What is it?
Reincarnation is where a person is brought back to life with the same core being, but not in the same body that was left behind. This is different from resurrection where the person is brought back to life in the same body they died in. This Trope Time post will deal with reincarnation, not resurrection. However, there is a lot of overlap between the two concepts, and they can often be used interchangeably and have a lot of the same uses.
There is the obvious, that if the author wants it to happen, it is going to happen one way or the other. Gods, powers that be, magic, religion, destiny, or any number of other methods can be employed to make certain a character they want to be reincarnated is.
Sometimes authors can surprise you. They tell all about the feats of some great character in the past, only for you to later find out the main character is that great person reincarnated, and whether it is foreshadowed or not depends on the tale woven. Sometimes it is foretold that this great person will return again, you just have to be on the lookout for them – making it easier for the reader to guess that the main character is that reincarnation. Other times something bad happens in the book, and the reader is told they will be reincarnated later.
Typically, the reincarnation goes 100% according to plan. Other times, something goes wrong. They get reincarnated in the wrong place or time, or in the wrong body. Sometimes via sabotage, sometimes due to bad luck.
And sometimes they always come back as what they were. Sometimes they come back as a different gender. Sometimes they come back as the same group as their hated enemy. Sometimes they don’t even come back as human, instead being animals or even a potted plant.
Who Does it Happen to?
Lovers: the author brings lovers together again and again, forever, throughout the ages. Lifetime after Lifetime. Or they find each other and promise that in every life after this one, they will find each other again.
Villains: often paired with the next type, villains are often reincarnated to finish what they started the first time. Or they’re just always evil little jerks. Sometimes it is used as a redemption arc.
Heroes: often paired with villains, heroes can come back for a variety of reasons. Because the big bad is back again, and only they have the knowledge to defeat it/him/them. As a reward for past deeds. Because their original mission wasn’t finished. And many more reasons than these.
The Broken: the saddest of them all, these are the character that come back again and again only to be abused. This character gets shit on throughout every one of their reincarnations. It makes the reader feel sorry for and pity them. Often used to make this sad character less broken at the end, but not always.
What is the purpose?
Second Chance: the most common of all
It allows star-crossed lovers to get what they fought for. It is the hope and the end of dark, painful life. It turns a sad ending into one full of hope for a better life or outcome in the future. It allows the belief that the broken will one day be happy and healthy and whole.
And it is also used to redo a life over and over again. Sometimes in the main character does something the “right way”. Sometimes it happens for comedy, or just because.
It could also be used as a mechanism of growth. They are reincarnated as they learn from their past lives and become a better person for it.
Tragic Effect: we all need a sad story
Also very common, the author uses reincarnation to make us sad. It doesn’t only happen with the broken characters. Sometimes one character has to wait for the other to show up for hundreds of years. Sometimes they come back at the wrong time and have to fight even harder than they were going to have to before. Sometimes they die with unfinished business, and have to come back to finish. There are so many reasons for the sad.
Comedic Effect: who doesn’t need a laugh sometimes?
Typically happens with gender switches, when the person realizes they aren’t the same it can be comical at times.
Time Travel: or at least a form of time travel
Unlocked memories from the past can be used to help the present situation. It can also be used to bring “wrong” people, relationships, and ideas into a time when it is more accepted. Also a form of second chance when there is unfinished business.
Fast Track: for when you just need to skip a lot of bullshit
Reincarnation can be used to bring a character up to speed very quickly on complex issues. They only need to unlock all their past memories, first! If they didn’t have them already, that is.
Functional Immortality: you may die, but do you stay dead?
As these characters come back again and again, sometimes completely identical to the previous version and sometimes with all their memories intact, they can be functionally immortal. They may die, but they don’t stay dead. They just become again.
Hoodwink: fooled you!
The character and/or reader think that the character is the reincarnation of someone else, but it was all faked or people were deceived to believe that. It could be used to rally the character in question into believing they can do something, or someone else ends up being the reincarnation instead. In any case, it is mean.
Other Reincarnation Ideas:
Digital Uploads: the person is uploaded into a computer and used again at another date. Sometimes but not always the original is killed in the process. Straddles the line between reincarnation and resurrection, depending on how it is used.
Cloning: can be a form of resurrection, instead. But if you’re cloned, is it really a different person, or is it still you? At what point are you two different? Can you clone a “soul”? I don’t know enough philosophy to debate this, and it is up to the authors wishes, anyway.
Reincarnation Sickness: happens when once they remember who they are, they become ill trying to integrate the past and present memories and people.
Groundhog Loop: also a form of second chance, but I think it deserves its own mention. The character repeats, sometimes from the beginning of their lives and sometimes from a specific day, time or event. Often used to make things “right”.