Five Bad Tropes to Drop

One of Penny's less advertised character traits is being unable to judge character.

Sometimes a trope starts off fine but is overused until it eventually becomes a cliche. That is not what we’re talking about today. Instead, we’ll focus on tropes that are bad to begin with but continue to be used for various reasons. These tropes will make your story worse for their inclusion, but they can be deceptively attractive all the same. Fortunately, once you’re able to identify them, they won’t trouble you again.

1. “Balance” Between Good and Evil

Pictured: Balance in the Force?

It would be passe to simply have a world in which good destroys evil, so authors surprise you with a twist: the world requires a balance between the forces of good and the forces of evil! The heroes of the Star Wars prequels can’t just destroy the dark side; they must bring balance to the Force. Without evil to balance out the good, something bad might happen.

This is, of course, complete nonsense. Evil is, by definition, bad. Saying the world needs a balance between evil and good is like saying a person needs a balance between cancer and non-cancer. There is no moral reason to keep Sith lords around in the Star Wars universe. They do nothing except cause harm and destruction because they enjoy it. The galaxy far far away would be a better place if they were completely gone.

The Star Wars prequels are particularly egregious, with the silly prophecy and the numerically superior Jedi not understanding what “balance” means, but Lucas is hardly the only author to make this mistake. The Dragonlance books have a similar dichotomy between the D&D alignments of good and evil. At one point in the series, good triumphs, but then the good side’s leaders become tyrannical and power hungry. The idea is that without evil to oppose it, good will become oppressive and intolerant.

Except that oppression and intolerance are not good things. So really, the Dragonlance series is a battle between people who are really evil and people who are only a little evil. While that’s very realistic, it makes the good and evil labels look silly.

What to Do Instead

If a balance between different factors is important to your story, look to the Avatar series. In that universe, the four elemental nations and their ideologies must live in balance, because each has its own unique contributions. When one nation becomes too dominant, it throws off the balance and everyone suffers.

Of course, your world doesn’t have to focus on elemental nations. Instead, your story could be about striking a balance between technological progress and preservation of nature, or the value of youthful enthusiasm versus aged wisdom. There are countless dualities you can use instead of good and evil, as long as both sides have positive and negative attributes.

Alternatively, your story can simply be about vanquishing evil or an evil that’s too strong to defeat all at once, so it’s always present no matter now many victories the good guys win.

To avoid the cliches of a black-and-white world, focus on how to make your evil realistic. There’s plenty of evil in the real world, from bigoted demagogues to misogynistic serial killers. Draw on those, and your readers will have no doubts about why there should never be a “balance” of evil.

2. Magically Determining Gender

Look at those diagrams. So masculine!

How many times have you looked at a landscape painting and been sure you knew the painter’s gender? Sounds silly, right? And yet, fiction is full of plots where one character can guess another’s gender simply by looking at their work. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry and Ron tell Hermione they’re sure a mysterious potion book’s author is male, despite there being no evidence for this. They just know somehow. Of course, they turn out to be right.

While Harry Potter may not give any explanation for his supernatural gender sense, Harry Dresden is more forthcoming. In the novel Storm Front, Dresden is called to investigate a brutal double murder, where both victims’ hearts have exploded from inside their chests. Dresden concludes that the murderer must be a female mage, because the method of killing indicates intense hatred, and “women are better at hating than men.”

Um. What? Now I know why Harry and Ron didn’t try to explain how they knew the author was a man, because their only option would have been to trot out sexist stereotypes.* The idea that women are more capable of hatred than men are is so ludicrous I’m surprised the editor let it through.

Beyond being silly, this trope enforces the idea that gender is an all-defining characteristic, even though we know that isn’t true. Furthermore, since this often comes up in the context of a mystery, it implies that knowing someone’s gender is vitally important to understanding who they are and what they’ll do next, which is just more stereotyping.

What to Do Instead

If you want one character to learn something about another by examining their work, stick to information that’s actually relevant. If the protagonist finds an arcane scroll whose author goes on and on about others not appreciating them, it’s reasonable to conclude that author has some kind of chip on their shoulder based on how they were treated. If a murderer stabbed their victim many times after the victim was clearly dead, then it can be deduced that the murderer was personally invested in the crime.

Your characters could also use statistics to make guesses about a work’s creator, but it should be clear these are only guesses. The perpetrator of a violent crime is likely to be male because men commit the vast majority of violent crimes, but any statistician will tell you that’s only a possibility, not a certainty. And be sure the statistics your characters are using reflect actual data and not pre-conceived biases.

Update: An excellent example of avoiding pre-conceived biases is poison. In fiction, poison is often considered a “woman’s weapon.” In reality, women are far more likely to choose poison as a murder weapon then men are. But men commit so many more murders than women that any given poisoning is still more likely to have been committed by a man. Women also use a gun or a knife far more often than poison as a murder weapon.

3. Jerkass Romantic Rival

Who doesn’t want a boyfriend that beats up freshmen?

The hero has finally mustered the courage to speak with their crush. Romance is in the air, but at the last minute, a big, mean romantic rival appears on the scene and ruins everything. This happens beat for beat in Netflix’s cartoon series Trollhunter.* Protagonist Jim is just starting to make progress with Claire when the school’s resident bully butts in, raising the specter that he may steal Claire’s affection for himself.

Spoilers: Claire does not end up with the bully, but even the possibility that she might is stupid. She knows he’s a violent jerk who beats up weaker kids. She’s even expressed disgust with him before.* There’s no way she’d actually be interested in him. This entire subplot exists only to provide more conflict for Jim with no thought of how it affects Claire’s character.

Trollhunter has a number of problems in its early episodes, but this trope happens in better works as well. In Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Billy and Penny’s budding romance is interrupted when Captain Hammer and his sculpted physique enter the picture. Penny immediately falls for Hammer, even though he’s a shallow jerk. The story tries to cover itself by having Hammer deliberately mislead Penny, but it’s shown later that he can’t pretend at civility for more than five seconds, and it’s unclear why Penny doesn’t notice this.

