A trope is one of those things that you often see in movies, television, and prose fiction, some bit of storytelling grammar that recurs over and over. A policeman tells the hero that he’s only a few days from retirement, which makes his death all the more tragic. A scientist explains something complicated and someone says, “In English, doc.” TV Tropes has a saying, which is that tropes are tools; the nature of this post is to examine where those tools come from and what we use them for.
Tropes are memes
The word “meme” has mutated a bit since Dawkins coined it, but here I mean it in the original sense; a meme is a unit of imitation. One of the primary uses of tropes qua tropes is that they set audience expectations. Invoking a trope allows you to do characterization really, really quickly, so long as you stick to one of the stock characters. A modern audience is very familiar with the Absent-Minded Professor, which means that you can sketch the character in a single sentence without breaking a sweat. (Stock characters and stock plots are, of course, widely hated. Stock characters are recognizable, but that makes them boring.)
For a more interesting example, take the Four Temperment Ensemble. If you go looking for it, you’ll see it everywhere, and I don’t think that’s (just) confirmation bias. Why is it so prevalent? It’s a convenient way to divide up a group of four characters, sure, but it’s also a way of dividing up characters that the audience will already be subconsciously familiar with, and it draws on the existing culture. By contrast, the Japanese have blood type personality worked into a lot of their fiction, as a totally different way of dividing up groups of four.
Neither of these two divisions are something that someone who was storytelling from base principles would come up with on their own. It’s something that exists as a meme out in the world which the author brings into their story to either help flesh things out or to connect with a reader. Often, these meme tropes are then subverted or played with in some way, but their origin is in the collective consciousness.
Tropes are emergent
Some tropes exist because they’re too useful not to exist. The Unspoken Plan Guarantee is the principle that a plan which is described to the reader cannot be perfectly executed. The reason for this is simple; describing the plan robs the plan of tension and spoils the action for the reader. If you were rewriting the rules of storytelling from the ground up, you might very well independently invent the Unspoken Plan Guarantee.
Storytelling is inherently an optimizing process, whether the end goal is to delight, depress, or just make lots of money. Because the problems are largely the same from culture to culture, the same tools get invented time and again. If there were a people with no culture, these tools would be invented ex nihilo, because the problem of getting people to feel a certain way with your story would still have the same sets of obvious solutions. When those solutions were invented, the good solutions would crowd out the bad solutions, and eventually they would become tropes.
If I had to break down the dichotomy into a tl;dr, it would be that some tropes are used because they’re cultural and some tropes are used because they’re the result of good storytelling principles (which probably then stem from something intrinsic to the human brain, giving the universality of storytelling).
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