241 – Our Least Favorite Tropes

The Mythcreant Podcast

Most of the time, tropes are neither inherently good nor bad. They’re tools that can be used well or poorly. But that’s not always the case. Some tropes are just bad, and that’s what we’re talking about today – specifically, the tropes we dislike the most! We discuss why those tropes don’t work, why stories would be better without them, and what to do instead. Also, a quick history lesson on the propaganda tricks of the Soviet Union.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:



Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance






Spinning Silver



The Orville


The Devourers

Space Opera

Get Schwifty

Jump down to comments ↓


Generously transcribed by Cindi at YourPodScribe.

Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.

[Opening song]

Chris: Welcome to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…

Oren: …Oren

Chris: …and not Wes.

Oren: What? Not Wes?

Chris: I know! Wes is gone. That means we can talk about the literary genre, give everybody the dirt on how it has downsides.

Oren: Yeah. Now that Wes isn’t here, we get to talk smack about literary genres and about whether copyedit has a space in it, and at what time. And he can’t tell us we’re wrong.

Chris: Also all adverbs end in l y.

Oren: Literally all of them.

Chris: All of them. [Laughter] Oh no!

Oren: That’s all I really got, honestly. Wes is hard to disagree with.

Chris: It’s true he’s unreasonably reasonable. So before we get going, just want to let listeners know that we could use more volunteers to transcribe the podcast. If you’d like to give the gift of the Mythcreant podcast to the non-listening Internet, just go to Mythcreants dot com slash transcribe [https://mythcreants.com/transcribe/]. Thank you, that really helps us out. Otherwise, we couldn’t do transcripts for all our podcasts.

Oren: We do appreciate everyone who has already volunteered. You guys have made a big difference.

Chris: All right, on to the topic this week. It is our least favorite topic.


Oren: No wonder we saved it for when Wes wasn’t here.

Chris: We’re going to be talking about our least favorite tropes, which is probably actually our most favorite topic because we love talking about things we hate.

Oren: Accurate. We don’t have Wes here with all that pesky positivity. None of that.

Chris: You want to start us off?

Oren: Yeah, okay. So this isn’t my most hated of tropes, but it is an interesting one in that it has to do with disabilities being represented as a superpower in stories. Now, academically, this is always something I’ve understood. Maybe not always, you know, for a while I’ve known this, I’ve understood the argument. I’ve heard disability advocates talk about how it erases their experience and makes them feel bad. And I’m like, okay academically, I absolutely agree, sounds good.

Chris: It’s really not intuitive to a lot of storytellers though. They think they’re doing favors or something by showing disabilities as superpowers.

Oren: Right. I get why people would think that. I used to think that too. I understand why people would think that. But recently, and this wasn’t like a conversion moment for me, because like I said, I’ve already academically accepted this. It’s just not been personal before. So I’m dyslexic and recently on an episode of Star Trek Discovery, we revealed that Spock is also dyslexic, which is cool. Spock’s like one of my favorite Star Trek characters and he’s dyslexic. Awesome. Dyslexic like me. Super cool. And then they’re like, because he’s dyslexic, he’s immune to the time madness. And it’s like what? [Laughter] Hang on. What?

Chris: Well, you know Oren, when you get up in the morning you’re like, gosh; it’s so nice that I’m immune to the time madness.

Oren: Yeah. The time madness. So first of all, Star Trek Discovery has time madness where if you understand the flow of time, you start to act weird. It’s just a very strange trope to begin with, especially because like, when they show us what it is, they show us through the vision of someone who is perceiving the time stream. It’s like a bunch of random images and it’s like, okay, I don’t really believe that that would make someone start acting weird and irrationally. Maybe it would be a little confusing, but whatever. And they’re like, ah but see Spock’s immune to it because he’s dyslexic. And so they, I don’t know, see time backwards already or something. And I’m like, man, I just can’t spell, what do you want from me?

It’s like, now it’s weird because it was cool that Spock was dyslexic. I liked it. But now that’s clearly not what I experienced as a dyslexic person, nor would I think any dyslexic person experiences. Although obviously dyslexia manifests differently in different people and there’s some evidence that it might be tied to creative thinking, but it’s not really clear to me how strong that is or if it’s just that, because I’m bad at spelling, I focused on being creative instead. It’s not really clear which one it is. But in any case, certainly there’s nothing in there that makes me feel like I would be resistant to the flow of time. It’s just completely random. It doesn’t even seem kind of related, you know? It’s like, hey; this guy’s got a broken leg, so he’s immune to acid.

Chris: Does it feel like people are just saying weird things about you?

Oren: Yeah, it does. Like I’m some weird unknowable enigma. And…

Chris: You’ve been exoticized.

Oren: Yeah, a little bit. Yeah. And it takes a lot to do that to a young white guy. But apparently you can if you try hard enough.

Chris: [Laughter] Oh No.

Oren: And to be clear, I’m sure that the writer’s heart was in the right place. I’m sure they meant well by doing this. They just don’t understand that it’s awkward and now I’m in this position of being, well I want to see myself on screen, but it’s wrong. And so that drains the enjoyment out of it. But also I still feel if I complain people will be like, why are you complaining? Don’t you want to see yourself on screen? And I mean, yeah, but not like that. And, at least with me, because I, as aforementioned white dude, I have plenty of other representation, right? Not as specific as having dyslexia. But if I don’t like this one dyslexic character, I can identify with who knows how many others, right? Because they share other traits with me. Other people aren’t always that lucky. But it was not a great feeling when I was watching that episode and it went from Spock’s dyslexia to dyslexia lets you ignore time magic. And I was like, oh, okay, sure.

Chris: That’s part of the thing that really makes it sting right? Is you think there’s a character that represents you and then they make it weird.