Not only is this trope bad for individual characters, but it’s also really sexist. Technically, the characters involved can be of any gender, but we all know it will usually be a male protagonist, a female love interest, and a male rival. As such, this trope trades on the harmful stereotype that women really want a guy who will treat them badly, and it usually puts the protagonist in the role of unappreciated “nice guy” who can’t get the ladies because he’s just too much of a gentlemen.

What to Do Instead

If your heart is set on a having a romantic rival, the best practice is to make them actually desirable and not a complete jerk. This neatly sidesteps sexism and makes the story far more compelling. If the rival is a one-dimensional meanie, no one will believe the love interest might actually end up with them.

And of course, always remember that the love interest is their own person who exists for reasons other than to love the protagonist. That’s romance writing 101, but it always bears repeating.

4. Hiding Away Useful Equipment

The worst part about the Redwall cartoon is that they forgot the red pommel stone.

Authors really like sending their protagonists on quests to retrieve lost items. Magic swords are popular, but the item can be anything from a rare potion to a bit of futuristic tech from before the bombs fell. The problem is that many authors don’t really think about why the item in question was hidden away in the first place.

The most blatant example of this is the Sword of Martin the Warrior from Redwall. In the book, our plucky hero must follow cryptic clues through the winding halls of Redwall Abbey in order to track down the lost sword. Except it isn’t lost, because someone left clues for how to find it. So, why was it hidden away in the first place?

The book makes some indications that this is all a magical prophecy, that those who hid the sword knew it would later be found in Redwall’s greatest hour of need. However, from other books in the series, we know this is a world without magic.*

We also know that the forest around Redwall is a dangerous place and that it was much more dangerous in Martin’s time. So the only conclusion is that the mice of Redwall intentionally got rid of a very useful sword on the hope that it would be discovered at the exact right moment by a blossoming hero. Instead of, say, a monk who was bored and enjoyed solving strange riddles.

Redwall is an extreme example, but this trope can rear its head any time an author pays too much attention to how cool it will be when their hero finds the item and not enough attention to why it needs to be found in the first place.

What to Do Instead

When your hero embarks on their quest to find the magical Mcguffin, it should be clearly known why the thing is lost at all. One option is for the item to be inherently dangerous. Perhaps it’s a sword that can slay any foe, but its wielder slowly develops an unquenchable bloodlust. If you want the reasons to be a mystery, that’s fine too, so long as your characters comment on the strangeness of it.

Another option is that the item wasn’t lost, but it was stolen. No one gave up the stone that speaks to the dead; it was taken by an invading army and now rests in their most heavily guarded fortress. There are any number of other options to choose from, just as long as it doesn’t seem like someone deliberately got rid of a useful tool just to facilitate someone else’s heroic journey.

5. Suicidal Mob Attacks

What is even happening in this picture?

Who doesn’t love a story where the heroes mow down wave upon wave of poorly equipped enemies? Besides the people who have to read it, I mean. This might sound like a trope confined to zombie stories, but sadly it has managed to escape and infect other genres as well.

The military sci-fi story March Upcountry features a group of space marines trapped on the planet Marduk, home to a civilization that considers the sword to be cutting-edge technology. When the marines show up with guns that can level entire forests, the Mardukans stay out of their way attack with suicidal ferocity, even though the humans want nothing more than to pass safely through on their way to a spaceport. This goes about as well as you’d expect, with the marines literally slaughtering Mardukans by the thousands.

Keep in mind that the marines are using weapons that put even modern armaments to shame. They have plasma cannons and impenetrable powered armor, something the Mardukans don’t have any concept of. And yet, the Mardukans just keep marching into fiery death.

First, this is incredibly unrealistic. Even the most disciplined fighting force is likely to break and run in the face of such obviously superior weapons.* In World War One, many German soldiers broke rank and ran when British tanks first appeared, even though those early tanks weren’t much more advanced than the armored cars the Germans already knew about. Now consider the much wider difference between human and Mardukan technology.

Worse, the Mardukans have no reason to throw themselves in suicidal waves at the humans. That brings us another major problem with this trope: its racist roots. The imagery of a native horde harkens back to conflicts like the Anglo-Zulu War, where the Zulu army actually did charge British guns while armed with nothing but spears. Except in that conflict, the Zulus were defending their land. They employed tactics of desperation because they had no other choice.* Casting the heroes in the role of killing mindless natives is a very ugly thing to do.  

Finally, even divorced from the problematic elements, this trope makes the protagonist feel like the villain. It’s just hard to read pages and pages of one-sided slaughter and still cheer for the good guys. Even if there’s the theoretical risk that the heroes will eventually be overrun by sheer numbers, it doesn’t feel that way when they can kill the enemy by the hundred. This leaves the battle remarkably unsatisfying.

What to Do Instead

Just make the bad guys actually capable. It’s fine for your heroes to be outnumbered. It’s fine for the good guys to rely on a smaller, more capable force against a more numerous enemy. But the enemy should be close enough in capability that they still feel like a threat. And make sure the bad guys have a real reason for engaging in battle, beyond the fact that you need an epic fight scene for your climax.

Each of these tropes has a temptation; otherwise they wouldn’t be common enough to be called tropes. They might seem shiny and cool, but they’ll hurt your story in the end. There are better alternatives for any tale you wish to tell. So next time you sit down to write, just say no to bad tropes.

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  1. Passerby

    “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is a bad example. First, Harry and Ron are actually called out by Hermione that the book’s author might be female. Second, they explain that they think he’s male, because he called himself a ‘prince’ rather than a ‘princess’.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree fully with you there. Especially the word ‘prince’ is very telling.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Just to make sure we all get our facts straight, in the book Hermione specifically finds a Slytherin woman named “Prince” (turns out to be Snape’s mom) who she thinks might be the author, at which point Harry and Ron fall back on “well we just know.” I could have made that more clear in the article.

