Storytelling

Five Popular Tropes Writers Struggle With

Buffy and Spike staring at each other.

For all its problems, this show pulls off a redemption/romance arc with flying colors.

Most writers first learn the craft of storytelling from reading their favorite books or watching their favorite TV shows and films.* This approach is fun because it means we get to consume a lot of great media, but new authors often assume they can do anything they’ve seen their favorite storytellers do, and that leads to problems. As a content editor, I often see ambitious writers struggling with the same set of tropes, so today let’s walk through some of the most common and look at how to make them work.

1. Underpowered Protagonists

Frodo from the Lord of the Rings films, turning and smiling at the camera.

The underpowered protagonist is a main character who is totally unprepared for the problems that await them on their adventure. They might have been raised on a farm only to be sent out questing against the evil elven empire,* or they might be a brand-new apprentice expected to match spells with archmages. Often, the underpowered protagonist is someone from our world pulled into the magical realm and told they’re the chosen one.

No matter the circumstances, underpowered protagonists quickly run up against bad guys who vastly outclass them. To avoid being murdered, eaten, or otherwise dispatched in the first scene, the underpowered protagonist depends on either more competent allies or random chance to save them. If the hero can believably get out of trouble on their own, then by definition they are not an underpowered protagonist.*

This is a recipe for disaster because it means the protagonist has no agency. They’re just being escorted from scene to scene, usually by their more capable friends. If the main character has no agency, readers won’t care about them, and pretty soon the whole story is chucked in the bin. And yet this trope appears a lot in classic fiction, which is partly why so many authors want to use it, so what’s the secret?

How to Make It Work

The secret is Frodo Baggins of Bag End. That’s it, you’re done. Seriously, though, Frodo is the most well-known example of this trope because Tolkien made a very important choice: he gave Frodo a special power and a special responsibility. Frodo is the only one who can carry the One Ring, and if he doesn’t, all of Middle-earth will be consumed by Sauron. That means even when Frodo is surrounded by powerhouses like Aragon, Legolas, and Gimli, his actions and opinions still matter. He still has agency.*

So if you want to use an underpowered protagonist, that’s the example to follow. Give your main character something critical that only they can do. Then they can stay important even if they’re bad at sword fighting, which opens the door for a fun arc where they slowly get more competent. Just remember that whatever you give them has to be an active process. Frodo had to fight the One Ring’s influence; otherwise, he’d have been nothing but a living MacGuffin to be delivered.

2. Episodic Plot Structures

The ship Dawn Treader from the American film adaptation.

Most written stories are designed around a single throughline, also known as a central plot. The throughline is introduced at the beginning and resolved at the end, with everything in between contributing to it. This is the classic Star Wars plot structure. We introduce the threat of the Death Star right away with Vader chasing down Leia to get the plans, have some Death Star–related adventures, then resolve the throughline at the end when Luke blows it up.*

But that’s not the only way to tell a story. Instead, you can treat each section of your book like an episode of television, with its own beginning, middle, and end. This is called, fittingly enough, an episodic plot structure, and authors really love it. They love it because an episodic structure lets them tell multiple stories within the same novel, and they love it because so many of them learned storytelling from watching TV shows.

Unfortunately, authors also have a lot of trouble with episodic plots. Stories that use this structure often feel ponderous and slow paced, with no forward momentum or rising action. Readers often finish a section only to ask, “What was the point of that?” This happens because novels are not naturally segmented into smaller chunks the way episodes of television are. Readers expect a single story, and authors often try to write one even as they are creating an otherwise episodic structure.

How to Make It Work

One of the few novels to successfully employ an episodic structure is Voyage of the Dawn Treader, something that makes it worth reading despite other problems.* Dawn Treader is a travel story, and each island the characters stop at represents a self-contained episode, with its own conflict and pay off. But at the same time, each episode builds toward the overarching plot of their quest to find the Seven Lords of Narnia.

This combo is essential to episodic storytelling. If a section of the story isn’t directly linked to the main plot, then it needs to function as its own story, which means creating all the same elements a larger story has. There needs to be conflict, rising action, a climax, and then resolution. This mirrors the structure found in episodes of even the most serialized TV show, where there’s always some payoff at the end of each episode. But it’s also critical that each episode builds at least a little toward the main plot, or else readers will wonder why this isn’t a series of short stories.

3. Hate to Love Romances

Spike patting Buffy on the shoulder from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer

Look, we can always write stories where two or more characters fall in love because of shared interests and compatible personalities like normal people, but isn’t it more interesting if they hate each other first? Then the hatred can slowly turn to love, resulting in the strongest romance ever, right?