Oren: Yeah. It’s just, that’s not what dyslexia is. Like even a little bit.

Chris: We’re supposed to enjoy this and it was disappointing instead.

Oren: Yeah, I don’t like it. And obviously there are worse cases. My case is fairly mild in comparison to the way that some people’s disabilities are portrayed. Like anything even kind of related to schizophrenia in fiction is terrible and that’s way worse. So obviously mine is fairly mild but it was still irritating.

Chris: It’s okay. You can say that you don’t like it without, you know, there’s always somebody that has it worse. Right?

Oren: Yeah, that’s true.

Chris: So I’ll say one of mine…

Oren: Yeah, please do.

Chris: And this one is annoying me right now because we’re watching The Dark Crystal and it’s a kind of complicated trope, I’m just calling it the friend zoned dork. The recipe for this is that you have a hot girl and a guy that’s, you know, at least packaged is not attractive. In some cases like Xander and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, he’s still actually quite attractive, but we’re pretending he’s not. Many other times he is just genuinely not attractive. He’s usually presented as, you know, a dork or socially awkward or something like that.

Oren: Kind of Slovenly and gross.

Chris: Sometimes. And the hot girl and this not attractive guy are friends and he’s into her, she seems either oblivious or uninterested and the audience is supposed to sympathize with the guy and feel bad for him that she doesn’t like him. And sometimes it’s used to set up a romance like in Disenchanted.

Oren: Or Artemis is another one where they did that.

Chris: So far, The Dark Crystal, it’s happening with Hup and Deet, but there isn’t really a sign there’s a romance there. Might just be there to set up. Or in Xander’s case Xander never gets together with Buffy right? But the point is that we’re supposed to have sympathy for this guy. And again, sometimes even a romance happens. So yeah, I hate this trope so much because it sets up a really sexist, double standard by which women are always expected to look super good, but we’re supposed to not be shallow, only when it comes to a guy’s looks right? The idea is that she should be able to overlook that he’s not attractive, while at the same time, the woman never gets that. In most cases, the guy is a self insert character, often times we have a female protagonist that is often being downgraded to a love interest by this trope where suddenly it’s about making this woman protagonist, like the male self insert character.

Oren: Yeah. It was so weird in Artemis because at least in Dark Crystal people like Hup. Hup’s a great character and I see why everyone loves him, so I can see why this might seem a little weird to some people. It’s like how could you object to a romance with Hup?

Chris: I like Hup. I don’t agree with the treatment of having, like, what is the point of having him look after Deet like that and be like, awww, why don’t I get the girl? I think he’s otherwise a great character in the show. Definitely needs podling characters. Honestly, I think it should have more.

Oren: But it was like even weirder in Artemis because unlike Hup, the guy in Artemis whose name I don’t remember has basically no admirable traits. He’s just like a weird creepster and it’s like there’s nothing to indicate that the main character is into him even a little bit. And so it just really feels like he was suddenly the main character getting rewarded with a girl.

Chris: Right. I mean a lot of these cases it does feel like there’s a straight male behind the scenes that is basically co-opting the story to serve his personal interest at the cost of the women who are supposed to like this story. And the other thing, and this gets back to this issue, is I definitely think it blatantly encourages male entitlement, which is what the whole friend zone thing is about. The idea that some guy feels entitled to a romance with a woman, right? And but oh, I’m in the friend zone.

Oren: A special term for, I guess she wasn’t interested.

Chris: [Laughter] In both the cases, I mean Hup does spend a lot of time, effort, protecting Deet. And in Artemis, the dorky character does do favors for the main character. Of course he demands creepy things in return, so I don’t know if that really counts, but increasingly he does stuff for her. But again, that to me only indicates more male entitlement because he did favors for her and now he’s entitled to her affection. Right? And so we’ve got what is clearly a very imbalance of attractiveness and we’re supposed to feel sorry for the guy because he’s not getting the girl he’s entitled to, is what it feels like.

Oren: Yeah, I would agree.

Chris: So, really aggravating for me. Do not like.

Oren: Yeah, it’s just kind of gross. It’s like, you know, maybe put some guys in there that the girls might actually want.

Chris: Yeah. And I think sometimes this trope is even done because again of the double standard with the audience where we expect women to watch movies or story read stories about men, but we don’t expect men to do the same for women. So we feel like, well if it has a female main character and we want a guy to watch it, then we’ve got to put in a self insert male character who gets the hot woman. Can you even imagine the reverse?

Oren: I mean it would be played as like weird comedy. I guess I’ve seen that a couple of times, but very rarely.

Chris: About a male protagonist who’s like really hot and instead of like dating a hot lady, he dates an unattractive, because usually if that happens it’s just for women audiences.

Oren: Right. And what I’ve seen was more sort of on the edge of a quote unattractive woman unquote, you know lusting after a hot dude. And that’s just automatically played as a kind of absurdity. When I’ve seen that usually the woman ends up becoming hot in the versions of this that I’ve seen. And of course, you know, if it was in a visual medium, she was Hollywood not attractive, which means still way hot.

Chris: Yeah. But if you think of the typical made for men action flick with a male power fantasy, the idea that, okay we need women to also go see this movie so we’re going to have an unattractive self insert woman character that he’s going to date instead of a hot lady.

Oren: Oh absolutely not. No.

Chris: Absolutely not. All right, your turn.