        • Cay Reet

          Still, 99% of the people would read the nickname ‘the halfblood prince’ and assume it’s a man, because the word ‘prince’ is usually not used for women. In Snape’s case, he made use of his mother’s maiden name, but he also made use of the second meaning of the word.

          Yes, Hermione finds a reference to a woman with the last name Prince (who was a witch and probably from a magical family, so she wasn’t the first one named Prince going to Hogwarts, one might think). But before she does so, it’s perfectly acceptable for everyone to presume the Halfblood Prince is a man (or was, since the book is pretty old and the person who wrote it might already be dead).

  2. Skull Bearer

    One book where I thought they used 4 well despite playing it straight was in the Lone Wolf Gamebooks. In book 2 you need to retrieve a magic sword being kept in another kingdom. It make perfect sense that it’s there because the sword a) hadn’t needed to be used for literally thousands of years, and b) had been sent away as part of a diplomatic deal with the other kingdom, which added a bit of flavor and worldbuilding to the book. When you actually get to the kingdom, they’re perfectly happy to give you the sword.

    The problem is getting there.

  3. RHJunior

    1. Oh HELLS yes. moral dualism has always been a farce. It was skewered by no less than C.S. Lewis, and quite thoroughly too. SO glad to have someone else say it.
    2.WELLLlllll…. devil’s advocate, yes, you CAN make a fairly good guess at a writer’s gender based on countless things ranging from their writing style to their penmanship. And like it or not, women are psychologically different from men– they will do everything from selecting their lunch to picking their murder weapon differently. (And Dresden wasn’t saying they were MORE CAPABLE of hating than men…. contextually, he was saying what most of us know already: women tend to be far more vicious about it. A man will break your face; a woman will shit in your heart.)
    3.SO TRUE. Exhibit A: “Frozen.” For plot purposes, there was NO REASON WHATSOEVER for the Prince to turn out to be an evil jerk.(they already had the nasty little ambassador who could do all the truly evil stuff.) No cause, no need. He could have just as easily been what he first appeared… a noble, decent, nice guy– just, sadly, not really truly in love with Anna. But no, this old wheeze had to be resurrected…
    4.true. fetch quests…bleagh.
    5. Sorry, but people really are that batshit crazy. Soldiers who returned from Afghanistan or Iraq told of one favorite method to get enemy insurgents to abandon cover: just yell something in Arabic insulting their manhood. Again and again it worked– the guy would break cover and run screaming at them, firing away wildly….briefly, anyway. There are hundreds of cultures out there that know about tanks and machine guns and still think the Zerg rush is a brilliant battle tactic.

    • Cay Reet

      To reply to your #3: In “Frozen,” Elsa was originally going to be the evil character. Hans was already there and after changing the story, they made him evil. He wasn’t plotted that way and it shows in the story.

      But that whole trope is annoying, because it suggests women are either incapable of identifying a jerk or they’re just too plain stupid to know they should avoid such a person.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        I don’t think Frozen fits this trope. You could argue with the Hans reveal and that it could have done with more fore-shadowing, BUT… a) Hans was really good at pretending to be a nice guy. b) Anna was super naive due to her isolated and sheltered life.

        I think Oren’s point was about all those stories where the romantic rival is a more or less OBVIOUS jerk, and the woman is supposed to be of normal intelligence AND have normal life experiences to fall back on – and yet she falls for him.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, I could accept that Anna would fall for Hans, since he pretended to be nice. There are a lot of jerk characters in movies and so on which are not pretending and the girl still falls for them. That’s a very annoying trope.

    • Val Quainton

      2. Reliable citations for all of this needed – not just Reddit anecdotes. As this just sounds like the classic sexism Oren Ashkenazi mentioned in the main article.
      5. Reliable citations for all of this needed – not just Reddit anecdotes. As this just sounds like the classic racism Oren Ashkenazi mentioned in the main article.

  4. Tom

    #5. If the ‘horde’ is more afraid of their own leaders, than the enemy. Stalin was quoted,”It takes a brave man *not* to be a hero in the Red Army.”

  5. Bronze Dog

    Definitely onboard with getting rid of #1. For a subversion, though, I’d favor a twist that the “balance” of good and evil is just a longstanding rationalization why utopia is so difficult. Treating evil like a metaphysical force also makes it more difficult by preventing genuine progress by treating people’s genuine grievances as, “oh, they just turned evil because we were too good.”

    #3: As much as I enjoyed Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, yeah, it bugged me how Penny was written. It left me wondering why Dr. Horrible was attracted to her in the first place, and I read other people commenting on the theory that he was just in love with the idea of being in love, and didn’t really see Penny.

    #4: This one’s going to be a bit tricky to remove from video games. A lot of gamers enjoy solving puzzle dungeons, including me, and having a McGuffin inside is an easy excuse to send the player into said puzzle dungeons. It’s also kind of built into the Metroidvania genre.

    #5: My brother expressed some amusement playing Skyrim when he’d have weak NPCs attacking his character, only for his armor enchantment to kill them. He didn’t even need to raise a weapon. This is also going to be tricky to take out of video games, since it takes more programming for an NPC or monster to know when it’s outmatched.

    • Cay Reet

      I think computer games need a different structure than movies, TV series, or books.

      RPG gamers usually like going into dungeons for extra loot, so they wouldn’t mind #4 that much.

      As far as #5 is concerned, as someone who fiddles around with the RPG Maker for their own amusement, I have to say that is where balancing (not as in #1) comes in. You usually try to find out what level the player or the group will be at a certain point and give them enemies of that level. Players who grind a lot break that balancing, of course.
      The worst choice made by any game, however, was the system of Oblivion where the enemies always were on the player’s level. That way, there was no blocking players from end-game content and enemies which should have been a piece of cake to kill stayed dangerous. Annoying idea.

      • El Suscriptor Justiciero

        Scaling enemies, ugh. That’s also one of the reasons why Final Fantasy 8 got panned; it was actually easier to beat the game on a level 1 run than by playing normally.

