Storytelling

Six Unrealistic Tropes and How to Avoid Them

Richard only got that sword today, but he's excited to fight evil armies all by himself!

Tropes get repeated over and over again throughout spec fic, and usually that’s fine. Many tropes are perfectly acceptable. Others are just lazy writing, sacrificing believability for narrative convenience. We’re concerned with the second group today. Fear not, there’s always a way out, no matter how entrenched the trope seems. Let’s go through some of the most egregious, shall we?

1. Eyes Broadcasting Thoughts

Picard Look

The human face is very expressive, and over millennia of evolution, we have learned to recognize body language. If someone’s eyes widen, they’re surprised. If their gaze darts back and forth, it means they’re nervous. Storytellers love this, and they’ll fill their prose with characters looking into each other’s eyes.

But these subtle cues have limits. There’s only so much you can tell from looking into another character’s eyes or reading their body language. Think of the Star Trek episode Allegiance. In the final scene, Picard gives Riker a knowing look. Riker then gives Worf a look, who gives Data a look. This chain of glances somehow results in the bridge crew working together to trap some alien intruders in a pink forcefield.*

How did they know to do that? Picard could have meant any number of things by his knowing look. Perhaps he wanted security called, or for Worf to stun the aliens, or for Data to trace the aliens back to their hidden ship. All of those are valid actions in that situation, but the crew somehow picked out the exact one Picard wanted. Did they rehearse ahead of time? Maybe Picard was expecting them to do something completely different and just rolled with it: “Ah yes, a forcefield. That’s exactly what I meant to happen.”

If you ever find yourself writing “he saw treachery in her eyes,” stop and consider. What does treachery look like? How do one’s eyes communicate it? If you can’t imagine a real person doing this, then you’ve entered unrealistic trope territory.

Writers use this trope as a crutch to avoid explaining how a character knows something. If the author forgets to budget time for a dialogue exchange, the protagonist can just magically read the villain’s intent by looking into their soulful eyes. Unfortunately, it makes the characters come off as weird mind readers, always knowing exactly what everyone is planning.

What to Do Instead

Embrace the uncertainty of human communication. How many times have you been talking with someone and desperately wished you knew what was behind their smile? Do they love the local sports team as much as you do, or are they just fishing for a promotion? When the salesperson says they’ve cut you a special deal, are they trying to trick you?*

It’s a relatable feeling, because we’ve all experienced it. Characters who don’t always know what everyone around them is thinking are more immersive. They have to guess at hidden motivations just like we do.

Without mind-reading vision, your characters will have a harder time acting like a perfectly coordinated machine. That’s fine. Use it to increase tension. Your characters are like real people, desperately hoping their teammates will understand the right thing to do. Miscommunications via soul-gazing are also great points for humor if that fits your story.

“You looked at me and then glanced at the fire extinguisher, I thought that meant to grab it and club the zombie!”

“No, I was looking at the fire escape. I meant we should run. Now we’re going to get eaten.”

2. Villains Lose Power When They Switch Sides

Vegeta Depowerd

Writers want their villains to be sympathetic, so they give them redeeming features. Sometimes, a villain is so sympathetic that they can’t stay a villain. They hit a breaking point where their morality forces them off Team Bad Guy. These can be pivotal moments in a story. Who didn’t love Vader turning on the Emperor, or Faith finally coming back to the light?

The problem is that writers also want their villains to be threatening, so they make them powerful. If a super-powerful enemy crosses over, they’re in danger of overshadowing the other characters. Readers won’t care about the protagonist when their super strong archenemy is pulling for Team Good Guy.

For many authors, the answer is to make the former villain inexplicably weaker and hope no one notices. Dragon Ball Z is infamous for this. Each season, an unbeatable villain would change allegiances, and by the next season they were somehow weaker than Goku. It happens in much better stories too. In Angel, Connor is the perfect example. When he’s a bad guy, he’s nigh invincible. Even the titular character can’t stop him. When he becomes a good guy, all that power mysteriously goes out the window. This happened multiple times, as Connor could never quite decide whose side he was on.

Authors take this path when they write themselves into a corner. They’ve invested too much in a villain’s redemption arc to not go through with it, but they aren’t willing to change who the story is about. Despite what the authors might hope, the audience will always notice. People pay attention to consistency. It’s irritating when a character who could punch through steel walls last season is now as meek as a kitten. It robs the redemption arc of all meaning, because the former villain is now a different, much less interesting character.

What to Do Instead

There’s always the option of killing the villain after they switch sides. You won’t see Darth Vader fighting beside the Rebels anytime soon. But that’s a cop-out, and often a bad trope in its own right.

Instead, focus on what the villain loses by switching sides. If their power comes from being a military officer, it’s unlikely they’ll convince all their soldiers to switch sides with them. If the villain is a swordmaster, they might have to give up the cursed blade that keeps them immune from harm. Not only does that mean the new good guy has a reason to be less powerful, but it makes their switch more meaningful because they sacrificed for it.

At the same time, the former villain needs to bring something new, otherwise they’ll fall by the wayside and be forgotten. Even without their army, the military officer brings tactical training and expertise that none of the other characters have. The swordmaster also knows how to forge new blades, keeping the ragtag protagonists well-armed.

3. Characters With No Experience Are Better Than Experts

The very image of competence. The very image of competence.

The protagonist has spent all of their life farming, yet within moments of picking up a sword they’re defeating trained soldiers. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a short training montage. In Legend of the Seeker, we don’t even get that much. Richard doesn’t even practice before becoming an engine of destruction. In one scene he’s never held a sword, then he’s matching blades with an elite warrior, then he’s taking on dozens of enemies single-handedly. It’s so over the top, you can’t watch it without laughing.*

This is perhaps the most annoying aspect of the Chosen One trope. Authors want their characters to start off as disadvantaged underdogs like Frodo, but they want them to end up as ultimate badasses like Aragorn. While this transformation is possible, it has to be stretched out over a long period to be believable. No matter how many prophecies you quote, no one will believe the peasant child becoming an expert killer after an afternoon’s practice.

While it’s true that audiences like a competent protagonist, that competence must be earned. Characters who are super good without even trying are not looked on favorably. Most people know on some level that it takes hard work to get better at something. Neophyte experts are irritating, because it feels like the author is leaning out from behind the page and saying “see how much better this guy is than you?”