Oren: All right. It’s my turn. So speaking of things that are hard to do, mine is when you find out that a bad evil, no good character has had a hard life and now we feel sorry for him. I guess [sarcasm]. He had a hard life. You know? And it’s a little weird because showing that bad things have happened to a character is a legitimate way of building sympathy, but if you’re dealing with a character who’s also done bad things, then you have to pair that with positive action. And a lot of times stories don’t do this. One example from a story I just read, it is called Spinning Silver. And this is some mild spoilers for Spinning Silver. One of the characters is the czar and he’s possessed by a super evil demon, but he’s also kind of an asshole. And we start the story, the first thing we hear about him is that when he was a kid he used to torture animals and I was like, okay, I guess he’s evil too. And I was kind of confused because it was this whole, oh well sometimes the demon’s in control, but sometimes the czar is in control. And I was, what’s the point of the difference if the czar tortures animals, obviously he’s also evil. So…

Chris: So, two evil guys fighting for control, we can’t really tell the difference.

Oren: Right. Why not just make them the same person and he seems very evil and he certainly doesn’t care about all the people the demon kills. He doesn’t care about the people he rules. He seems perfectly happy to let the main character die and to get victims for the demon. And so he’s just a bad guy.

Chris: It does feel kind of pointless.

Oren: Right. But then we find out he had a hard life because the demon’s really mean to him.

Chris: [Laughter] Well, you can kind of guess that.

Oren: Right. And he didn’t choose this, because the demon was actually from a deal that his mother made. So he didn’t make that choice. So I guess he’s sympathetic now even though he continues to act like the biggest ass for the entire story. He never does anything to earn a redemption. But at the end he gets one, he gets free to the demon and now he just gets to be czar for regular time I guess.

And we get a triumphant moment with him and his czarina who is actually one of the main characters. And it’s like, what? What was the point of that? It was weird because that character was in like this middle ground of, I don’t like him, so I don’t want to see him redeemed, but I don’t hate him enough that I would like to see him die horribly. So it was just a very strange kind of pointless character by the end. And what’s funny is in that book, we actually do have another bad villain character who actually is redeemed because…

Chris: He does good things?

Oren: Yeah. Because he does good things, right? He does things that are worthy of redemption and also bad things happen to him, so we feel sympathetic, but that’s only part one, right? You need to follow it up with something and sometimes that’s just hard and instead the author just says he had a hard life and I guess that made him do bad things and no, he’s still responsible. He’s still a conscious being who makes choices even if bad things happened to him.

Chris: Right. I mean, you can start the redemption arc by showing the bad things that happened to the character, but then it needs to continue with them redeeming themselves.

Oren: Right. And you know, it doesn’t have to happen all at once, right? Like with Zuko we find out about his like tragic backstory in the same episode where he liked selflessly risks himself to like help his crew. That’s not like him becoming a good guy. That’s just him doing a sympathetic thing.

Chris: Right. I mean he does a selfless thing, which is…

Oren: Right.

Chris: …kind of how you start changing their behavior, so they are less despicable. And I remember one time you told me for instance, you had stopped watching The 100 because you saw Bellamy’s sympathetic backstory and you hated him, so you were like, no, I don’t want to see Bellamy be redeemed, and you stopped watching. And I think about that sometimes because after we see Bellamy’s sympathetic backstory, he starts doing better things, right? He shows that he’s sorry and he starts changing his behavior, but maybe it would’ve been better to have him start improving his behavior a little bit before they went into the backstory so that you wanted him to be redeemed a little bit instead of him wanting him to die in a garbage fire.

Oren: Yeah, I think that that’s basically what it was. It’s not that Bellamy’s…Bellamy’s redemption is fine, but he was so despicable that even though they do a proper redemption arc, he was past the moral event horizon for me and like it’s possible he could have come back if he had done good things before we were told he had a bad backstory and then that would have just been nicer. I would have been able to accept that better. Part of that was just the overall problem with early season one of the 100, which is some of the conflicts feels kind of contrived to me. Not all of it. There are some legitimate conflicts too and this definitely gets better as the show goes forward, but the early conflict just feels, like if these were normal high school students who are just having drama with each other except the stakes are suddenly life and death, but these aren’t high school students. These are all ex cons even though they’re teenagers. It was just very odd the way they were acting, which again the show gets over that pretty quickly, but there are few early episodes where that’s a problem.

Chris: Right. It’s one of the many shows that the first season is very high school drama and that can be a big turnoff. And like most dark stories with high school drama, it grows out of it because after a while that gets old and it has you know, life or death situations to deal with, but the first season is very much like that.

So my next least favorite trope is going to be how dare you villains, and I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I just hate comical cackling villains. I’ll actually make an exception for The Dark Crystal. They’re comical, but they’re also complex and interesting. They’re definitely not threatening enough, but that’s an issue for a different podcast. But the how dare you villain is specifically a villain that is surprised and outraged when the heroes fight back, and to the point where it’s extremely illogical. Like, they’ll try to kill all of the heroes. And then when one of the heroes in defending themselves kills one of their fellows on team evil, they’re like, [gasp], how dare you?

Oren: Like personally insulted by it.

Chris: Right, but for a big part of it is the how dare you indicates a certain level of surprise and it’s like, what were you expecting exactly? You were just trying to murder them all. What do you not expecting them to fight back as hard as they could and potentially kill one of you?

Oren: Look, I was expecting manners, okay?

Chris: An example, a lot of times they say how dare you? But an example that doesn’t say, how dare you is on the first season of The Orville, they have an episode called Krill about these enemies called the Krill.

Oren: Oh yeah. Those guys.

Chris: And they have some weird religion they follow and they’re just interested in just wiping out all of the, whatever the federation equivalent is on The Orville. And so they just attacked a colony and a couple members of team good sneak aboard their ship and find out that they have a bomb that they’re going to use to wipe out an entire colony of people. And so, but they also find out that there are children aboard the ship. So they go through this big plan because the only weapon they have, because there’s only two of them on the ship, but they’re not like super soldiers or anything, is to basically do something on the ship that will potentially kill everybody. Kill the Krill on the ship. But then they go to special pains to make sure that the kids are okay, right? And then return them to their home world and they have this conversation with this member of the Krill, the one adult that survived, and she’s just like, oh hey, you’re just like us. You’re, you’re the bad ones because you killed the adults on our ship.

