency period, but it’s not really a “regency romance” by conventional definitions of the subgenre, since it’s not partaking of the Trope World. You can still write it, but be prepared to reach a much more niche audience. 

    Recognizing the foundational elements of the Trope World you’re working with is essential to writing well in that subgenre. Read other stories in your target genre and see what similarities recur across the genre. Those are the things you’re likely to want to keep. What are the commonalities among those elements? What do you think the reader gets out of them? 

    We’re not saying every Trope World story has to be the exact same as every other in its subgenre, or that you can’t have exciting new elements in your worldbuilding. Introducing new elements to a Trope World can be a fun way to differentiate your story, but make sure the core of the Trope World remains present and recognizable.  Try to limit these new elements to things that are absolutely essential to your story. Remember that Trope World readers are overwhelmingly interested in a familiar setting, so make sure that your setting delivers on that expectation. Don’t let the new elements upstage the familiar ones, and make sure those new elements are important to the story.

    Common trope world elements

    Let’s have a look at some common Trope World elements, as well as the effect they have on the stories. We’ll focus on Werewolf and Mafia since these are very popular on Wattpad. 

    Werewolf

    Trope World Element: Hierarchical werewolf pack

    Werewolf packs have strict social roles of alpha, beta, omega, etc. These are sometimes/often biologically determined. Hierarchy is strict and socially enforced by all members of the pack. The main character is almost always of a lower social position than the alpha romantic interest and is often an outcast in the pack. 

    Effect on the story: A source of conflict for the leads is the power difference between their social roles. Simultaneously also offers a sense of belonging and togetherness once the main characters are together. 

    Trope World Element: Alpha pack leader

    The werewolf pack is led by the “alpha,” who is often biologically different from other werewolves, inherits the title by birthright, or is otherwise destined to the role in some way. The alpha is the biggest, strongest werewolf and is the final decision maker in the pack, and is in charge of the safety and well-being of all pack members. 

    Effect on the story: The romantic lead is the most powerful person in the story; serves as a power fantasy of a protective, possessive lover who desperately desires the main character and takes care of every need.

    Trope World Element: Luna

    The alpha’s mate is usually a position of honor in the werewolf pack. 

    Effect on the story: A specific role for the main character to occupy; confirmation that MC is special in their community. Contrast with the low position the MC starts out in.

    Trope World Element: Mates

    Werewolves are magically or biologically driven to find their true or fated mates. Everyone has one destined perfect partner, and being without this person causes physical or psychic pain. The leads are fated mates and are destined to be together because of this. 

    Effect on the story: Source of a romantic draw between the leads, as well as a source of romantic conflict as they reject or try to negotiate the bond. Offers a romantic fantasy to the reader of one perfect partner.

    Trope World Element: Shifting

    Characters can turn into wolves, usually at the full moon but sometimes at will. This grants them access to heightened senses and sometimes telepathy. 

    Effect on the story: Wolf form allows characters to express and sense emotions they can’t in human form; serves to advance the plot and romantic arc.

    As we can see, these common Trope World elements play a specific role in shaping the kinds of stories that fall into the Werewolf subgenre. Negotiating hierarchical pack structures and having a destined mate is part of the draw of werewolf stories; they are a fundamental part of the genre setting and its appeal to readers. They create the shape of the conflict that the reader expects to see when they open a werewolf story. The central draw of the werewolf genre is the mate bond, the overwhelming desire to be with one’s destined partner. All the Trope World world-building supports this central draw by adding complexity and conflict to this basic concept.

    If you are adding in new elements, how might they interact with these established genre elements? How do they either amplify the central premise or provide more conflict to it? 

    You can certainly write a werewolf story without some of these elements, but deviating too far from this probably puts your story into paranormal romance or urban fantasy, rather than the werewolf subgenre specifically.

    Mafia

    Trope World Element: Mafia crime families

    The crime world is organized into mafia families, headed by powerful men, who are bound by blood relation, marriage, and strict codes of loyalty, duty, and tradition.

    Effect on the story: Creates an insular group with its own codes of behavior that the characters must navigate through, which drives narrative conflict. These codes often either create the conditions for the plot (e.g. arranged marriage) and/or deepen the conflict as the characters must choose between desire and duty.

    Trope World Element: Mafia don

    The romantic lead is high-placed in the mafia family, usually at its head, and commands a position of respect and fear from those around him.

    Effect on the story: The romantic lead is the most powerful person in the story; serves as a power fantasy of a violently protective, possessive lover who takes care of every need. The mafia don is violent with everyone except the main character, emphasizing the uniqueness of their relationship. 

    Trope World Element: Mafia Conflict/War

    There is conflict, usually violent, between multiple mafia families, or the mafia and other organized crime.

    Effect on the story: Drives external conflict in the story and creates a sense of danger and high stakes that informs how the romance develops. Often provides the context for plot events like kidnappings, assassination attempts, etc. Drives external conflict in the story and creates a sense of danger and high stakes that informs how the romance develops. Often provides the context for plot events like kidnappings, assassination attempts, etc.

    Trope World Element: Secret/underground society

    Drives external conflict in the story and creates a sense of danger and high stakes that informs how the romance develops. Often provides the context for plot events like kidnappings, assassination attempts, etc.

    Effect on the story: The sense of secrecy and being held apart from the normal world raises the stakes and creates the conditions for the mafia codes that shape the characters’ actions.

    Trope World Element: Wealth

    Mafia families are wealthy and live a luxurious lifestyle, often in metropolitan areas or in Europe.

    Effect on the story: Creates a lush, beautiful setting that usually results in the main character getting a makeover, expensive clothes, vacations, etc. Creates a fantasy for the reader of wealth and beauty.

    In Mafia, the Trope World works together to give us a picture of an underground society governed by its own rules, where luxury is everywhere and violence is commonplace. This is what makes the mafia a Trope World, rather than a niche normal world—the rules of society in mafia romance are extremely different from everyday society, and these rules serve to set up the central draw and central conflict of the story. Readers come to Mafia for the depiction of a relationship with a powerful lover (almost always a man) who is violent with everyone but his beloved, fiercely protective, and bound by a code of honor and tradition. The high-stakes world of the mafia allows for exciting events that add drama and spice to the romance. 

    When you’re worldbuilding your mafia romance, consider the central draw of the genre. How can new elements be added to the central premise? 

    Making Trope Worlds Unique

    Though they share a lot of similarities from story to story, Trope Worlds are not cookie-cutter! Being inhabited by unique characters with their own emotional journeys within the context of a familiar world is what makes the Trope World compelling to readers. Readers like the similarity of Trope Worlds, but that doesn’t mean your Trope World has to be boring. 

    A few well-placed details will make your story world feel unique while preserving the central draw of the Trope World. Grounding those details in the character backstory will make the characters feel like an organic, embedded part of the world. For more on building out the details of your world, check out our Worldbuilding worksheet.

    You can also use the memories exercise in our character worksheet to flesh out the relationship between the characters and the setting. Use those details to guide the descriptions of the world you’re building. 

    When you’re worldbuilding for a Trope World story, it can be fun to add in some new elements that make your story unique. When you’re doing this, it’s important to preserve the central premise of the subgenre. When you’re adding new elements to the Trope World, think about how they interact with the central premise of the subgenre. What kinds of things are now possible in your story that the basic elements of the Trope World don’t provide? How do you plan on using those elements?  How do your new worldbuilding elements serve to raise the stakes? When you’re adding new elements to a Trope World, it should be for a concrete reason that adds something specific to the story you can’t get any other way. 

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