Character Tropes That Have Got to Go

Posted: December 21, 2014 in ideas, Reflections, Writing
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Trope: a common recurring literary and rhetorical device, motif, or cliche. When referring to a character, it often refers to a common or well-known character archetype of stereotype that is instantly recognizable (ex. the noble hero, the avenging antihero, the slightly clumsy socially awkward girl in a romantic comedy, etc.)

There are hundreds and hundreds of these different tropes, each with their own special qualities and characteristics that are recognizable to many different people. Some of these tropes have even become staples in our own culture and in the stories we tell. However, there are a few that are, for many different reasons, just unusable these days. Maybe they’ve become so overused they’re a cliche, or maybe just the way society is or what psychology tells us makes such a character hard to believe in. In any case, there are character tropes and archetypes, not just in literature but on TV and in the movies as well, that just have to be retired, and I list some of them here.

I’d like to thank the people who helped to contribute to this list, including Pat Bertram for her many suggestions (though I have to disagree on serial killers. Sure, they’re overused, but there’s plenty of different ways to write them. Case in point: Snake).

So without further ado, let’s take a look at who/what needs to go:

The orphan who grows up with a heart of gold without any adult intervention whatsoever. Whether it’s Oliver Twist or Harry Potter, this character trope is pretty much the same wherever you go: a kid who grows up in an abusive environment, has never received a smile or a word of kindness from anyone, and yet still grows up with virtues to make statues of angels weep for joy. I don’t buy it. Although it’s possible for a kid to grow up that way (and usually, based on these stories, it’s a boy), it’s very unlikely. Without parental love and affection, kids can grow up to be distrustful and try to find other ways (sometimes really unhealthy ways) to replace the bond they should’ve had with their parents. Like I pointed out the other day, Harry should’ve grown up with some insecurities and trust issues, if not full on sociopathy (I might’ve written him that way anyway).

The drunk, possibly depressed cop. I’m sure there are cops who are drunk and/or depressed. But there seems to be a plethora of them in literature, and they are either meant to be tragic, comical, or go on a spiritual quest where they find the meaning in life, stop drinking, and maybe even get the girl. Unless someone finds a new slant on this trope, or it has got to go.

The killer with an intellectual disability. While I disagree with Pat on the need to get rid of serial killers, there is a strain of that sort of character I think we could do without. This strain are characters who would be classified as mentally retarded, and that’s somehow hinted by the writers (and in film and TV, the directors and actors) to be linked to their violent killing sprees. Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an example, and so is a certain character in the current season of American Horror Story (not saying who, because you know, spoilers). It’s actually rather saddening and disturbing to see this trope constantly resurfacing, because most people with intellectual disabilities are really sweet and wouldn’t harm a fly unless under extreme stress. If you’re going to create a killer with a brain problem, make it someone who kills for their own sick pleasure, rather than suggesting that it might have something to do with some intellectual disability they may have. Not only would I thank you, but I’m sure that many people with intellectual disabilities and their friends, family, and caretakers would thank you as well.

The dystopian dreamboy. I think you could actually extend this to a lot of YA stories as well, but I’m not familiar enough with the genre to make that sort of inference, so I’ll just keep it to dystopia fiction. In any case, this character shows up a lot in dystopian/YA fiction, particularly stories trying to portray a strong, female character (whether or not they do depends upon the story and personal choice). The dystopian dreamboy is very one-dimensional, their whole point is to be a romantic interest, and they have hardly any other aspects to them besides being very handsome, props the heroine up when she’s feeling down, and maybe fights or demonstrates some other helpful skill. Other than that, not much to fill that Wikia page. I’d like to see these characters either more developed or just gone.

The damsel in distress. Like our last entry, this character has very little character development or point besides being a male lead’s romantic interest. Of course, there’s a rich history of this character in literature, so it’s hard to get rid of such an archetype. However, in a world where women are taking breaking the glass ceiling in so many ways, the damsel in distress is the sort of character that we could stand to lose, because all it says is that women need a guy to save them and are otherwise helpless. Either that, or it needs a total revamping, where the damsel is at least somewhat proactive (like Allison from Snake).

The bitch who just needs some love in her life. Again, in an era where women are working hard to break the glass ceiling, this trope could be retired. Not tweaked. Retired. This trope basically says that there’s an ambitious, job-driven woman who is at the top of the business world. But she’s a little lonely, pretty stressed, and more often than not kind of bitchy. That is, until she meets this awesome, handsome guy who is sexually stimulating. And then she realizes as fulfilling as her job is, this guy is what she truly wants, and he makes her a better person, and given a choice between him and her job, she’ll take him. I don’t know, it might just be me, but I think plenty of women can be in business and find fulfillment without a guy. Or have a guy (or girl) and not have to choose between the two to get happiness. I’ve seen it plenty of times. Like my boss.

The barely-Jewish Jew. This is the one that gets my goat. Rachel Berry, Noah “Puck” Puckerman, Howard Wolowitz, Willow Rosenberg, John Munch, Dr. Chris Taub. These TV characters  are all Jewish, but if you looked only at them to form your idea of what a Jew is, you’d think that a Jew is someone who just says a bunch of Yiddish words but isn’t that different than anyone else.  Really, that’s only a small–really small, actually–portion of the Jewish population. I’d really like to see more Jewish characters eating kosher, maybe being involved in synagogue activities or doing Israel activism or something. Show some Hasidic Jews or some modern Orthodox or Conservative Jews who like the Ramones and go to day school (I had a friend or two like that). And for more than one guest episode, thanks! The only character who bucked the trend was Ziva David on NCIS, but the actress who played her left the show, so what’s left?

What are your thoughts on these choices?

What are some character tropes and archetypes that you need to be retired? Any you want to be resurrected?

  1. Angela Misri says:

    Lol; I couldn’t agree more. I would add ‘The Chosen One’ to this list because I just watched the trailer to Jupiter Ascending, and when Mila Kunis said the words “I’m no one… I’m just a girl” I rolled my eyes. I am DONE with the trope of the Chosen One. It’s been done. Pick something else please.

  2. Pat Bertram says:

    I definitely agree about the hard-hearted woman who needs a man to melt her ice. It’s that same done-to-death teenage girl story written for grownup girls with the outdated message that everything you do and everyone you know are simply standins for that knight in shining armor that will make all your dreams come true. And melt your ice and hack away the thorns that surround you and rescue you from the drudgery of your life. Recognize these fairy tales? It’s all the same.

    • Exactly! To quote Dr. Evil on SNL this past weekend, “Been there, done that, smoked it, humped it, called it an Uber.” Even if you don’t agree with the feminist reasons, it should be retired as a trope for being so overused that it’s almost impossible to do anything new with it!

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