What’s even worse is when the neophyte is taught by someone who actually earned their ability. The audience is left wondering why the mentor isn’t the main character. Nowhere is this more clear than the recent Ant-Man film. Hope spends all her time training an unprepared Scott how to use the shrink suit and ant-control device, when it’s clear she should be the one going on the mission. Not only has she been practicing the necessary skills since childhood, but she also really wants to go. Instead, the film ties its plot in knots trying to justify why Scott has to be the one wearing the suit.

Not only is this stupid, but it’s sexist as well. Trinity from the Matrix, Valka from How to Train Your Dragon 2, there’s a long list of highly competent female characters who are pushed aside in favor a male with no idea what he’s doing.

What to Do Instead

It’s OK to start your character at a decent level of competence. Han Solo, Terminator II’s Sarah Connor, Harry Dresden: These are all characters who begin the story with enough expertise to get the job done. They can still learn and grow, but no one is questioning why they’re here in the first place.

You can also have characters with lower levels of ability, but have the story hinge on one of their overlooked qualities. Frodo isn’t a great fighter, but he is good at resisting Sauron’s call. That’s why he works as a main character, because the most important skill for defeating the Dark Lord isn’t sword fighting; it’s not falling to temptation.

If you’re dead set on a character who begins the story with no ability and ends as the master of their craft, you have to do a lot of work to justify it. Gaining new skills must be part of their journey, and they must sacrifice in order to do it. The Luke Skywalker model works fairly well here. His training on Dagobah requires him to re-examine his preconceptions about what a great warrior looks like and whether he’ll be able to defeat the Empire with anger alone. When the time comes to make a sacrifice, by letting his friends stay in Imperial clutches, he can’t do it. Because he couldn’t let go of his friends, Luke loses his battle with Vader. A harsh consequence indeed.

4. Science Can’t Match Common Sense

Eureka Sheriff

The interspatial wave matrix is collapsing, and when it goes, it’ll take most of Earth with it! What’s to be done? The scientists are in a panic, their vast knowledge only equipping them to explain how doomed everyone is. Good thing the plucky protagonist is here to point out a solution so simple no one else saw it until then.* ((Probably kicking it.))

Syfy’s Eureka was the platonic ideal of this trope. Sheriff Jack Carter plays the uneducated “average Joe” surrounded by egghead scientists. Episode after episode, the scientists create some new form of mayhem and are powerless to stop it. Good thing Carter is there to set them all straight. They might be geniuses, but that’s no match for red-blooded American common sense.

This trope is insulting to scientists and implies a deep inferiority complex in the rest of us. We think scientists are smarter than us, resent them for it, then tell stories about how their smarts and fancy words are all for naught. That’s more than a little disturbing, considering the anti-intellectualism that’s all too common in the United States.

Scientists’ feelings aside, the trope is completely nonsensical. When was the last time you heard arguments from competing theories of dark matter and suddenly had a simple insight that solved everything?* More likely you were completely baffled, not understanding the argument well enough to offer meaningful commentary. Complicated subjects require a basic level of knowledge before a character can say anything useful. That knowledge need not come from a formal education, but it must be there. Otherwise the character is just talking out of their ass.

A person doesn’t suddenly lose common sense because they’ve become an expert in their field. If there’s an elegantly simple solution lying in plain sight, they’re just as likely to see it as the main character.

What to Do Instead

First, remember there’s nothing wrong with your character knowing things. They don’t need a Ph.D or a professor’s tweed jacket, but they do need some idea of what they’re talking about. Perhaps they’ve picked up a few terms and ideas just from hanging out in the labs all day. With that baseline of understanding, the character can function as a fresh pair of eyes, seeing potential solutions that those who’ve been working on the problem for a long time already discounted.

It’s also important to remember that most of the time, scientists and experts aren’t any smarter than the rest of us. They just have specialized knowledge that they’ve spent years acquiring. They’re vulnerable to the same foibles as everyone else. If you want your expert physicist not to understand why the fusion reactor won’t shut down, tie it to something personal. The theory that explains what’s happening was championed by a hated rival, and now the physicist can’t see past their bitter animosity.

5. Hate Turns to Love

Sorsha Mad I love you and every war crime you’ve committed!

Because no fictional relationship is interesting without conflict, writers often have the two lovebirds start off hating each other and then go through a long and rocky courtship before finally acknowledging their true feelings. Sometimes this works well. Contrast is a storyteller’s friend, and few things are more gripping than the ups and downs of a couple that are clearly meant to be. On the other hand, stories are often so determined to get the two characters together that they skip over the reasons why the happy couple hated each other in the first place. That’s when it becomes an unrealistic trope.

If your story requires that one character persist in courtship until the other character’s resistance is worn away, put on the brakes. That way lies an embrace of rape culture. It implies that ‘no’ means ‘try harder,’ that romance is a contest to be won. This shows up even in supposedly innocent stories. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, we see the titular Kiki pursued by Tombo, a boy she clearly doesn’t like. Eventually, his determination pays off. Apparently, Kiki finds the obnoxious inability to take a hint attractive.

Even when there are no consent issues involved, this trope is often nonsensical, with characters forgiving past sins for no reason other than the author deciding they should. In the film Willow, Sorsha falls in love with Madmartigan so hard she abandons her army to be with him. She does this based on the fake devotion he shows while under a love spell. Somehow, this attraction translates into her being fully convinced that Willow must succeed on his quest to defeat the witch Bavmorda, who also happens to be Sorsha’s mother.

How did that happen? Sorsha seemed perfectly happy being a general in the army of evil, until one day a hot guy rolled through, and suddenly she’s completely smitten? There’s no indication that she had any objection to how her mother ran things, no secret consideration that she might be on the wrong side. We’re also expected to believe that everyone on Team Good Guy is OK with this. No one has any grievance against the woman who lead the evil witch’s army. Doesn’t seem likely.

This trope leads to unbelievable characters and unsatisfying relationships. Audiences won’t believe that someone could change so completely without a good reason. There must be a better explanation than “because this story needed a romance line.”