        Oblivion is still a totally awesome game despite having some issues. But the levelling system IS a big chunk of those issues.

    • Chakat Firepaw

      A way of generating an excuse for a puzzle dungeon is to add a condition to the McGuffin that restricts the bad guy’s efforts to keep it away from people:

      Not only is in indestructible[1], but its magic will actively counter being made inaccessible. Drop it in the middle of the ocean and a fluke series of events will have it wash up in the belly of a dead whale. Stick it in a dungeon that you can simply walk through if you know how and it will stay put.

      [1] Or at least something that the BBEG doesn’t dare destroy.

    • SunlessNick

      Most of the what to do insteads of #4 are easy enough to use in RPG’s – the dungeon might be the lair of an intermediate bad who stole it, or have started out as the tomb of a previous user whom it was buried with.

      • Cay Reet

        Good solution. You need to give a good reason for the McGuffin being where it is and both ‘someone stole it and put it in their lair’ and ‘the last owner was buried with it’ are perfectly fine explanations. You could even combine it: the greatest thief of all times stole the McGuffin and went into that dungeon for more loot, but they died in there and so the McGuffin was lost in that dungeon.

  6. Helen JB

    The romantic rival trope is a difficult one, though. If the rival is a jerk, you wonder why the hero/ine is with them in the first place… but if they’re desirable, they can often seem more appealing than our hero. I’m still mad at how The Flash TV series treated Eddie, or how 2012 treated Gordon, the anxious but goodhearted plastic surgeon, just so that the hero could win back his ex-wife. I enjoyed James Marsden’s character in Superman Returns – there was an implication for me that Lois and Superman were building a friendship as exes, and if they had started a romantic relationship I would have actually been disappointed.
    There’s an idea that women prefer an impulsive, romantic man to a solid and reliable one, and though it is often true, it’s also often bollocks. I mean, sometimes impulsive and romantic men are also massive jerks. I think the character can be somewhat jerkish and somewhat desirable as long as they’re well drawn and we get to see the point of view of the one choosing.

    • SunlessNick

      An impulsive and romantic man, or an impulsive and romantic gesture *by* a solid and reliable man (solid and reliable enough that the point is to make her feel romanced rather than him feel romantic?).

  7. Tyson Adams

    #4 annoys me no end, especially as it often ends up being its own plot hole.

    A great example is Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code. They run around solving these complex puzzles to find Jesus’ great….grandkid. Except there is an entire group who are raising the kid, and keeping the family line alive. So there were literally dozens of people who knew the secret, no hidden clues needed.

  8. SunlessNick

    The balance between good and evil is one of the most preposterous tropes of all, but a grotesque number of people seem to think it’s deep.

    • Grey

      Order and Chaos are usually seen as the go-to alternative, since it’s easier to see how both can be bad in extremes.

      For example: The Vorlons versus the Shadows in Babylon 5.

  9. Redrikki

    The real problem with the good/evil dichotomy is that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ aren’t disembodied forces: they are descriptions of action. An act can be evil. A person can who commits evil does so because they make a terrible choice, not because some mystical force swooped down and made them do it.

    The dichotomy of dark and light, on the other hand, can be interesting, especially if neither is equated with morality. The same with the dichotomy of creation/destruction or death/life.

    • Cay Reet

      Creation/destruction or death/life sound much more interesting. If there’s no balance in those cases, it could be catastrophic. If there is only creation, the world will be overrun, if there’s only destruction, it will become an empty waste. Similar things go for life/death … which is why there is a balance needed with those. Good and evil need no balance.

      • Grey

        Order/Chaos: Too much order creates brittle stagnation, too much chaos results in total war of self-interest.

  10. JackbeThimble

    In fairness to Jim Butcher, Harry Dresden did turn out to be wrong- the Killer in Storm Front was male and doing it for entirely pragmatic reasons. After reading the book that seems more like establishing sexism as a character flaw for Dresden than anything else.

    • Lex W

      That’s exactly how I understood it. The author is, in a non-heavy-handed way, pointing out to us that Dresden himself is an awful sexist with sexist ideas. Not for the first or last time either.

      Now, one might argue as to whether having the main character of a lengthy series of novels set pretty much now be the kind of sexist fossil who stopped being normal sometime in the 1960s or 1970s is a good idea, but equally, the author didn’t make Dresden wrong by mistake. He made him wrong to make a point. Still I did eventually have to give up on Dresden novels because Harry was such a tedious prat…

  11. Oceanofmars

    Have you ever read Girl Genius? It does #1 and #3 in interesting ways.

    #1 the dualism is between Romanticism and Enlightenment. You have the enlightened empire and the the romantic nobles who resent being out of power. They have to team up to fight evil.

    #3 the relationship between Gil and Tarvek is just as interesting as the relationship they have with Agatha, being both political rivals and former best friends.

    • Cay Reet

      Girl Genius does a lot of stuff in an interesting way. I like the dualism between the sparks and the normal populace. Normal people often don’t like sparks, but without them, their life would be much worse (or at least much less comfortable).

      The fact that Gil and Tarvek have known each other long before Agatha ever appeared gives them a ‘real’ relationship which has grown over time. They both want Agatha (who is currently more set on ‘neither of those idiots’) and since they’ve know each other for a while, their fight actually feels realistic.

  12. Jesse

    I love Star Wars, but the prequels are a train wreck, the idea of “balance in the force” among them. In theory, that could mean something interesting, perhaps order vs chaos or safety vs freedom. In practice I guess it means the goal is somewhere between killing children and removing children from their families so they won’t love or be attached to said families? Um… there is a light side, right?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I think the light side are the ones who forbid love.

      • SunlessNick

        They encourage love in the abstract and discourage love in the specific (doesn’t seem to be outright forbid, given they can’t not have known about Annakin and Padme).