Oren: How dare you?

Chris: How dare you? You were going to bomb an entire colony? It doesn’t strike me as realistic. In these situations, it’s often used to be like, don’t you see, you’re really the bad guys. It’s all subjective. But if you really have antagonists that are willing to commit genocide, the idea that they would be shocked and surprised when the people they’re about to kill, will kill them back seems very unrealistic. They already must have dehumanized or desapientized in the case of aliens, their enemy if they think it’s okay to just wipe them out en mass in an entire colony. So the idea that they think that their opponents are better than killing them, it just, it doesn’t square. That’s not the mentality of people who commit genocide or are that violent. Right? They would expect their enemy, they would claim that their enemy are the bad ones and they have to wipe them out first or something like that.

Oren: Let me look at it this way. It’s not inconceivable to me that someone could think that people are capable of deluding themselves. I just don’t get why out of all the possible people who could be here, you would pick that guy to be your villain. Like if you go and listen to what soldiers say about war, most of them aren’t like, those people were so evil for fighting us. Even in situations where they actually were evil. If you look at accounts of allied troops in World War II, they aren’t like, yeah, those Germans are evil for shooting us, even when they were the literal Nazis because it was war. You shoot at people. That’s what happens. Not to say that it’s not horrible and traumatic, but there wasn’t a sense of shocked moral outrage that they would do this. And again, I’m sure if you searched through soldiers, you could find someone who was really surprised that the enemy would shoot back. But why would you make that guy your villain? I mean you could also make a villain who just randomly picks their nose all the time. That’s a thing some people do, but you probably wouldn’t.

Chris: The problem here is that makes the villain look really incompetent. Right? That shock. Like you should have seen this coming and why didn’t you? And I guess if you wanted to, you could certainly set up a background for this villain, right? That would make it so that it’s realistic that they are surprised. But again, why would you want to do that?

Oren: No they just sound silly at that point and I mean sometimes it’s just a weird way to try to achieve false moral equivalency. Which brings me actually to my next one cause we don’t have a lot more time.

But I want to do one more, which is what about ism, which I’m glad I know that name for that because I’ve seen it before and I hate it. Which is where you will basically try to excuse a thing that you’re doing by saying what about that? And point to some other thing that someone else is doing and it’s called, what about ism specifically because that’s what they would say. It’s originally associated with the Soviet Union because that was a thing they loved to do when someone would be like, hey, Soviet Union, you’re committing a human rights violation, they would be, but what about the American’s human rights violation? Hmm? Checkmate. And very often they were correct. The United States certainly did its own share of human rights violations and continues to do so. But that really had no bearing on what the Soviets were doing. Right? It was just a distraction. Politicians nowadays love to do that. It’s not just a Soviet thing. It was just popularized by them. And I see stories do this sometimes and it doesn’t honestly really matter if the thing that you’re pointing out is real or not. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. They do that on Discovery sometimes. We talked about this a lot with the Klingons in the war in season one where they’re like, whoa; the Klingons are attacking you, but what about your peaceful exploration? And it’s like, wha, wha, what? Excuse me?

Chris: [Laughter] Where are your Federation ideals now? You’re defending yourself, how dare you?

Oren: In that case, it’s just kind of ridiculous, right? It’s like, okay, you obviously just made that up. That’s nonsense that you’re speaking, but sometimes they point to a real problem, like in the book Devourers or The Devourers or whatever. You have these werewolves who are super evil and just eat people constantly and also not just regular people, but the most vulnerable people. They go after the homeless and the poor. People who no one will miss because in addition to being evil, they’re also cowards. And when the one human character is, that’s bad, his werewolf friend is, yeah, but capitalism also kills homeless people. And I mean, okay, yeah, it does.

Chris: Capitalism is why they’re homeless, but you don’t have to make it worse for them.

Oren: So what does that have to do with what you’re doing? But that’s it. The movie, the book just keeps going because we don’t want to really grapple with how evil these werewolves are for some reason. I don’t know why.

Chris: Yeah. It’s like Space Opera, right? Where we have this premise, this ridiculous premise where humanity has to win a music contest or else they’ll be completely annihilated and you don’t really want to deal with the ethical implications of that. So what about…humans are bad too. Don’t you know?

Oren: What about those bad things that humans did? And in that case it’s just even more ridiculous because it’s like, yeah, those people who had bad things happen to them because it’s colonialism is what they keep bringing up. Victims of colonialism are still alive. They will also be destroyed if we lose the music contest. Oh my God.

Chris: [Laughter]

Oren: It’s just such a bizarre argument and it’s so obviously wrong and okay authors, if you don’t want to deal with the moral implications of something evil, don’t put it in your story. Your story doesn’t have to include evil things. You made that choice.

Chris: Or in the case of Space Opera, I think the issue was that it was being played too straight for some weird reason. Just make it slapstick Wiley Coyote style.

Oren: Like Rick and Morty literally did that. So 20 minute episode of Rick and Morty, it’s the exact same story and I’m not going to say that’s a flawless episode, but it’s better than Space Opera because they don’t play it super straight.

All right, so we are basically out of time. We’ve complained our way through half an hour. Very good. All right, so before we go, I just want to thank a few of our patrons. First is Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at www.therambogeeks.com. Those of you at home if anything said piques your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants. And we will talk to you next week.