What to Do Instead

When two opposing characters are going to end up together, make sure their differences aren’t insurmountable. If one is working for the villains, keep them atrocity free. Make sure the audience understands why they might be inclined to fall for the other character and switch sides. The series Legend by Marie Lu is a good example. In those books, June starts off as an agent of the dystopian government, but quickly falls for the rebel Day.

June believes in the government, but only because she’s kept in the dark about what it really does. While she and Day have plenty of reasons not to like each other, none of them come from June willingly committing acts of evil. Their reconciliation doesn’t depend on glossing over her past.

If a character switches sides out of love, remember that most other characters won’t buy it at first. In Legend, many of Day’s rebel friends are suspicious of June. They either don’t trust her motivation or hold her responsible for the terrible acts perpetrated by the government she used to serve. By keeping the other characters skeptical, you signal that you as the author haven’t forgotten the obstacles to this unlikely romance.

6. Pointless Sacrifice

gandalf_falling

Spoiler Warning: The end of Legend.

Moments of great sacrifice, physical or emotional, create great stories. Spock leaning against the glass in The Wrath of Khan is one of the most iconic scenes in all of Star Trek. Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog hits us right in the feels every time. Self-sacrifice is such a highly valued trope that sometimes writers employ it even where it doesn’t fit. At that point, it becomes a curse rather than a blessing.

Characters who rush to give their lives needlessly only inspire confusion and irritation. The audience is left wondering if the character had some kind of martyr complex, or if the author just couldn’t come up with a good justification. Dramatic climaxes become unintentionally funny as characters throw themselves onto enemy swords despite there being a perfectly good escape route available.

I praised Legend in the last section, and now I’m going to throw it under the bus. At the series’ end, Day suffers an injury and loses his recent memory. This includes all his memories of June. Instead of explaining what happened and helping him recover, June lies to him and acts like they’ve never met. She does this because their past is just too painful for him, and she must sacrifice her own happiness so he doesn’t have to remember. Never mind that he seemed perfectly well-adjusted before the accident. Not only is this condescending of her, but there’s no way it would work. Day has friends who know about their relationship. He’ll ask them what happened in the months he can’t remember, and they’ll tell him about this soldier girl he was dating.

June’s actions do not make for a better story. Instead, they taint an otherwise excellent conclusion. It’s as if Lu looked at her action-packed ending and thought it wasn’t quite dramatic enough, so she decided to add some angst, regardless of the consequences. Worse still, despite all reason, Day never finds out about June. Did she form a conspiracy with his friends offscreen? Both main characters act inconsistently with how they’ve been established, and it’s a big disappointment.

What to Do Instead

It’s OK to let your characters live happily ever after. I know the happy ending is relentlessly mocked, but if that’s where your story is going, let it happen. Don’t inject tragedy simply to avoid what some call a cliché ending, because in doing so you fall victim to a far worse problem.

When a character does sacrifice themselves, make sure it’s necessary. From the character’s point of view, there should be no other option. Most people don’t want to die, even if they feel really bad about something they’ve done and will always look for ways to survive.

At the same time, a sacrifice should resonate with some other element of the character’s story. June’s sacrifice doesn’t fit, because by that point she has nothing to atone for. Gandalf’s sacrifice, on the other hand, signals a turning point in Tolkien’s story. Without the powerful wizard to guide them, the hobbits are more on their own than ever.


Many more unrealistic tropes lurk in the dark corners of storytelling, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting writers, but these six warnings should be enough to get you started. Bad tropes are insidious. They look like easy shortcuts to storytelling, which is why they’re used so often. The most important thing is to look at your own writing with a critical eye and not just do things because you’ve seen other stories do them.

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Comments

  1. ejdalise

    You left out the pointless death to show the audience ‘it’s real’. (Wash)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Look, he was a leaf on the wind. Once you get a catch phrase, you have to die.

      • ejdalise

        Still sounds like an unrealistic trope to me. I mean, have you ever tried skewering a leaf on the wind? It’s nigh impossible.

        . . . what was Book’s catchphrase? Believe?

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          I think it was “stop asking about my secret back story.”

        • ejdalise

          See!! . . . that, again, is for the convenience of the unimaginative writer as opposed to engaging the reader (watcher).

          • MichealN

            That’s what happens when 3-5 years of multiple character’s story arcs get cut off after 9 episodes, Joss decided where the main story was, and decided to stick a spear in the heart of speculations about another network picking it up. He’s moved on. If reboot were possible Joss would have done it by now. I’d love it if he proved me wrong!

    • Chris Winkle

      I personally don’t find deaths like those pointless, as you said, they are there to show the audience it’s real. It wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t have so many stories where heroes are put into mortal danger and then come out without a scratch. Serenity is one of the few movies that made me believe the heroes could actually die. I miss Wash though.

      • Fish

        Wash getting impaled was one of the few times I actually yelled out ‘No!’ during any movie or TV show. It just might be bitterness but I’ve always thought it was a cheap death, for shock value and because ‘Fuck, well, we’re not making any more Firefly, why not kill Wash.’

        On the other hand, that reaction is probably a great sign of real character attachment

        • Chris Winkle

          Yep, people will get pissed off if you kill a character they love, that’s a serious downside. But if you want the peril to feel real in a story like that, you have to show the audience that you’re willing to do it.

          I think also in this case Whedon was hoping for a series of Firefly movies, and movies can’t sustain a cast as big as a tv show, so he was downsizing a bit.

        • Justin Alexander

          Wash’s death is essential for the conclusion of the movie to land: It’s the only film of its kind I’ve ever seen that literally made me believe that all of the main characters could die.

          And I’m not alone in that. One of my most vivid memories from all the films I’ve ever watched is when somebody screamed, “He’s going to kill all of them!” Which was not when Wash is killed. It was when Simon was shot: Because that’s the pay off from the deaths of Book and Wash. It’s believing that Simon could die. That Mal could die. That they could all die. Wash’s death allows everyone else to be a goddamn hero because their success is not assured. They could fail. And they fight any way.

          (You don’t get that if you only kill one of them because we’ve all seen the noble sacrifice and the “we killed one of ’em to make you think it was real” plays before. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death didn’t make us believe that the Death Star was going to blow up Yavin.)