Authors use this trope for a whole host of reasons. Characters who hate each other have a way better justification to exchange witty repartee, for starters, and everyone knows that one-liners are a great way to build sexual tension. Then there’s the much-sought-after contrast between the lovebirds’ original animosity and their eventual romance. Finally, sometimes authors just need a reason why the lovers can’t get together right away, so they create a personality clash.

The only issue is that such romances are rarely satisfying. Most often, this kind of big emotional switch just isn’t convincing. It’ll either seem like the characters didn’t really hate each other and all that hostility was just for show, or that they’ve had their personalities rewired so they can make smoochies with someone they previously detested. Then you can get into problematic territory, especially with heterosexual couples, where the woman learns that her man’s creepy or outright abusive behavior is just who he is and she needs to accept it. Gross.

How to Make It Work

One of the more successful hate to love romances is the relationship between Buffy and Spike on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. That’s a TV show, but its methods work just as well in print. Mainly, the reason Buffy and Spike hate each other isn’t because of a personality clash; it’s because Spike is a vampire and Buffy is the slayer. They’re on opposite sides of a major conflict, so love is out of the question until Spike’s redemption arc is finished. Once that happens, they can smooch without it feeling contrived.

You can emulate this success by having your lovebirds oppose each other as part of a larger conflict. When that conflict is resolved, you get all the contrast and satisfaction of hate turning into love, without needing to conveniently ignore why the characters didn’t like each other in the first place. This will still require some time to be believable, as characters probably won’t leap into each other’s arms just because the war is over, but it doesn’t have to take five seasons like Buffy did. Spike needed that time to redeem himself from being an evil vampire. If your lovebirds’ conflict is less black and white, they can get together faster.

4. Main Character Death

Ned Stark just before his execution from Game of Thrones

We all know the main characters are supposed to live to the end of the story. In fact, it’s so well known that a lot of authors want to rebel against it. They don’t want to be all boring and conventional, so they kill off half the cast, presumably while shouting about how this isn’t your grandparents’ story anymore.

Jokes about grimdark stories aside, there are some very real benefits to killing off major characters. Such deaths create intense drama that can really elevate a scene, perfect for bringing the reader to tears. Even more importantly, killing some major characters makes it feel like others might die too. This seriously ups the story’s tension and makes the world more immersive. It’ll keep going whether these characters live or not!

Once the initial rush wears off, authors quickly discover there’s a reason most main characters survive until the end. Readers grow attached to their favorite characters, and if that character dies, they might just put the book down. If that’s not enough, dead characters often leave unresolved plot threads behind, or they might have provided something critical that the story no longer has. If you kill off the only funny character, the story can get dismal and depressing fast.

How to Make It Work

To kill a main character without damaging your story, the best course is to follow the example of Eddard Stark from the novel A Game of Thrones.* Ned’s death is the conclusion of a long arc that tests his idealism and rigid honor against the realities of Westerosi politics. He refuses to compromise and dies for it. This is an extremely satisfying moment, even for readers who loved Ned and wanted him to live. There are no loose ends for his character, and the greater story of House Stark is taken up by his wife and children.

Martin actually repeats this trick with the Red Wedding a couple books later. This time, the arc is Robb not following his mother Catelyn’s practical counsel, eventually getting his house destroyed for it. In both cases, the key is that the character’s deaths provide satisfaction. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will make readers happy, but they’ll feel like they got something out of it and be willing to keep reading.

5. Immoral Protagonists

Doctor Horrible making a funny face.

Just like most main characters survive their stories, we also know that they’re usually good people. That’s why “protagonist” and “hero” are synonyms for storytelling purposes. And just like last time, authors are ready to rage against this machine!

It’s easy to see why immoral protagonists are so tempting. Flawless paladins can get insufferable quickly, and making your main character a bad guy adds a lot of novelty to the story. It lets you tell stories about a wider range of characters, and it’s just so satisfying when the antihero wins the day through trickery instead of always fighting fair.

But all of those benefits pale in comparison to the costs. A main character who is actually immoral, not just flawed, will be really hard for readers to like because they’re always doing bad things. Why would we want this jerk to succeed after they just sucker punched a senior citizen? Once readers stop cheering for the main character, they quickly lose interest in the story and after that you’ll rarely get them back.