        I always thought a twist to the dark and light sides could be that they were “supposed” to be the passionate and intellectual, but the passionate side had been tainted by the fact that the Sith (who are outright evil) are the only ones who’d been using it for thousands of years, and the Force mirrors its users. Meanwhile, the Jedi had been withdrawing further and further into the intellectual side, which had caused a moral atrophy because goodness requires a certain level of passion. “Balance” was meant to be re-embracing and untainting the passionate side of the Force.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          I dunno, the dialogue in Attack of the Clones certainly makes it sound like any kind of love is against the rules, and Anikin and Padme are being all hush hush, as little sense as that makes.

        • Cay Reet

          They might not have known – unless Obi-Wan has snitched on his padawan. Even the Jedi obviously aren’t all-seeing.

          I like the idea of passion vs. intellect and agree that it could have turned out that way. Balance would have meant bringing both parts back into alignment by teaching the Jedi to accept passion in moderation. That might, however, have led to Grey Jedi…

          • Vazak

            I think it would only have led to ‘grey Jedi’ if the light side was acknowledged as right over being treated as the blur in blue and orange morality, if that makes sense.

            Also passion VS intellect would make for a much more interesting duality and ideology clash than good vs evil and there actually is/can be a balance between them.

            Plus I love the idea of both sides of the force being affected by their users, creating a sort of catch 22. It makes sense cos the Force is meant to be everywhere and part of everything but its still utilised by people and so is presumably affected by them. Meaning it makes perfect sense that the light sides Jedi become more and more predisposed towards being distant and unfeeling while the Sith utilising passion for self serving purposes and tying it to anger lead to the passion side of the force bringing out anger and hatred more than they might have once done.

    • El Suscriptor Justiciero

      The “balance in the Force” could perhaps have worked under different premises; namely, that it was not a balance between one side and the other, but that one side IS balance and the other just happens to break this balance.

      I have toyed with that concept myself: my own headcanon is that what some call “the Light Side” is just accessing the Force while being careful not to disrupt it, the Dark Side is the phenomenon that happens when you Use The Force by drawing upon your emotions (not just “bad emotions” like fear and hate, but any strong feelings); whereas someone like the Jedi would tap on the Force calmly and carefully to avoid breaking its balance, when you “use the Dark Side” you are pulling from the Force with great might and upsetting its normally neutral state.
      I don’t think the Dark Side could per se be described as “evil” (the acts one uses it for could very well be, though); at worst I’d say it’s “bad”, in that it’s overwhelming (there’s a reason so many Sith are raging warriors with self-control issues) and addictive. I guess you could compare it with using steroids and adrenaline shots: bad for you, certainly, but ethically neutral as fuck.

  13. Richard

    Good call on referencing the Anglo-Zulu War in #5! I’d encourage people to watch the movie Zulu (1964) to see how it’s done. Surprisingly, there’s barely a whiff of racism in this recounting of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift (1879), where some 150 British and Welsh troops held off over 4,000 Zulu warriors. There’s a decent amount of respect paid to Cetewayo, the Zulu Chief. It’s pointed out how he uses a few clearly suicidal attacks to probe the British defenses, and the defending commanders are justifiably impressed with how he is able to command and coordinate the complex assault on the British position.

  14. Ben W.

    What a pretentious article. The social justice in this is too strong. Calling suicidal mob attacks racist, wins the cake. Rules are made to be broken. Save yourself some grief and don’t take any if this articles advice.

    • Cay Reet

      Suicidal mob attacks of a mob with far inferior weapons are racist to a degree. Because it says ‘those people are too stupid to know better, because they, as a race, as a species, are unable to understand just how bad an idea that is.’

      And if you have problems with this well-written and interesting article, I suggest just not employing the advice.

      Rules are made to be broken, but some are there for good reason, because stories don’t work without them. The true art is to distinguish one kind of rules from the other.

      • k2000k

        That doesn’t make it racist…..Russian soldiers literally ran unarmed towards German machine gun nests during WWII to try overwhelm them simply via human numbers.

        • Cay Reet

          There are situations in which it is done, yes, but in most cases, there has to be something either more horrible (which, I suspect, was the case with the Russians) or cherished (like with the Zulu warriors mentioned in the article) behind those people.

          Were the Russian soldiers under siege? Then it makes sense at one point to do something like that – before you starve to death. There is, after all, a slight chance that some might survive. But on a normal battlefield, in a normal situation, you do not sent people who are unarmed or badly armed at the enemy, because it makes no sense. Only a very bad leader would do such a thing – and even then, unless there’s weapons behind them, quite some people won’t do that. (That’s, by the way, why the Greek phalanx was sorted so the younger soldiers were in front and the older ones were in the back. This way, the young men only had one way to go: forward. But even that usually wasn’t enforced unless there was an emergency.)

          • Davyd

            The Russians were both massively motivated (there’s a reason its called the Great Patriotic War in Russia) and had the NKVD behind them. Watch the intro to Stalingrad for a decent depiction.

            I think the reason 5 is pushing buttons is because the problem is not the mass charge, but the depiction of the chargees as too stupid to know better. I feel that if the advice had been to unwrap the chargees motivation, rather than just “dont do mass charges,” the point would have been better made and readers of this article would be feeling less confrontational.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, the point is not ‘avoid mass charges,’ but to avoid making it look as if it’s an utterly stupid decision to resolve a situation which would better be resolved otherwise. And to make it look as if the people doing the charge simply were too stupid to see that (and, even worse, becaus of their ethnicity).

            If there’s a proper motivation for it (and proper reason, as the Russians might have had), there’s nothing wrong with having this charge.

          • Numa Pompilius

            Your shouldn’t trust movies so unquestionably. Soviet soldiers running unarmed is just stupid propaganda. Red army had multiple problems, but rifles were never one of them. Maybe some unit would have such shortages in 1941 with all that chaos and encirclements, but in Stalingrad it’s just bullshit.
            But yes, Soviets used continious counterattacks almost everytime, everywhere. In 1941 even ten to one casualty ratio was not unheard of, but the alternative was worse.