          And, yes, the death of Wash is sad. (And it is powerful and meaningful and memorable.) But it’s a death which allows for the overwhelmingly positive energy of River — her scrambled sanity slowly reassembling itself — saying, “My turn.” and making the sacrifice play to save the others. And that, in turn, gives us her glorious triumph and Mal’s glorious victory just a few minutes later.

          Those moments don’t exist if you take the coward’s way out as a storyteller and give everybody a happy ending, because then you’ve robbed them of meaning.

      • ejdalise

        Chris,

        all kidding aside, the gripe I have with Wash dying is that it detracts from watching Firefly.

        There’s one other gripe . . . it was not a hero’s death. He’s sitting in his chair, smiling. Contrast that to Book’s death. There is a death scene that serves a purpose in the movie itself.

        Wash dying is not tied in any way to the development of the plot. Whether he lived or not, events would have unfolded as they did.

        If you take the view that it makes it “real” then I ‘ll say it’s a form of breaking the fourth wall; it speaks directly to the audience, and only the audience (cheap non-plot-sensitive point). In that regard, it’s no different than a horror movie trying to scare you by having the bag guy jump up and yell “Boo!” at the camera.

        I still like the movie, but I expected better from it.

        • ejdalise

          “bad guy”, not “bag guy” . . . although bag guys can be scary, especially if they wear them on their head.

        • Chris Winkle

          Okay, I can see that. I think there is a place in storytelling for heroes to die pointless deaths, because real life can be messy like that, but it has to fit the work in question. Firefly had some gritty elements but it’s still the type of story that would make audiences expect that heroes would get heroic deaths. The way the death was executed was definitely for shock value, I think that was again to make the point that characters are not immune to harm, but I can see how that would come across as contrived.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            I think I would have enjoyed Wash’s death more if it had actually signaled that the other characters weren’t immune from harm, and some of them had died.

        • gt

          I think part of the function of Wash’s death is to show that not only is war(fare) is hell, and pointless at some level, but it creates an environment far more dangerous than it looks on the surface. It showed the mindset, that the other characters left him behind with one left screaming for her dead husband. Something that shocking and random really was required. Otherwise, he would be expectedly dying a heroes death, which may have been far more tolerable as everyone steels themselves for glorious battle that will sending their dead souls to Valhalla.

          That point of every good war movie is not to glorify war, but to show that it is utterly repulsive. War becomes devoid of philosophically meaning because it destroys more good than it creates. The film had to amplify much more than the series, because of its nature.

          • gt

            I never fail to make a silly grammatical error whenever chatting with editors or writers whom I consider better than myself.

          • ejdalise

            That’s why I don’t watch war movies . . . because that’s what one expects from war movies.

            I don’t think either the series or movie were sold as depicting the tragic nature of life in the Verse. Had they been, we would not be having this discussion as I would not have watched either.

            And that’s the point . . . there is a covenant of sorts between the artist and the audience. Certainly, I don’t watch anything going in with the attitude “give me what I am not interested in.”

            Perhaps I’m the exception, and if that’s the case, so be it . . . it means we’ll never agree, but that’s life (and death).

    • Marakite

      You forgot to mention that Wash’s death goes against the Reavers very nature. They capture their prey alive often at the expense of their own lives. Them killing Wash might have made sense if the Serenity was still functioning and they thought they’d try to escape. As it was it was nothing more than a slap in the face.

    • AnotherJenn

      I didn’t see that anyone mentioned this, but the death of Wash (and Book, for that matter) was pointless, but for a practical purpose. Alan Tudyk and Ron Glass were the only ones not to commit to the series if production resumed after the movie. Joss Whedon could have easily killed them off in the first episode if they were still unwilling, but doing it in the movie was a dramatic statement to the actors themselves. He didn’t give them an out. If “Serenity” had been successful, they couldn’t come back as regulars if other opportunities dried up. I think it says a lot about how Whedon views loyalty.

      • Kay

        Why couldn’t Tudyk and Glass commit if it came back? I’ve never heard that. I’ve only ever heard Tudyk rave about how much he loved Firefly, and then there’s the symbolic red button he left with Joss to “call everyone back” if the show got greenlit again. Then Ron Glass shows up in episode one of ‘Agents of SHIELD’ which was written and directed by Joss Whedon, so if he killed Shepard as some petty form of vengeance why would he give him Glass a job with Marvel? In the obituary Joss Whedon wrote for Ron Glass this month, he said he was still part of his “crew” and that he’d been a fan of Glass since his ‘Barney Miller’ days, so the idea that the characters were killed because Joss had a tiff with the actors seems pretty far-fetched.

        We can speculate forever without actually knowing any of the persons involved, but I think Joss killed select characters and made certain written decisions as a “screw you, you’re not getting these back” to Fox. Tudyk literally threw a “We Don’t Work for Fox Anymore” party. Again though, until one of us meets Joss Whedon or goes back in time to creepily listen to his thoughts as he writes Serenity, we ain’t ever gonna know, so let this dog rest. Let this pointless dog rest.

  2. Tyson Adams

    As a big science nerd, #4 really annoys me. Apparently smart people, scientists, etc, are actually morons with no social lives and no clue about anything other than their highly specific field. But it is worse than just the anti-intellectualism, it also pretends scientists/smart people aren’t real people. That’s pretty degrading for a plot contrivance.

    The 60 Symbols team actually addressed this trope with a video discussing their hobbies and interests (several had played sport at high levels). A recent video had one of the professors showing his love for music and science: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyLeBMdI_HU

    The fact that this trope flows over into real life – ivory tower academics anyone? – shows just how warped our understanding of other people and their skills/work is.

  3. Gerald Dean

    Holy Moley!!! What a great article, full of pop references with clear examples and corrective measures.
    I’m standing up and doing a slow clap to you, my friend. Oren Ashkenazi, you made a fan out of me.
    I will be propagating the article in my social media!
    Keep up the good work!!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You make me blush good sir! I am all atwitter.