Authors have a difficult time spotting this problem because they often identify with their main character in a way most readers won’t. What’s more, TV and film are both full of immoral protagonists that audiences love, further confusing the issue. But those characters are played by charismatic actors who sell the role no matter what they actually do. Prose stories don’t have that advantage.

How to Make It Work

In the majority of stories, there is exactly one way to make an immoral character work: give them the trappings of immorality but don’t actually make them immoral. This trick works so well it’s nearly universal. In Discworld, Granny Weatherwax claims to be an evil witch, but she only ever hurts bad guys. To everyone else she’s nothing but helpful, if a bit intimidating. In Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the titular character is a villain but the only crimes he ever commits on purpose are stealing from the rich.

The list goes on. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Jamie is a super bad guy who pushes children out of windows and betrays his king, until he becomes a POV character. Then we find out he only pushed Bran to save his family’s lives, and he betrayed his king to save an entire city. In the Gentleman Bastards series, Locke is a greedy thief who only steals from people with more money than they know what to do with. There are other methods to make an immoral protagonist work, but if you’re just starting out, this is the only one you’ll need.


Storytelling is a complex beast, and mastering it will always be difficult. But as humans are a social species, you don’t have to start at square one every time. You can look at the mistakes others have made before you and learn from what they did. Whether the solutions I’ve laid out here work for you or not, from now on you’ll at least be aware of the problem.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

 

Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I’d like to disagree about Granny – she definitely has all talents and skills of an evil witch, but due to her sister, she was forced to become the good witch instead – she ends up being morally ambiguous instead, using her ‘evil’ skills, but for doing good or what she considers good. I’d list the Patrician as immoral character, if I’d think about Discworld – he’s merely driven by what must be done and uses all means at his disposal, from murder over intrigue to blackmail.

    • Matt

      The patrician is also the best character, but certainly not a hero.

  2. Shawn H Corey

    Sam also carried the Ring and he was one of only two that willing gave it up (and without Gandalf’s help).

    • Cay Reet

      Sam was the best hobbit. He mostly carried it for Frodo, though, so because that was why it didn’t influence him so much. Plus, I think, he never used it, meaning he never really came under its influence.

      • Cay Reet

        not ‘because that was’, but ‘perhaps that was’…

      • Tyson Adams

        I’m pretty sure Sam did use the ring to rescue Frodo from the Orc tower. From memory, he felt the lure and call of it despite having carried it for only a short time.

        I don’t think that undermines the point, though. Hobbits were regarded as being able to resist the lure better than men, elves, and dwarves. And Frodo had carried and used the ring for decades by the time they got to the mountain.

        • Brahn

          You’re right, he did use the ring (in the books at least), and was tempted (here’s the quote)
          “Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword acros the darkened land…”

  3. Innocent Bystander

    Frodo also worked because he leaves the powerhouses to go on their own storyline while he and Sam go on to finish the original quest, with Gollum joining up and adding his own bit of conflict.

    I find that personality clashes in romance work best when they’re a result of misunderstanding or one or both sides needing to improve. And the romance only occurs when the misunderstanding is cleared up or the character(s) change. For instance, people love to use Pride and Prejudice as a guideline for writing a hate to love relationship, but often forget that Lizzie doesn’t fall for Mr. Darcy until he stops acting like an ass and starts treating her as an equal. Too many have the love come before the change and make it into a “I can change him, Momma!” story.

    • Cay Reet

      As a matter of fact, the powerhouses doing there thing is what puts focus off Frodo and Sam, allowing for them to reach Mount Doom and finish their quest. Sauron is more concerned about the people opposing him (like Rohan) and the army in front of his gates than about the two hobbitses sneaking into his territory.

      • Innocent Bystander

        Exactly.

        Still, considering that the powerhouses aren’t with Frodo, it still means tension since it limits what he can do. The big one is that he’s not much of a fighter so he has to rely on stealth instead.

  4. E. H.

    I like the real possibility of character death in stories where the characters are involved in activities and/or have problems where death is a major possibility.

    Sure, everyone eventually dies and we could all have some kind of heart problem we don’t know about or get hit by a car. No need to introduce things like this in the middle of a story in most cases.

    But if character is established by the very premise of the story as being involved with organized crime, defying a powerful king or suffering from cancer, making them virtually indestructible feels kind of inauthentic to me.

  5. Bjela

    First off I want to thank you for this amazing website! I read many of the articles with great pleasure and learned a lot from them!