Promo: If you like the way we talk about stories, check out how we write them. Original fiction is now on Mythcreants.com, presented in audio on our new podcast Mythcreants Story Time. [Closing theme]

Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.


P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?



  1. Dvärghundspossen

    1. Re disability superpower: There are a lot of advocates for ADHD, autism and other neuropsychiatric conditions who love to talk about them as giving superpowers. So this is not MERELY something non-disabled authors have come up with.
    I’ve also seen disabled people who like the trope where a disability gives a legit advantage, like in Birdbox where it’s an advantage to be blind, although they’d prefer for the disabled person to be the MC rather than support. But setting up the situation so that the actual disability grants an advantage is pretty different from randomly deciding that if you have disability A you’re also invulnerable to threat X, even though X seems to be about something completely different.

    2. I think I’ve said this before, but Owen, the male protagonist in the American Netflix show Maniac, was schizophrenic, and I think he was really well portrayed. (Although merely going by trailers, the Norwegian original Maniac seems terrible and stereotypical in its portrayal of the MC…)

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, there’s a difference between writing a story where a disability grants someone an advantage and a story where the disability grants some random power. You mentioned Birdbox, where being blind was an advantage, because the blind character couldn’t seen the monsters and was used to navigating without sight. Another example would be if the big bad has created a machine which allows for them to control people through a melody or a specific tone and you have a deaf MC who doesn’t hear that sound and thus can’t be controlled. Or Agnes in Carpe Jugulum who can’t be controlled by the vampires because she has somewhat of a multiple personality with Perdita, ‘the slim girl inside the fat one.’ When Agnes goes under, Perdita rises and the other way around, so the vampires never have a chance to control her. Perdita, however, has been introduced with Agnes before, it’s not a new invention for the story.

      • Tony

        As another Disability Superpower that could make sense, what about a eunuch bard? Castrato singers are a well-documented historical example of a real Disability Superpower. Plus, media tends to represent eunuchs as villains (which is ableist and also often plays on stereotypes of feminine men as creepy), so a more heroic type would be a welcome alternative.

        Of course, the character would have to learn to sing first, so it wouldn’t be an example of a disability automatically conferring a random superpower. It’d be more like how Toph’s blindness prompted her to develop a seismic sense that any earthbender can learn. (Then again, I don’t think Toph’s blindness led her seismic sense to develop in a way different from a sighted earthbender’s seismic sense, while castration before puberty does cause the lungs and vocal cords to develop in a distinct way.)

        Speaking of eunuchs, another example of the “random superpower unrelated to the disability” trope is that a lot of fictional eunuchs tend to be sorcerers.

        • Cay Reet

          To have the range of a castrato, it would have been necessary for your bard to have been castrated in childhood, before his voice started cracking. If you can find a reason for that, you can have him, I guess. He would also have to be trained from childhood to sing, but that does make sense for a bard, too.

          Castrato singers were also very popular with the ladies – their testicles were removed, but not their penises, so they could still have sex, they just couldn’t father children, which is a win-win for a woman looking for a lover on the side. This is where they differ from eunuchs, who were completely castrated – and often in adulthood.

    • Chris Winkle

      “There are a lot of advocates for ADHD, autism and other neuropsychiatric conditions who love to talk about them as giving superpowers. ”

      That’s interesting. In the current environment with all the stigmatization of these conditions, it makes sense to push back against the negativity. I wonder if part of what makes it good or bad are subtle decisions about which powers they grant and how those powers are depicted. Like, being immune to the time stuff in Discovery is so random, probably not part of a dyslexic person’s experience.

      • Beth

        As someone with ADHD (though I can’t speak for everyone), it definitely bugs me when it’s portrayed as a superpower type thing in any capacity, regardless of the author and regardless of good intent. The main one I’ve read was in Percy Jackson when ADHD is explained as being a trait the demigod children have because they were meant to fight on the battlefield and so have heightened senses and reflexes… While I understand that Riordan gave his characters ADHD and dyslexia so his son would have representation and he tried to make them seem beneficial rather than detrimental, it really did not line up with my nor my friends’ experiences. I wouldn’t be great on a battlefield, I’d probably start thinking about the types of weapon or whatever and zone out – and as for heightened senses, ADHD actually makes a lot of us take longer to process stimuli (especially auditory stimuli), so it comes across as downright misinformation. I don’t consider my ADHD a negative per se, but for me, it’s no superpower.

        • Sam Victors


          Writers must learn to avoid making disabilities into a superpower, but rather have the superpower and the disability exist together with no connection.

          I always thought Toph from Avatar The Last Airbender was a perfect example. She’s not empowered because of her blindness, but in spite of her blindness. And she also relies on other senses, and, like all empowered people, has limits to her superpower (like the fact that she can’t ‘see’ through sand as she walks on it).

          One interesting superpower, that you find in almost every cultural mythology, is the Blind Seer.

          • Leon

            I can only talk about my personal experience of dyslexia. It’s pretty damn sweet. I can connect dots that others can’t even see and when playing Igo I see the entire board as one not many separate actions. I’m yet to be beaten at Aware (mancala).
            There are limitations though, I struggle to keep numbers in the right order despite finding math easy, but over all the pros far out weigh the cons.

          • SunlessNick

            She’s not empowered because of her blindness, but in spite of her blindness.

            Yeah. A good comparison is that the average human being can hear well enough for basic echolocation – it’s just that blind people are usually the only ones who bother to practice their listening to that degree. Any earthbender could do what Toph does – she simply had an impetus to develop it.

        • Tony

          As an autistic author, one of my planned characters is an autistic shieldmaiden who weaponises her meltdowns as berserker rage. I’m not sure how well that’d work, since meltdowns can be hard to control in real life. But my idea is that the stress and sensory chaos of a battle could work her into a berserk state, and she’d learn to avoid meltdowns when she’s not on the battlefield.