  4. J. Rose Allister

    Great post! I love this. Although one tiny point about the Common Sense trope…

    It might be overdone in fiction (and really, what trope isn’t?), but it is certainly a plausible one. I see it played out time and again at my own job. I’m surrounded by highly trained and educated professionals with honed critical thinking skills. Sometimes, however, that thought process takes them along one path, while my practical laymen sense takes me to another that gets right to an answer. I have been able to offer solutions and “Aha!” moments because of it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Fair enough. I don’t want to make any assumptions about your job, but I would hazard a guess that working with all these experts, you’ve picked up some of their knowledge, even if you don’t have the formal education. Would that be accurate?

  5. Joy V. Smith

    Joss destroyed any legs that movie–and sequels–would have had when three intelligent characters died needlessly; and the villain wasn’t as interesting as the bounty hunter in the series.

  6. Joy V. Smith

    And for needless, pointless sacrifices, think of The Stand. That still irks me.

  7. Herbert

    Ant Man was not sexist! The fact that Hope wasn’t allowed to wear the suit despite clearly being more competent had nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with exploring her relationship with her father. It highlighted the loss of her mother when it was finally revealed.
    And let’s just ignore the relative strength of her punch, compared to Peachy in the opening scene. That’s not a trope at all (and this isn’t sarcasm)!

  8. Daniel

    It’s funny, one of the first things I thought of under Villains switching sides was Angel, but for a different reason. They actually lampshade this trope when Angel complains that his evil alter ego Angelus always seems to be smarter than him.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s true, although at least with Angel that was clearly part of the plot. Angelus and Angel are meant to be fairly different people, I always thought.

  9. AniDragon

    Oh man, that last one. I’ve recently been reading the Nightrunner series by Lynn Flewelling, and there’s a death at the end of the second book that, while it serves well as a character developement moment, makes NO SENSE from a plot perspective. A character puts on a cursed helm, KNOWING IT’S CURSED AND NEEDS TO BE DESTROYED, but there’s no explanation for why he put the damn thing on and why it couldn’t be destroyed when no one was wearing it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Maybe cursed helms are the height of fashion?

  10. Joseph McGarry

    One big sacrifice was in the original Star Wars. Darth Vader and Obi-Wan are having their light saber battle. Luke runs in on his way to the Millennium Falcon and sees them. Obi-Wan then holds up his light saber and allows Darth Vader to strike him down. The point was to show Luke that sacrifice was sometimes necessary. It also helped that Obi-Wan became a disembodied voice to help Luke.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Obi-Wan also knew that if Luke stayed to help him, the Storm Troopers would overwhelm them all. He had to make sure Luke had no reason to stay.

  11. Laura

    LOVED THIS! Thank you!

  12. nimam imena

    I couldn’t agree more when i saw The legend of the seeker..The series of it were so irritating that i have decided to read the books. You made very good points in your post

    • Kim

      So what did you think about the books? Or did you make a mistake here and forgot to write “to NOT read the books”? This would also be a mistake because the books are excellent, and once you know the background story, you would also enjoy the series more because you know why things happen. Basically, the series would have to be a lot longer to put everything in.
      In the books, everything makes sense.

      • Cay Reet

        Unfortunately, not everyone who sees a TV series will also go on and read the books … or read them before watching the series. Because of that, every necessary information, such as why a character can suddenly fight, needs to be clear from the story presented by the TV series as well. Everything else is bad writing.

  13. Alverant

    Edit: Star Wars Force Awakens spoilers ahead.

    I just saw Star Wars and #3 happened too often. Is lightsaber training common in Stormtrooper school? And Ray was scared of the lightsaber yet was able to defeat a trained sith. (The movie was great, and nothing against Ray or Vin but the movie used most of these tropes too often.)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey Alverant, just letting you know I’m putting a spoiler tag on your comment, cause some people still haven’t seen it.

      • Alverant

        Understood. My apologies. I should have done so myself.

  14. Peggy Perry

    The common sense trope made me laugh. I loved Eureka, it was so over the top, but I understood the sheriff’s exasperation with the scientists completely. Like J. Rose Allister, I worked with a lot of computer programmers and analysts who came up with our work procedures. I know zip about writing programs and little about the legal matters that drove the procedures. What I did know was the practical end. I had to spend most of my time toward the end of my career explaining to these people who got paid several times more than me and had lots of letters after their names that what they wanted us to do simply wouldn’t work. They were specialists; I was the generalist who argued with that computer system day in and day out. By the time I retired, they were telling me “this is what we want to do” and I would suggest what the computer needed to do, and the programmers wrote the code. It worked much better that way. Now I’m writing fiction, and really enjoying this information.

  15. Joelle LeGendre

    Lots of good information in your post, but I have to tell you that hate can turn into love. That’s how I met my 2nd husband. I was with him until he died from the secondary effects of diabetes.

  16. Louise

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for villains to lose power when they switch sides depending on what the loss is and why it occurs. Being a good guy comes with morals and boundaries that villains ignore, which is something that can make them seem more powerful; a protagonist and a villain might have the exact same power, but the villain is more threatening for what he’s willing to do with that power. Star Wars is a good example of this. If a villain with no moral concerns were to switch sides, he might not be less powerful, but would be constrained by the same principles as the good guys and could not use his powers to the same extreme degree. I’m sure the villain’s mental state might also influence his power as he’d probably be confused about what he can and can’t do with the good guys and might even be temporarily unable to use his power if he has to source it from somewhere else. If Darth Vader survived Return of the Jedi, he’d have had to go through one hell of an adjustment period. You can’t source your power from fear and hate for twenty years and then suddenly let these emotions go and draw power from different ones. Going from Light to Dark is easy, but changing back would take it’s toll and it’s not unlikely that the villain-turned-good-guy would suffer a loss of power for a while.

    • Anneke

      I like Avatar for this reason (the animated series, not the Pocahontas smurfs ) Spoiler? I guess?

      When Zuko finally joins team Avatar, the anger he felt all the time that fueled his bending isn’t there anymore, and he has to find a new source to bend (a source that makes him more powerful in the end). He not only gives up the royal life, but also the chance to find out what happened with his mother, and the potential bond with his father and sister (although that last one may not be giving up as getting rid of). To me it seems believable that the anger and frustration that he felt are not there anymore when most of the stressors are removed. It also makes for a nice mini-redemption arc when he learns firebending from the masters.

