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
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
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
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
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
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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