          • Leon

            I feel your trepidation. The cyborg heroine of my novel is dyslexic and bipolar like me, and the overconfidence of the manic state, impulsiveness and not thinking the situation all the way through are the causes of the drama personal drama that drives the story – the war is ancient history (literally), for the story it’s self she is properly medicated.
            I get so many people, people who don’t even know that there is a spectrum, trying to tell me how a bipolar person should be portrayed. Sometimes it’s a desire to portray a certain image, sometimes it’s just ignorance.

            You, and those close to you, are the only people who can know how well you can control your melt downs. If your experience is that you can exercise control, given sufficient stakes (say, pointy shiny death coming at your face.) than that is valid.
            Even if it’s rear to be able to exercise such control (you could maybe point this out with characters who can’t do it.) It’s still a valid representation.

          • Sam Victors

            Hello fellow writer on the spectrum, I’m an Aspie writing my first story, with a protagonist that is a bisexual heroine on the spectrum.

            The story is similar to Labyrinth, with the Heroine making a bad wish and she has to travel to Fairyland/Otherworld to rescue her adopted family.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        I mean, there’s definitely push-back against this as well, also from people with personal experience. But just google “ADHD superpower”, or “autism superpower”, and you get tons of that… Not fiction, but people talking about various advantages that supposedly come with a condition like this.

  2. Innocent Bystander

    Gravity Falls is the one time I liked the use of the second trope because it showed why it was bad. Wendy is treated as a person rather than a prize for Dipper to win. And in season 2 he acknowledges that, while he still has feelings for her (which there’s nothing wrong with), their relationship will remain platonic and that he’s fine with it because he values their friendship.

    The show may not have been as progressive as, say, Steven Universe, but it did a great job tearing down the friendzone.

  3. Tony

    Regarding what you said about the friendzoned dork trope, I’ve also noticed distressingly few Beauty and the Beast stories with a male beauty and a female beast — which is why I’m actually planning one such story right now, along with a few same-sex Beauty and the Beast stories.

    • Sam Victors

      Not exactly the equivalent of a Beauty and Beast story, but the medieval legend of the Loathly Lady does seem close to it.

      A young man marries an wizened old hag, who turns out to be a beautiful woman put under a curse. The Wife of Bath’s Tale being the most famous one.

      • Tony

        Shrek also inverted the trope in a different way, in that the beauty turns into a beast instead of the beast turning into a beauty.

        • Cay Reet

          Well, for Shrek, Fiona is beautiful as an ogress,too. It’s just a different definition of beauty.

      • Tali

        In the Wife of Bath’s tale, the lady asks her new husband if he’d rather she were (in conventional terms of attractiveness) “pretty” by day and “ugly” by night (thus giving him social kudos but leaving him with a conventionally unattractive wife in private) or “ugly” by day and “pretty” by night (thus potentially earning his peers’ mockery but allowing him to have a “prettier”, er, bedtime companion, and avoiding the dreaded possibility of OTHER MEN FINDING HER ATTRACTIVE (ragged gasp)). He quite rightly tells her that it’s her decision, and she basically says “Well in that case I’ll be fabulous all the time, thanks”. The moral that you should give women basic autonomy (as also attested earlier in the story by her answer that what women want most of all is “self-sovereignty” – a lovely but also rather depressing answer, seeing as it means that that’s what is at the top of EVERY WOMAN’S MIND, and kind of suggests that if they all *want* it, none of them *have* it…) is one that we’ve surely been trying to get across for years, but the more cynical part of me wonders how he’d have felt if she’d chosen to be permanently “loathly”, and the fact that in the Wife of Bath’s version the man is a convicted rapist makes the fact that the story ends up being about his redemption and gives him a “hot wife prize” kind of sickening…

        • Cay Reet

          There is a similar story within Arthurian legends, if I remember it right (has been a while since I was steeped in that lore) where one of the knights meets an old woman and she offers him help if he marries her for it. Since he’s a man of honour, he complies and in their wedding night, she turns young and beautiful and like above, gives him the choice whether she’ll look like that by night (aka when they’re alone) or by day (aka in court) and he, like above, gives her the choice and she decides to be young and beautiful the whole time. In this case, though, it’s about a man who acted honourably and is rewarded for that, he’s no rapist and no bad person on the whole.

    • LeeEsq

      I think some stories gender flip easier in the public imagination than other stories. The Beauty and the Beast story was written down for a specific purpose, to get young girls of the French nobility get ready for arranged marriages. They might be scared of this strange, sometimes very older man, who they have to marry but it turns out he is very nice and rather handsome. Even though modern people in developed countries don’t obviously need this aspect of the story, it still is there lurking in the corners. I’m not sure whether a gender flipped version is going to carry resonance with people.

      In a gender flipped version, you are also going to have to depict a female Beast. Even people who know better on an intellectual level often have problems depicting female characters as physically ugly for even a small bit. When you also have to deal with people that just don’t know better on an intellectual level, the best you might be able to pull off is a Cute Little Monster girl rather than a real beast. The temptation that all female characters in fiction must be at least cute will be too strong to resist.

      • Leon

        The cute little monster girl variant would probably hold quite a bit of resonance for Indian teenage boys who are likely to be set up with grubby little school kids.

        • Cay Reet

          From my experience with harem manga and anime, I’m also pretty sure the cute monster girl would work for Japanese audiences.

          • Leon

            I’ve never read a harem story (does Scott Pilgrim count?).
            Are they about people being attracted to social status rather than actually bonding with the person themselves?