  17. Shelby

    Although I do agree with the majority of this article, there was one thing I felt I should mention. Although it is glanced over and only mentioned like once in the show, the Sword from Legend of the Seeker actually holds all of the knowledge and skills of those who previously had it (and were given it by a wizard of the first order).

    • Kim

      Exactly. This – and some other things in the article – show that the person who wrote it has no clue. It feels like the author remembered a few things about this and then, but failed to go back to those to verify that their thoughts are right. If you want to have a solid argument by providing examples, then you should make sure that your examples are actually correct!

  18. Clary

    I totally disagree with what this article says about Legend. It’s just so wrong. Day did have a problem being with June, it was obvious throughout the book. He was conflicted because he loved her, so that showed as well as what he felt about what June did in the first book. As far as Day never finding out, I think it was obvious June made a conspiracy with them. This article, in my opinion, could not be more wrong.

  19. Liz

    Speaking of needless character sacrifices, this happens so much on the modern Dr. Who series and it drives me crazy. (Not that the show isn’t awesome, because it totally is!) So many times, a perfectly normal side character runs off and blasts useless bullets at Daleks or just decides to give them self up as a sacrifice so the main characters can survive. Why is it so important to them that the doctor and his companions survive, and isn’t that behavior more fitting for the human-loving doctor? I’m talking in terms of story continuity. Sorry. That was just me venting. I love Dr. Who!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s ok Liz, this is a safe place for critiques. No one’s going to throw you out of the Tardis.

  20. SRM

    > When was the last time you heard arguments from competing theories
    > of dark matter and suddenly had a simple insight that solved everything?

    Just about every Internet physics forum ever. The posts are full of people who would be massively famous for solving the mystery of dark matter (and dark energy) “if only the scientific community would listen to me.” It’s really hard to talk such people out of their position (I’ve never succeeded in years of trying.)

  21. Kim

    Have you ever even read the story of the Legend of the Seeker? If not, then it just shows your own stupidity. There is a very good reason why Richard can fight AFTER picking up the Sword of Truth. But hey, you actually need to read the story to understand this. I am sure, it was also mentioned in the TV series why Richard suddenly has those skills. Gosh. You have chosen the wrong example for that point.

    Things to avoid when writing an article like this: Referring to things that you have no clue about because you base your opinion on the TV series, not on the actual STORY.

    • Anneke

      As someone who didn’t read the books it was very unclear why he could suddenly fight. If reading the books is nessecary to understand the story of a TV-show, the TV-show is badly written.

  22. Adam Reynolds

    The fact that there is an explanation doesn’t make it any less bad. There is a reasonable explanation in The Matrix too, it didn’t stop her from mentioning that one. The problem with this idea is that it reinforces the idea that people are either talented or not. This then discourages people from treating skills as something that should be learned.

    Would be writers in particular often seem vulnerable to this, falling victim to the idea that they lack sufficient talent to every really make it and become a published author. I wonder how many have given up as a result of this mistaken belief. One becomes a good author by actually writing and reading(also lots of editing), not by innate talent. Those that seem to be naturals almost always started young and became devoted early.

    This is also a reason that Americans as a group are often bad at math. There is an idea that being good at math is a talent rather than a skill and thus few bother to seriously learn it, which reinforces that idea.

    While a culture is stronger than just its fiction, one can’t help overlook the fact that it matters and that these ideas influence people over time. Which is a key point of many of the articles on this site.

    • Tyson Adams

      Adam, I agree and disagree with your point about talent.

      The way writing talent works is much like anything else, be that sporting, academic, or eating hotdogs. The complex explanation is called GxExM (often shortened to just GxE), which is Genetics by Environment by Management.

      So if we refer to writing talent you need those three elements. The first is obvious, you need some level of talent, the genetic component. This could be intelligence, or the way you look at the world, that gives your writing something unique. The second part is the environment you grow up in. You’re not going to be writing anything if you never learn to read and write. It could be argued that not learning English could put a severe dampener on your success as an author. The third part is that management or work. You have to put the work in. You might learn to read and write, you might have oodles of talent, but without the hard work it is nothing.

      Interestingly, the people with the most talent also get the least improvements out of training/work. The same can be said for those with the least talent. The people somewhere in the middle can improve greatly but that won’t make them the best. Then again, you don’t have to be the best of the best either.

      I wrote a blog about it with some references to studies that have been done on talent vs training.
      http://tysonadams.com/2014/03/06/talent-ability-and-being-awesome/

      • Adam Reynolds

        While genetics is undoubtedly a factor, I don’t believe it truly dominates most of the time. Even with things like professional athletes or best selling novelists. It certainly doesn’t dominate enough that it should dissuade those who would be interested in working on something. The overwhelming majority of people fall into the category for which training and work matters more than natural talent.

        One interesting finding with Canadian hockey players is that almost all of them were born in the beginning of the year. The reason why is that hockey teams are chosen by birthday according to calendar year. This means that the slightly older players seem better in relative terms and thus get chose over the slightly younger ones, regardless of actual natural talent. Over time the slightly older players get better training and thus dominate, with the natural talent of the slightly younger players not mattering by the time they are teenagers and thus competing for professional positions.

        In writing, dedication and proper studying almost certainly matters as much as in hockey. Because the writing process takes as long as it does, it likely requires hard work more than natural talent. Even inspiration comes from work as much as it does from natural generation of ideas.

        As a side note, the reason that athletes make such a good representative sample for studies of talent is because they work in a semi-controlled environment in which there is a degree of repetition, which makes scientific studies doable. How do you measure performance in writers?

        • Tyson Adams

          Like I said, it is an interaction. Without the genetics you’re going to suck, without the work you’re going to suck, without the right environment you’ll never get the chance to suck.

          As for the hockey study, that is part of the environment factor. Much like proper schooling for would be writers.

          I used to think the work was the big thing, even for stuff like inspiration, until I met more people through work. It is amazing how words like innovation or creativity get thrown around by people who have no idea what those things are. John Cleese has a great piece on creativity that draws upon his psychology and researcher friends’ knowledge. He highlighted how creativity and innovation are actively stifled by those without it.

          So make no mistake, some people have more ability to begin with. But like I said in my blog post, you still need to do the work, and you’ll never find out until you do the work.