    I don’t agree with Ned Stark’s example from Game of Thrones, though. The reason why it’s okay for him to get killed in the book is not because he was killed for acting according to his principles and honor. It’s the exact opposite: He was killed for breaking his principles. In the last chapter which was written from his perspective Varys visits him in the prison and tries to convince him to lie for the sake of his daughters. So Ned agrees and in fact swears an oath that Joffrey is not, as he was claiming earlier, the illegitimate child of Cersei and Jaime and therefore not heir to the throne.
    This is a big deal for Ned and goes diametrically against his principles, which is shown again in a later scene, in which Maester Aemon asks Jon Snow, what his father (Ned Stark) would do, if he had to choose between honor and family and Jon replies that he would choose honor every time.
    As a result, Ned dies. If he wouldn’t have sworn the oath, he probably would have been kept in the prison cells by the Lannisters for an indefinite amount of time.

    As a matter of fact all the deaths of the POV characters in Game of Thrones (and some other ones like Robb Stark’s) follow the same pattern. An important POV character only dies, if they act against their principles (not totally sure about Jaime or Cersei, though. Will have to wait till the books get released to get more inside into their thoughts and actions).

    • Cannoli

      It’s not so much acting against THEIR principles, as good principles. Jaime & Cersei have awful principles (actually pretty much just one: “We’re better than everyone, because we’re Lannisters and we deserve everything we want.” ) and it’s made clear in A Feast for Crows, the book where they have the most agency and PoV chapters, that neither one of them even understands how toxic and destructive their principles, or their family’s practices, are.

      Robb’s not a PoV character and he doesn’t really violate his principles. I would also take issue with the article asserting that Robb goes down to disaster because he didn’t listent to his mother. It SEEMS that way, because she’s an unreliable narrator, made moreso because she’s very clever and insightful and strong willed, but her few blindspots do tend to trip up readers. Also other characters, such as her Uncle Brynden, who suspects her step-son Jon Snow of being in league with the Lannisters. Because Catelyn was suspicious of Jon and her judgment is usually very good and Uncle Brynden respects her assessments. It’s a case of him being wrong for the right reason. And because people like her uncle, and her husband and her son and even her feckless brother all respect her judgment, readers get suckered into her blindspots as well. One of those is a tendency to blame herself for everything that goes wrong, and to somehow believe that is she had been a better wife, mother and daughter, her father would not be dying of illness, her husband would not have been judicially murdered and her children would all be safe at home. In service to her internalizing this responsibility, we have her believing that her son’s situation is all her own fault, because she can’t convince him to listen to her advice, even though part of that has to do with their differing perspectives, not least of which includes her abuse of his brother. Robb dies because he’s too good at his job, and his little brothers and sisters are fantasy protagonists. They need the stakes to be high for their stories to be exciting, and if one option for Sansa, Arya and Bran is to give up their personal quests and go home to the nice safe castle where their big brother, the undefeated warrior-king, Robb Stark can protect them, and their shrewd, intelligent & loving mother can care for and guide them, the stakes are severely undermined.

      So the author engineers a string of incredibly unlikely and unrelated disasters to strip the younger Starks of everything, which for Catelyn & Robb, means their own lives and all the family’s assets, in order to force Bran and Arya and Sansa to hone their wits and learn new skills, since they don’t have the wealth and power of their family to fall back upon. Basically, Robb’s fault is not failing to listen to his mother, it’s failing to anticipate a whole lot of people acting against their best interests, his teammates scoring a bunch of own goals and a lot of EXTREMELY good luck falling into his enemies’ laps. The major action people blame his downfall on, his marriage, only provided an excuse to traitors in his ranks who were already plotting to betray him.

  6. Laura Ess

    Of course killing off the major character can work differently in a film, especially if like Psycho, we’re being mislead by the director as to who is the main character. But also, like HAPPY DEATH DAY this can be inverted when dying is no longer the end of the character but the starting point.

  7. Greg S

    Another way to have an evil protagonist is to write the story in such a way that it works without the reader having sympathy for the protagonist. This works okay if the book is comedic – we can all watch the protagonist continually get what he or she deserves when his plots blow up in his face. The unreliable narrator villain works well here too.

    Jack Vance was an author that was pretty good at writing immoral protagonists. Although by today’s progressive standards, some of his stories may be problematic.

  8. Kathy Steinemann

    Excellent points, Oren.

    Many people have been credited with spouting variations of “Every story has already been told.” But smart writers can retell those stories in ways that make readers think the stories are new.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I completely agree. Trying for complete originality is a losing game, the key is taking what’s been done before and making it your own.

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