      • NrNone

        Isn’t that assuming that the people with crappy weapons are necessarily of a specific race/species, or a different race/species from the “heroes”?

        • Cay Reet

          That is precisely where it becomes a bad trope.

  15. Kieran

    Wow! This article inspired me to subvert the Jerkass Romantic Rival trope in my story. It’s essential to the plot that he be there, so instead of writing him straight like originally planned I decided to add a twist. It’s going to be made absolutely clear that the girl doesn’t like him, and that she has eyes only for the protagonist. She is forced to stay with the jerkass because she’ll be a social pariah if she doesn’t. The protagonist also has a reputation for being a “bad boy”, so he’s no typical average “nice guy” protagonist. On top of all that, both love interests are really reincarnated immortals. But while she does know and remember all of her immortal life, the protag doesn’t, and in fact thinks he’s mortal. So dumping the jerkass and getting the hell of dodge would only scare him, and she wants a consensual relationship.

  16. Skeeve

    With regards to Point #2 and your Dresden Files example:

    As egregious as your example was (Harry’s sexism was especially bad in the early books in the series), it is worth noting that Harry’s proclamation that it was obviously a woman was responsible “because they hate better” turned out to be wrong; it was a man that was the culprit after all, and not figuring it out in time almost killed him. I would tend to look at that specific example as more of an example of the character’s jackassery, rather than the author’s.

    Doesn’t make it any less irritating, though.

    • Skeeve

      Ah, disregard this. I didn’t read the comments closely enough to realize someone else had already brought this up.

    • RHJunior

      what you call sexism, a more cynical and observant person would call experience.

  17. NrNone

    As much as I dislike how #1 is gaining ground in Star Wars, for many of the reasons you cite…

    1. The idea of a prophesied hero bringing balance to the Force dates back to ‘Return of the Jedi’. The prequels made a bigger fuss about it, but they didn’t invent it.

    2. Most of the “balance proponents” I’ve seen don’t actually see the Light and Dark sides as equivalent to Good and Evil. Furthermore, many actually deny the Light/Dark dichotomy, insisting that the Force actually has no “sides”. In both cases, they tend to interpret Light and Dark as being closer to Order and Chaos than Good and Evil. In practice, most of the ones I’ve talked to are more or less equating the Light side with the Jedi and concluding that all of the flawed practices and questionable decisions displayed by the Jedi order are due to an excess of Light.

    3. I don’t think any of the movies ever attempt to define what is even meant by “balance”. A lot of people seem to assume that it means keeping the Light side and the Dark side in a state of equilibrium, and Disney may be taking Star Wars in that direction, but so far it’s pretty much just an assumption. There’s also a significant number of people who take the view that the Light represents the natural state of the Force, and that bringing balance to the Force basically means getting rid of the all the Dark siders who are throwing it off kilter by twisting the Force to make it do what they want.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So I’ve been looking as hard as I can and asking all my Star Wars nerd friends and none of us can find where “balance in the force” was mentioned in Return of the Jedi. Do you know what scene it was?

      • NrNone

        I haven’t been able to find it either. Wookieepedia’s article on ‘Chosen One’ cites Return of the Jedi as its first appearance, but it just occurred to me that the article may be saying that RotJ was the first appearance of Anakin Skywalker, whom Lucas has said is the Chosen One. The article seemed so noncommittal that I took it as being about the Chosen One as a notion rather than a person. I’m also pretty certain that I heard people have the balance debate before the release of the prequels, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were arguing with support from the original movies. Very well! I hereby rescind point 1 of my previous comment!

        On a related note, I did stumble upon an old interview where Lucas seems to support the idea that a balance between Light and Dark is necessary, and is achieved by wiping out the Sith:,9171,23298-1,00.html

  18. RHJunior

    I cannot agree more on point one. This dualistic nonsense refuses to die, even though philosophers such as C.S. Lewis took it out behind the shed and beat it like a redheaded stepchild over a century ago.

  19. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I removed a comment here because it used disrespectful language when referring to black and Native American women. I’m happy to see people tell me everything I say in a post is wrong, but disrespect crosses a line.

  20. Vazak

    A really good article!

  21. Passerby

    Restoring balance to the Force doesn’t mean a balance between the Dark and the Light Side, though. The Dark Side is not a natural state of the Force – it’s the product of users who inflict their will over the Force’s and use it to their own selfish desires. This is why kyber crystals of a Dark Side user are always red – they bleed – whereas the Light Side users have the whole set of various colors at their disposal.

    • Cay Reet

      The Force is a neutral energy, neither light nor dark. What the user makes of it is what makes them users of Dark or Light. Those who use it selfishly and to harm others use the Dark side and those who use it for others and to help use the Light side. And as a matter of fact you will find that some Sith Lords of old (like Exar Kun) actually had swords with other blade colours (his was blue, if I remember correctly).

      • Bronze Dog

        I’ve recently been catching up on Star Wars lore, Disney Canon and Legends, and I get the impression that the Jedi Order believed the dark side was the consequence of an imbalance, rather than a genuine flipside to the light, and that they were wrong to think that way.

        I’m hoping The Last Jedi is going to signify that Luke is building a new gray Force tradition, rather than repeat the mistakes of the Jedi Order.

        • SunlessNick

          I suggested above that the dark and light sides “ought” to be passionate and intellectual, and it was the Sith themselves who had tainted it into evil, while the Jedi retreated from it. Balance to the Force would then mean untainting its passionate side and relearning to embrace it. (Rey and Finn* would both be good for that).

          * It doesn’t have anything to do with the subject at hand, but I’m sure Finn is also Force-senstitive.

          • Cay Reet

            Since the Force itself has no mind or self-awareness, it can’t be good or evil.

            I like the principle of passion vs. intellect, as you put it above. It would mean that any extreme, no matter whether it’s the passion of the Sith or the intellect of the Jedi, is bad. In the EU, mentioned in “I, Jedi,” there was a group which considered themselves neither Jedi nor Sith, but took teachings from both groups. That might actually be a way to go, even though by now the whole story no longer officially exists.