    • Cay Reet

      Some author – it think it was Steven King, but I’m not sure – once said that the talent as a such is cheap (for writers as much as for other people) and easily available all around. It’s the wish to become a writer and the long time working on it (writing, writing, writing, so you get better) which determines whether or not a person will become a writer. It’s the same for the athlete, the musician, the painter, or everyone else whose line of work demands a specific skill-set. You need a basic talent, but it’s nothing without long, hard hours of work honing your skills.

      If you define ‘Genetics’ as ‘Talent,’ the equitation works out. The talent you’ve been born with, the Environment which allows you to consider having it (not telling you that because you are a woman, not white, not from a certain level of society, not tall enough, not short enough, not petite enough, etc. you can’t do that), and the Management (your own or that of someone managing you) to keep developing and honing the skills your talent demands. There’s talents where you can easily prove that, but also some where it’s very hard.

      However, without years of writing and growing, you will not be a successful writer long-term, even though you might manage to have one or two successful books out. Without years of practicing your instrument, you will never be a musician (voice is an instrument, too, imho) who will long-term fill concert halls or other venues. Without years of practicing, you will never be a successful professional athlete. The list goes on and on.

      • Tyson Adams

        I seem to remember King saying something along those lines in his book On Writing. And I agree: you have to do the work.

        Interestingly, a point I didn’t make above but did in my blog post, was that until you actually start doing the work you won’t know if you have any talent to begin with. That’s were we get the saying “the greatest chess player to ever live has never played the game.”

  23. James H. Jenkins

    Normally, these kinds of articles do not tell much, and are just a rehash, but these all stuck a chord with me, and were helpful.
    Thanks for taking the time to write this, and post it.

  24. Devlin Blake

    I thought one of best ‘villain looses power after switching sides’ was Zuko from Avatar. Since his power was fueled by rage, once he lost his rage, he lost much of his power and had to relearn it. It wasn’t as strong as it used to be, but it was strong enough.

    As for #4, I hate anti-intellectualism, but some smart people don’t HAVE common sense. They don’t just lose it, they never had it in the first place. Other times, you’re too close to the problem to see the solution. People have a tendency to try to solve problems with the same way they created them. That’s human nature. But sometimes it takes a different set of ideas to solve a problem. That’s why companies hire consultants.

  25. John

    You know, I think Erza Scarlet from “Fairy Tail” has some of these problems herself, and is why she’s so disliked in a series that is controversial. One of the former main villains of the series, Minerva, goes out of her way to become more evil & thus (supposedly; Fairy Tail is notorious for having weak villains and overpowered heroes) more stronger and ferocious just to kill Erza, only to fall to Erza 3 times, and the last occasion resulted in her becoming good (which I don’t mind because I like Minerva) but made Minerva a basketcase that somehow lost all over her strength (which is your “Villains get weak when they turn babyface” analysis). Another instance is shortly after the final Minerva battle where she defeats Kyoka, a sadistic being who can turn off a person’s senses but magnify the feelings of pain, where Erza easily defeats her in spite of having the handicap of being blind, deaf, and unable to feel anyting (which created the valid “Because it’s Erza” complaint that was actually mentioned in-series), and recently, when she’s confronted by animated spirits of those she fell, they do more damage to her, only for her to defeat them all by simply LOOKING at them.

    So, basically, I look at that character as an example of what happens when you violate tropes all willy nilly, and a cautionary tail for those who want to write stories and avoid not just focusing on cheesecake, but questionable story mechanics.

  26. Anti-misandrist

    I get so tired of reading comments about supposed “rape culture”. Don’t call it that. That’s like calling propaganda that supports war-time genocidal acts “genocide culture”. Theft and harm are theft and harm and don’t directly contribute anything to society and rape is a form of theft and harm that is morally reprehensible and takes away from any hope of forming or maintaining a healthy emotional bond, and it traumatizes the victim often in a manner more emotionally harmful than the physical harm.

    So, lets not give any support of a crime a name just because some people have fetishes or online forums about it. Also, lets stop comparing aggressive courting to rape or rape culture. Women have the ability to stand up for themselves in most cultures and have family to stand up for them in more sexist cultures. It isn’t in any way factual that instantaneously a woman knows she’s never going to want a certain man and boom past that point anything that man does is leaning towards rape. Overcoming obstacles to mutual acceptance and understanding is a big part of making new friends or dating or courting someone.

    A lot of the article seems to want us to embrace the humanity in a character, ok, well, love at first sight is rare and love at first pheromone can change for better or worse. Rape is a harmful act about harm or control whereas courting, no matter how well it is done or for what goals is a social act..

    • Bronze Dog

      So, lets not give any support of a crime a name just because some people have fetishes or online forums about it.

      Uh, that’s not what rape culture refers to. We’re talking about how large chunks of mainstream society leap to the defense of rapists, slut-shaming victims of rape, rationalize consent where there is none, people leaping to bizarre conspiracy theories that rape victims are lying to ruin “good men,” when those men often have a history of inappropriate conduct, and the glorification of stalker behavior as romantic.

      I’ve seen far too many of these people, and no, I don’t go to 4chan, ever. The sites where I encounter them are moderated, but they still manage to get in such vile comments before getting wiped.

      “Aggressive courting” is how sexual assault and stalking are framed when they’re exposed. Sending messages that you can just wear down a woman’s defenses encourages these people by telling them repeated unwanted advances a normal part of courting. It also provides a convenient excuse to downplay sexual assault and claim that the victim was misunderstanding or getting worked up over “nothing.”

      Important note: So far, all the people I’ve met who cry “misandry!” are raving misandrysts as well as misogynists: They’re quick to ridicule men who dare to defy male stereotypes, particularly if they can accuse such men of being “girly” in some way or another. They also perpetuate the hurtful idea that men are only after sex because they can’t imagine any reason why a man would support feminism and gender equality if it wasn’t a means of courting. I could go on.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        My favorite is the double accusation that men who support feminism are both only doing it for sex with women and are also gay.

        • Bronze Dog

          And, of course, in the process of doing that, mark themselves as homophobes. It’s also stupid because most of the male feminists I know, including myself, don’t see being homosexual as an insult. I’m cis-male and heterosexual, too, so the accusation just makes the speaker sound like a small child parroting bigotry without understanding. They might as well call me a poopyhead.