          • Cay Reet

            Harem stories in Japanese manga and anime are stories where a pretty average guy suddenly finds his surrounding spawning hot girls all over who, for whatever reason, totally fall for him. Some of those stories do include alien, demon, or monster girls.

            They’re called harem stories, because the male lead essentially gains a harem full of hot girls for no reason whatever.

          • Leon

            I’m honestly surprised by that.
            Though when you think about it makes perfect sense, in Japanese culture one is not encouraged to be the kind of person who grabs attention. Even people with extraordinary talents are expected to be humble. Are there any seminal works (ones that are about the social commentary not wish fulfillment)?

  4. LeeEsq

    Somewhat OT but Spinning Silver would make for an interesting discussion on whether or not it disproves the thesis of the controversial essay, “Why No Jewish Narnia” that was published in the first issue of the Jewish Review of Books. The thesis of the essay is often mistaken as “why aren’t there Jewish fantasy writers”, there are, but what the author was really asking is why isn’t there a work of high fantasy that uses Judaism the same way Tolkien and Lewis used Christianity and multiple other fantasy authors used flavors of polytheistic religions or Goddess worship. Besides the obvious historical reasons of Jews having little reason to romance the Middle Ages for historical reasons, since we were on the receiving end of the knight’s sword more often than not, the essay posits that there are religious reasons. The big one being that the type of monotheism that Judaism advocated really never liked externalizing evil in the forms of Satan, demons, and other supernatural beings. The cosmology was God and the universe, a very stripped down unmythological religion.

    So Spinning Silver is a retelling of the Rumplestilcken fairy tale and it made the young female protagonist a Jew for a variety of reasons. The issue is that if she is Jew and Judaism is something of a correct religion in the story, its at least treated as something important to her, than all the supernatural gatherings shouldn’t be much of an issue because Judaism, and I will point out I’m a Jew, really basically states that God is so powerful that any sort of opposition to him supernatural or otherwise is kind of pointless. While the supernatural forces in the novel aren’t opposed to God per se, they shouldn’t exist in the first place if Judaism is treated as the correct religion because it would violate the idea that God is creator of the entire universe and isn’t going to let anything like the plot suggests happen in his universe. So you have an attempt to place Jews and Judaism in a fantasy earth setting and take them seriously but it doesn’t work without ignoring the strict monotheism of Judaism.

    Another issue is that I believe the technically a gentile lover of the heroine I believe converts to Judaism. Conversion to Judaism at this time is not easy and basically impossible before the 19th century because the Rabbis, in the Christian or Muslim worlds, would believe that any non-Jew who comes asking for conversion is really just trying to cause trouble for the entire Jewish community. So if a tall blonde man comes and says he wants to become a Jew, any Rabbi is just going to say no because they don’t want a pogrom.

    I guess this a variety of the disability superpower trope, where the author is trying to include a minority community for good reasons but ends up missing things up by not doing enough research.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m not particularly religious so I can’t really comment on the theological implications of mixing Judaism and fantasy elements.

      Spining Silver generally avoids the question of whether any religion’s God literally exists in this setting or not, and focuses more on what interacting with the supernatural means for the protagonist. She has to balance the fairy world’s dangers against the dangers of human antisemitism, for example.

      I think this is generally the best way to go unless one is really well educated in theology. Naomi Novik (who is also of Jewish decent) isn’t trying to make any commentary on the nature or existence of God, she’s just adding to the diversity of characters in the fantasy genre.

      As for the protag’s husband (Spoilers), I didn’t get the feeling that he converted, more that at the end they have a marriage that’s more in line with the protagonist’s traditions than his, as part of his arc outwards valuing her as something other than a useful tool. He’s a fairy king, you see, so he has a few issues there.

      • LeeEsq

        Then this brings up, I don’t know if it is trope or just a writing stylistic choice, that I don’t like. This is the unusually enlightened protagonist/protagonists in a historical setting. I understand why authors don’t want to make characters to of the time period. Its going to be hard for a modern audience to feel sympathetic to even if they aren’t super big believers in animal rights. Most moderns will regard those pastimes as too cruel. So authors of historical fiction tend to modernize the beliefs of the protagonist somewhat to a lot to make them more sympathetic to a modern audience.

        At the same time, since I read a lot of history, having character that are too 20th or 21st century in their thinking in a historical section or don’t act as a character of their time and situation should sort of naturally act. A young Jewish woman or man in the Late Medieval/Early Renaissance is not going to enter into a romance with any non-Jew for a variety of reasons or even ignoring the romance thing just accept fact of the Fairy King existing because their entire belief system is going to be against it. So what you get is basically a 20th/21st century young Western women who happens to be Jewish for flavor rather than what a real actual Jewish young woman, or young man if you want to gender flip things, would act like.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Just for the record, while interfaith marriages between Jews and Gentiles have been historically rare, they have happened. Some quick Googling turned up references to them as early as 1236.

          It is generally unproductive to make statements like “x group would never do that.” Historical groups are generally too large and diverse for us to make blanket statements like that with any hope of accuracy. When writing fiction based off historical periods, the best option is usually to aim for capturing the feeling of that time, rather than attempting to make the main character a perfect cross section of statistical averages from the period, even if we knew what those were.

          In the case of Spinning Silver, which is a fantasy setting based off of Medieval eastern Europe, we see the Jewish community drawn from history in the broad strokes. Meanwhile, the plot depicts a set of exceptional circumstances, as do most novels. It is certainly not common for Jewish women to marry Fairy Kings, but the story depicts a set of events which make such a union plausible, at least to my eyes. As to the protagonist believing that the Fairy King exists at all, again that is a function of the setting, in which the fairies (or Starik as they are called) are known to exist by humans of all religions. In that context, it wouldn’t make sense to disbelieve in them.