  22. Dave P

    In regards to the romantic rival thing… I think that one is not necessarily a problem, as long as one acknowledges that failure to see that is potentially a part of the woman’s character. People often choose partners who are flawed, often seriously so, in real life. And they often ignore negative qualities once they’ve committed to a partner. I can vouch for this in my own personal experience as I’ve done that with a partner that was very much not a good match for me. So I wouldn’t hold it against a fictional character who does the same.

    • Cay Reet

      There’s too much of it, if every other romantic comedy uses the jerk as seemingly first choice of the female lead, so that the ‘intended’ lover can shine. It’s shoddy writing, above all other things, because it’s clear for the audience from the beginning that the male lead will eventually win the girl. Yes, women in real life ignore the bad sides of their partners sometimes, either because they’ve been brought up to think it’s okay or because they’re too inexperienced to understand those sides will never go away. Question is how many of them do it because romantic stories have taught them that those men make good partners, at least for a while. It branches out in the idea of society and media that a woman can ‘change’ a man (which is utter stupid and false, nobody can change another person, unless that person wants to change).

      You can twist it in a way in which it makes sense without making the female lead look utterly stupid, like having a society in which arranged marriages are the norm and her family arranged for the jerk to be her fiancé. Or by having a guy who plays nice with her, but terrorizes everyone else while she’s not around. Or by him having some kind of blackmail material on her (which doesn’t make it a romantic relationship any longer, but it means the male lead will have a hard time getting the female lead away from his rival). But you need to be specific about why she’s with a guy the audience can see shouldn’t even get the time of the day from her.
      Alternately, give her two viable alternatives. Give her two guys to choose from who’d both be good partners.

      If you have a woman with a good heart and two brain cells, any relationship with a jerk or a bully shouldn’t last long enough for a ‘one month’ anniversary.

      • Dave P

        I have a good heart and more than two brain cells, and I was married to a woman who is manipulative, psychotic, and was verbally abusive to me at every opportunity. Including after the marriage during the divorce. I think that maybe I find relationships with “jerks” more plausible because someone has a good heart, not in-spite of said aspect. (Well I’d like to think I have good heart, that’s one of the qualities that’s important)

        The reason I think you see the “girl of my dreams dating a jerk” in fiction is because it’s easy, and therefore lazy writers will take that option, and because that way you won’t feel bad about a plot where the main character is supposed to be both a good person and trying to steal somebody else’s girl, or convince somebody who is an otherwise committed relationship to exit said relationship. I agree that there are issues with this particular approach, and it gets muddled a lot. But I don’t think it’s as bad a read on the woman as it is the argument in the article.

        Also I’m pretty offended that you would suggest that inexperience and naivete or a specific upbringing is the only case where somebody would stay in a bad relationship, certainly you must have seen enough to know that’s not true, and again my own experience contradicts that, and that is not exclusively my relationship but others I’ve seen with people who are not naive, and who were brought up in a modern culture that’s fine with divorce.

        • Cay Reet

          Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve never been ‘blinded by love’ enough to consider a relationship with someone who had traits which were not only undesirable, but would also have made them jerks by usual definition. And because of that, I really can’t see another reason than some kind of education which makes people think that having a partner like that is fine or that they can change their partner and everything will be fine afterwards.

  23. Dracosophy

    Re: “Beyond being silly, this trope enforces the idea that gender is an all-defining characteristic, even though we know that isn’t true. … knowing someone’s gender is vitally important to understanding who they are and what they’ll do next, which is just more stereotyping.”
    ___________ ***_____________
    Actually, gender /_is_/ an extremely differentiating characteristic, and actually knowing their gender can, and does help to figure out basic motivations; stereotyping [,for better or for worse,] is a “thing” for a reason.
    It’s only in the last hundred years or so [,with society’s laws have tried to be more equal-handed in dealing with the genders,] that the idea of gender being a social construct has been advanced and accepted in some vocal minorities of socio-political groups. I could write a book to prove my point, complete with a dozen references but anyone who really wants to know the truth should look it up for themselves.
    Anyone with doubts should think about evolution and the time-scale of evolution, plus the gender differentiation among some of our closest genetic relatives.
    Our species would not have survived and ended up the way it did unless the genders specialized in very different ways. For the vast majority of human evolution the life expectancy was not very high (age ~40?), so during those crucial reproductive years, for the continuation of the species, the women were mostly giving birth and caring for young, which undoubtedly shaped their evolutionary development when compared with males who were not the bearers of the children themselves for the 2-5 years that most children are literally and virtually tied to the mothers’ body. If you think that sort of long-term natural selection would not differentiate between genders then you might be missing some key information about biology, genetics, and/or history.

  24. Cay Reet

    What you are missing, is this: the child is not bound to the mother’s body, it needs a caretaker. Once a human is born, we need someone to take care of us for indeed something along 5 years, until we have all basics of regular life down. But this person doesn’t have to be a mother or our mother (in that case, every child of a mother dying in childbed, a regular occurrence for a long time, would have died with her). The child needs a caretaker, which can just as well be a servant (nannies come to mind), a relative (like an aunt, grandmother, or even much older sister, in the large families before the industrial revolution and the invention of the pill not rare at all), or even a stranger (such as early kindergarten these days). For a very long time in our society, it wasn’t necessarily the mother who took care of the child. The farmer’s wife was out in the fields while, for instance, the farmer’s old mother took care of the child. The noblewoman handed her child to a servant right after birth. A female worker went to work again as soon as she could find anyone to take care of her child (often one of her older children or the older children of another mother or the earliest form of kindergarten), they couldn’t have afforded not working for 5 years. The idea that it needs THE mother to raise a child is relatively young (early 20th century).