          The irritating part is that there are a surprising number of these people who wield political influence and have a base of voters to support them while rationalizing away the latest scandal.

      • Tyson Adams

        I was always under the impression that “Aggressive Courting” was code for being a self entitled prick that can’t take no for an answer. I mean, women owe men sex, right?

    • Tyson Adams

      I think my favourite part of this post is the bit about women being able to stand up for themselves.

      Also, lets stop comparing aggressive courting to rape or rape culture. Women have the ability to stand up for themselves in most cultures and have family to stand up for them in more sexist cultures.

      This has so much mental gymnastics in it to leap around the issue to pretend rape isn’t that big a deal that I’m actually a little impressed. I mean, let’s just ignore the non sequiturs, the cherry picking, and blatant denial of reality that could be overturned with a single example (e.g. honour killings), and stand back and admire the mental athleticism of this post. We may never see something quite so amazing as this drivel again.

      • Bronze Dog

        What makes it worse is that I tend to see a lot of rationalizations from communities when the victims are children. Male and female children.

        A lot of people won’t stand up because their family actively discourages them. Why? Because making the accusation is often followed by more traumatic experiences when the culture backlashes. And that’s assuming that the victim’s family isn’t slut-shaming them or doing “I told you so,” about going out into the dangerous world instead of hiding under the bed like proper women and children do.

  27. 3Comrades

    Something that always stuck with me as a kid was an episode of Hercules, where Salmoneas, a middle aged, balding, lecherous, cowardly, and greedy guy starts crying because he’ll “Never get a beautiful woman.” That episode, he got rich and paid a bunch of women to hang out with him. One woman stayed for some reason, and the narrative portrayed her as the one non greedy shallow lady. The story didn’t even acknowledge he didn’t deserve a beautiful woman because all he cared about was their beauty so why shouldn’t he be judged by the same merit?

    The story growing up is that men deserve sex as long as they aren’t mean to you. When men turn down women it is usually shown as justified because she is pushy. But no matter how pushy he is, he deserves her.

    And the only reason she ever has for not being with him is shallowness. The narrative over and over is that women who say No are bad. Her motives, reasoning, and feelings are never used as a valid reason. So this contributes to anger as men feel slighted by a woman’s reactions to their “aggressive courting” which can and often is used as an excuse for rape or misogyny as a whole.

    • Bronze Dog

      It leads to an archetype I refer to as the Skeevy “Nice” Guy, who expects a cookie whenever they hold open a door. Expecting basic civility to have a sexual return on investment just feeds the idea that women exist for men to “win” instead of people with their own lives and desires.

      And, as I mentioned earlier, it also perpetuates the misandist idea that men only care about sex and never about treating other people fairly and kindly. And yet, alleged anti-misandists casually assume any feminist male is out for sex.

      • 3Comrades

        Exactly. Met someone I had to break up with three times. We’d hang out once a week. He would assume that meant we were dating. I’d tell him we were just friends and he’d inevitably call me at 2 am, crying. Eventually I got a bad reputation as someone who toyed with his heart, despite always being honest.

        My sister explained to me that there were a whole host of conduct I was breaking and was in fact leading him on. Felt odd around guys for years because I was told acting any way friendly or emotionally supportive to a man was a come on and was completely wrong to do if I didn’t want to date him. Wasn’t until much later I even realized how misandrist that was, yet many women told me the same thing or even laughed over me not already knowing such a “basic concept”

        We need to break down the idea men and women can’t form strong bonds without romance.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          I couldn’t agree more. I’m really excited to see such a cool conversation on one of my posts.

        • Bronze Dog

          Concept to get rid of along with that: “Friend zoned” being equivalent to failure or emasculation.

  28. dickson1948

    I do not agree.

    Tempie

  29. GeniusLemur

    #3 and to some extent #4 often go hand in hand with “chosen one” rubbish. For #3, Jimmy has to be better than everyone else because he’s the chosen one, so this never-held-a-sword-before-the-start-of-this-chapter farmboy starts dishing out truckloads of whupass before the chapter’s end, sometimes with literally no training at all.
    For #4, the chosen one can never be wrong, so Jimmy says “We’ll go up the pass because it’s faster,” and all the trained, experienced generals say, “The pass is a deathtrap that’s bound to be well-guarded, the whole army will be slaughtered,” and guess who’s right?

  30. Fay Onyx

    Thank you so much for this! I really feel these and have encountered them multiple times.

    I’d like to add a trope that comes up in mysteries a lot: murder as the first choice solution for problem solving (usually done in an intricate way by extremely resourceful characters) when there are much better options to solve the problem.

    This comes up all the time! For example, Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library

    Problem: You trying to raise kids on no money. You are dependent on rich step parent who gave a lump sum to your deceased spouse, but your spouse squandered it before they died. Rich step parent doesn’t know about this and thinks you and the grandkids are financially provided for. As a result, rich step parent is thinking of adopting a teenager and giving most of his wealth to her.

    Do you
    A) Tell him you have no money and ask him to provide for his beloved grandchildren
    Do some scheming to discredit the prospective adoptee so that step dad won’t adopt her
    C) Go on a murder spree!

    • Fay Onyx

      It turned option B into sunglasses. Apparently I needed to insert a period.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Nah that’s obviously the coolest option. So cool it wears sunglasses on the internet.

  31. Matthew

    At the risk of being accused of necromancy, reading through this in a massive binge of this site, I feel the need to point out that the Dragon Ball Z point is incredibly unfair, as the bad guy becoming a good guy only to become weaker than Goku happens all of once: Vegeta.

    Even further, Goku had already beaten him on Earth, showing that he was just about as strong as Vegeta — the two of them being rivals and straining to be stronger than the other, with the protagonist beating his rival throughout the series being pretty standard and more an example of “once the bad guy joins team good guy, he becomes useless like everyone else on team good guy who is not Good Guy.”

    The only other possible example of this would be Android 18 or Majin Buu: In both cases, Goku was stronger than them back when they were evil: them becoming good in no way affects them being weaker than the hero because the hero was already stronger.

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