        • Leon

          You’re saying that characters in historical settings should be stereotypes?

          • LeeEsq

            I’m saying that they should be somewhat realistic to the setting even if tempered for a modern audience. They should not read like 21st century people living in the 19th, 17th, 14th, or whatever century.

          • Leon

            Ok. Imagine youself as a writer living 500 years from now. What assumptions would you make about how the typical American, African, European or Russian thinks?
            You can make assumptions based on laws, traditions and social pressures. But how many people do you know who conform to what somebody may believe are the laws, traditions and social pressures of our time?

  5. Leon

    My least favorite trope; “Reality Isn’t realistic”.
    How do you handle characters who are based on real people, when most of your audience will refuse to believe that such a person can exist?

  6. Noelle

    Friendzoned Dork: Yeah, I’ve seen, the trope of 1) a “dorky” male protagonist lusting after a hot girl before realizing he loves his dorky friend, 2) the “dorky” (either gorgeous with glasses and klutz or very neutral, as in she is neither popular nor unpopular; I don’t think I’ve ever seen them truly goofy and traditionally unattractive) main female protagonist lusting after the hot guy and either getting with him or her dorky friend. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a popular and sexy male protagonist get with his weirdo best gal pal? Sometimes the woman is plainer or less popular, but usually they’re both adults and she is extremely patient and understanding.

    Tragic Backstory Villains: I so often hate this because, for one, many good and bad people have tragic backstories (that’s life), and ALL people who behave badly have witnessed that behavior or been subject to that themselves. It doesn’t take away from or excuse their cruelty. When done well, it makes them complex and tragic figures, but not those who deserve redemption when they continue to abuse others. Also, it often vastly oversimplifies psychology, suggesting that one bad event will turn you into a straight up psychopath, when it’s a defense mechanism that develops over time due to many circumstances.

    How Dare You! Villains: I feel the opposite way. I LOVE these baddies because they’re true to life. Just look at Donald Trump. He will callously mock tortured and dead children and move to continue to harm as many as possible, but will FLIP OUT when someone insults him on Twitter. We all do this, to varying degrees. It’s a classic example of narcissism and self-absorption, and even humanizes the villain (though not necessarily in a sympathetic way). White supremacists and hateful right-wingers use outrage (shock and moral indignation) as their currency. If their enemy is dehumanized, the enemy has no right to have the same feelings they do.

    Maybe we disagree over the intention or interpretation of these scenes because I totally disagree with the idea that we should GENUINELY sympathize with people who are extremely sensitive themselves but have no empathy for others. (I think in both real life and in the media people interpret it this way. “OK, yes, they committed genocide, but you swore at them! You’re equally flawed people!” NO YOU ARE NOT.) Perhaps you’re also talking more about wartime strategy, where it would be foolish to have a warlord genuinely not see an attack coming? (Though, there have been many leaders who were also this way. If they had the men or firepower, and especially underlings who could actually strategize, their idiocy didn’t matter.)

    Yeah, But What About…: Again, useful in showing how a character justifies their actions, annoying when used to ACTUALLY justify actions. In real life as well!

    Now I’ll have to read through the other comments and actually listen to your story podcast!

    • Bellis

      I think for the How Dare You Villains it makes a difference who they express their outrage to. Are they using it to incite the public to hate the heroes? That would make sense! Understanding how to manipulate public opinion would also make the villain seem more competent. (It doesn’t have to be public opinion, they could also use this tactic to manipulate a single important person or small group.)
      They use moral outrage and double standards as a propaganda tool.
      That then bleeds over into the Whataboutism, but depicted as a manipulation tactic the villain uses instead of something the author endorses. Hopefully.

      Even personal vanity like you describe makes sense, while at the same time making them seem less competent. It could still work if you show that the villain is still a threat, but you have to work uphill a bit.

      It could also be a bit of both. They could be vain/sensitive and have their feelings hurt easily and use that to stir up bigotry in their followers.

      What villains in stories shouldn’t do is actually underestimating the heroes. They shouldn’t be unprepared for heroes who fight back, because that lowers tension too much. So they might have a defense or trap planned for the heroes who fight their evil plan and then still exclaim “How Dare You!!” when the heroes do fight back – especially if they act outraged in a public. It usually doesn’t make sense for them to express their fake moral outrage TO the heroes, it should be used for propaganda.

      A competent villain will not expect to sway their own would-be-victims with obvious double standards a là “If I shame you for defending yourself, you’ll lie down and let me genocide your entire planet, yes?”

      Having them /rely/ on the heroes being good guys with moral fibre to the point of neglecting to set up defenses makes them too incompetent and the heroes’ victory feel too easy. It’s also not realistic for a villain or bigot to actually think that their enemy or marginalised group actually is morally superiour to them! They would hold them up to higher standards, but only to condemn them for everything and anything they do, because that’s part of how bigotry works. But it doesn’t mean they actually expect the marginalised people to act like that, usually the opposite. Usually they will believe in the negative stereotypes and the double standards will seemingly confirm those. Like “I knew you X were all sneaky and violent! How Dare You defend yourselves! It proves how violent you are! (But I have an even more violent plan to counter that)”

      Sorry if my explanation makes no sense, I’m really tired and also bigotry doesn’t make much sense. Although this can be used by villains who aren’t bigoted I guess. Makes more sense if it’s part of the kind of double standards that go with bigotry though imho.

      tl;dr: I think for storytelling, it’s probably best to make it clear that the How Dare You is a propaganda tool of double standards used to sway public opinion instead of the heroes’ opinion, and that the villain was competent enough to prepare for their victims to fight back. Also it can be tricky to depict bigotry without normalising it.

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