    We know today, that women have played a much bigger role in society ever since the beginning than a lot of historians in the past, thinking pretty much the same way you argue, have thought. Scythian armies were made up of almost as many women as men (both were soldiers fighting in battle). The small family clans of our early ancestors divided between those physically fit to hunt and those not physically fit enough. Young women who weren’t pregnant or recovering from childbirth went out hunting, too, if they were physically up to it. Just as older men stayed at home, looked for roots and berries, or took care of the children. A society survives best by everyone doing what they are doing best. That often doesn’t confirm to gender roles.

    Age expectancy is a fluent thing, by the way. Most old civilisations (cavemen to late middle ages and afterwards) have a low average (30-40 years), but this average is created by a high death rate among infants and young children and a relatively large potion of adults reaching ages of 60 and older. A human reaching the age of about 20 (growing into physical adulthood) had a good chance of 40 to 50 more years on the planet.

    • Cay Reet

      Oops, this was meant to be an answer to Dracosophy.

  25. Alex Lund

    To 1) Balance
    I think the best way to view this is to take the Point of view of Werewolf the Apocalypse. The Balance between Wyld and Weaver.
    Wyld could be described as anarchy, total freedom and Weaver as structure, everything ordered.
    In the german Science Fiction Serial Perry Rhodan it is also used. There you have the universal (genetic) code of the universe that for example says that lightspeed is 300.000 km/sec (The universe is divided into cells of 50.000 lightyears Diameter and for every cell there is one cellstructure). The Kosmokrats (Order) defend this code and want the cellstructure to be at its place so that the laws of physics are everywhere the same, while the Chaotarchs fight against it and want the cellstructure to be away so that the laws of physics break down and on one meter you have a lightspeed of 25.000 km/sec while 1 Yard away you have a lightspeed of 300.000.000.000 km/sec. (And besides, a Chaotarch can only live at a place where the laws of physics have broken down totally.)
    If you have too much of one side (Order) you have a strict Society where everything is tied down, Innovation is strangled etc, while if you have too much of the other side you have no laws, might is right etc.
    My Point is that a true Sith is not evil per se. A true Sith would try to reach his full potential but not bow to others and expect others not to bow to him. Something like I understand what it means to be a true Slytherin of Harry Potter.

    To 5)
    Yes, the Military unit just wants to travel through this Country, but the army is oathbound to defend their Country.
    Realworld: Do you think that a serbian tank Company would be allowed to travel through the Kososvo without the army of Kosovo reacting?
    Yes, the serbian unit just wants to travel from A to B, not kill anybody, so why are the soldiers of Kosovo opposed to this idea?
    Or do you think the Israeli Defense Forse would allow the Iranian Army to march through or vice versa?

    • Chakat Firepaw

      You missed the point on #5. It’s not about ignoring a foreign military force, it’s about not making pointless suicide attacks on a force you probably can’t hurt.

      To give a semi-RL example, it would be like a platoon of 5 Mk VI Ogres driving across Egypt. Nothing the Egyptians have can even scratch the armour of the Ogres¹ while the latter’s anti-personnel guns² can easily destroy even the strongest tanks in the Egyptian inventory.

      While there might be an initial engagement where the Egyptians discover just how outclassed they are, they aren’t going to simply send wave after wave of frontal attacks to die. Instead, they will either try other methods of attack, to varying effect³, or pull back to monitor things while hoping the Ogres will become somebody else’s problem.

      1: It takes direct hits by tacnukes to damage external systems.
      2: In the Ogre setting, even the infantry can stand up to direct hits from anything short of multi-tonne warheads.
      3: Although it would mostly be no effect on the Ogres followed by one diverting to vaporize whatever shot at them.

  26. Gabriel Blanchard

    Re #3 especially, this was one of the many things that I thought made “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” such an entertaining, strong film. Obviously you’re rooting for Will to win Elizabeth’s heart through the whole film; but Norrington is not only a perfectly decent guy, he’s a hero! Indeed, it would have been perfectly possible, by altering the perspective only a little bit, to have made the whole film a heroic and tragic but accepted defeat on Norrington’s part, as opposed to a heroic and romantic victory on Will’s. Or, conversely, it would have been just as plausible (though not perhaps quite as satisfying) for Elizabeth to *really* choose Norrington in the end, instead of going with Will and the adventure of piracy that she had grown up fantasizing about, framing it as her “putting away childish things” in favor of a duller but more secure and adult womanhood.

  27. Cannoli

    It should be noted that in “March Upcountry” the marines face a number of “Mardukans”. There are the Xintai, who are an aboriginal tribal community, a town called Q’Nkok, which includes refugees from a major city, called Voitan, which was wiped out by barbarian nomads, the Kranolta, and the medieval imperialist city of Marshad. They have very different cultures and tech levels. Calling them all “Mardukans” is like refering to the antagonists in the film “Zulu” as Africans.

    And the Kranolta use their mass charge tactic, because it has always worked for them, they are a traditionalist society, with values that reward such behavior and oh, by the way, comes closer to wiping out the company of Marines than any other single event in the books, including attacks by much more technologically sophisiticated enemies later on.

    And they are not defeated purely by the superweapons of the Marines, they are on the point of overrunning the company when the reconstituted army of Voitan arrives on the battlefield to take them in the rear.

  28. CaladhielTan

    I agree that the Jerkass Romantic Rival is a trope that needs to go, but I don’t think the bully in Trollhunter is a good example. He isn’t a competitor with Jim for Claire’s affections, as a romantic rival would be; Claire repeatedly expresses dislike for him while showing an interest in Jim.

    Rather than being a competitor for Jim or a part of a love triangle, this bully serves a similar function to the curfew in Cinderella: a circumstantial obstacle to Jim spending time with Claire, but not one that suggests her interest in Jim has dwindled in any way. Alternatively, it could be argued that he’s there to underline Jim’s inadequacies and insecurities (the bully has a motorcycle to give Claire a ride to the concert; Jim doesn’t – the bully can make it to play rehearsals to be Jim’s understudy; Jim can’t), but I think reading this bully as a romantic rival is an oversimplification.

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