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The Scar's the Thing: Tropes in Advanced Craft | NINC



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Tropes, characters, and story
What do you think of when you hear the word trope? Do you think of a story building block? Or an overused concept?

These days, we hear about tropes often, but the meaning is less specific. Some writers love them, while others loathe them. One constant is that tropes are a storytelling staple stemming from fairy and folk tales.

Tropes are valuable storytelling building blocks because the audiences immediately understand them. Think of tropes such as loner, unrequited love, and quest. They immediately engage the reader, leaving them to seek out what happens next. It’s up to the author to take these concepts and make them specific to their story world.

One reason tropes persist is because they are grounded in relationships. What will happen to the orphan? Will a reluctant warrior develop an emotional attachment to the lost princess they were sworn to protect, as in The Witcher?

How is a trope different from a cliché?
While a trope is useful in any writer’s kit, they differ from clichés in a few key ways. Tropes are neutral story ideas. For example, a guardian can be a protector or a hidden antagonist. With a cliché, the meaning is negative: think of a gold digger. It’s almost always a woman marrying for money. Creating a complex character is more difficult with a fixed idea like a cliché. With a trope, there can be multiple reasons for a character’s motivation.

Let’s focus on one trope applicable in any fiction genre to add character conflict—the scar.

The scar trope’s role in character and conflict
The scar trope is most recognized as Harry Potter’s Z-shaped forehead mark. Imagine Harry’s scar was a result of skateboarding rather than the result of his parents protecting him with their lives? It changes character motivation drastically.

Now let’s examine how a master storyteller, Mick Herron, uses the scar trope in his recent series.

Mick Herron’s Slow Horses: A slew of spies and tropes
Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series is having a terrific run on Apple TV in addition to the eight-book series and numerous novellas published. The first book in the series, Slow Horses, published in 2008, is an international spy drama full of secrets and misdirection. However, it’s also an intimate study of relationships, and the scar trope in particular.

More about scar trope
The scar trope is a result of major character damage; storytellers love damage. Why? It powers conflict. In Slow Horses, characters are aware of their scars. Yet, they have a blind spot about how much the scars have impacted them emotionally. They think they have healed, but as the audience, we know it’s still their weakness.

To talk about the scar trope and Slow Horses, let me bring you up to speed on the series’ first book. Consider this a spoiler alert.

Slow Horses synopsis
River Cartwright, a promising MI5 agent, is banished to Slough House after his test mission goes awry. Cartwright’s former best friend sabotaged him at the direction of their boss and second-in-command at MI5, Diana Taverner. Slough House is where disgraced spies who can’t be fired work; it’s a dilapidated building filled with meaningless busywork led by former Cold War master spy handler and all-around tyrant Jackson Lamb.

Concurrently, a UK college student citizen is mistaken for a terrorist and kidnapped by a far-right UK terrorist group. Jackson Lamb’s team tries to rescue the victim and escape being blamed when the MI5 agent embedded in the terrorist group is killed. Dirty politics within the UK government and even MI5 are at risk of exposure. Lamb’s team saves the student, but a terrorist linked back to MI5 is killed.

Slow Horses tropes

  • Antagonist
  • Across the tracks
  • Best friend
  • The bet
  • Boss
  • The con
  • Fake relationship
  • Family
  • Hidden identity
  • Loner
  • Misdirection
  • Mistaken identity
  • Politics
  • Profession
  • Scar
  • Secrets
  • Redemption
  • Ticking time bomb
  • Tortured hero
  • Violence
  • Warrior

Now that we know the general conflict that drives the Slow Horses plot and understand the many tropes in play, let’s look at how the scar trope is specifically used. Herron has embedded the scar trope into every character, but he has individualized the trope for each character:

  • Jackson Lamb’s scar is that he was forced to kill his traitorous boss and friend.
  • River Cartwright’s scar is that he lost his place in MI5 because he discovered a secret about his boss.
  • Diana Taverner’s scar is that she has been passed over for promotion to the job she really wants (First Desk at MI5) because of politics.
  • Catherine Standish’s scar is that she mourns the loss of her dead boss (whom Lamb killed, but she doesn’t know that) while being unaware the boss was setting her up in case his cover as a traitor was blown.
  • Roddy Ho’s scar is that he is a technical wizard obsessed with figuring out why he was banished to Slough House despite his professional talents.
  • Louisa Guy’s scar is an early career assignment that went wrong, and she was blamed.
  • Min Harper’s scar is that he accidentally left top secret documents on public transport.
  • The suspect’s scar is as a Muslim born and raised in England, he was kidnapped for being a suspected terrorist/foreigner in his own country.

And it’s not just the good guys who suffer from their scars in Slow Horses:

  • Peter Judd’s scar is that he was rejected from MI5 20 years ago, and now, as a politician, he has the power to exact his revenge.
  • The kidnapper’s scar is that he believes that the Muslim population threatens English culture.
  • The journalist’s scar is that he has been disgraced due to his politics and has lost professional prestige.

What’s the big deal about having a scar?
A scar motivates every character. The genius of Herron’s story is that he has embedded that motivation into his story concept. The scar is the reason for exile to Slough House and the incentive to get back to Regents Park. This isn’t just a spy series; it’s a story about relationships.

What emotion does the scar trope trigger in Slow Horses?
The scar’s superpower in Slow Horses is that it triggers shame in characters. Tropes are about relationships, and shame is a powerful human emotion. By provoking the feeling of shame in individual characters, the audience experiences that emotion vicariously.

While not many of us have MI5 experience, we can relate to feeling embarrassed and regretful and questioning our self-worth. Tapping into those emotions is our job as authors; convincing our audiences to journey with us into a dark place is our incredible privilege.


Author photo

Jennifer Hilt is the USA Today bestselling author of The Trope Thesaurus five-book series. She has written 24 books across four pen names plus her urban fantasy series, The Undead Detective. She works as a plotter and concept creator. With degrees in linguistics and literature, Jennifer loves talking about story development. She also collects dictionaries in unfamiliar languages, binges Scandi-noir series, and shouts out tropes from the comfort of her couch. This article appeared in the March 2024 edition of Nink.

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