Six More Character Archetypes to Ditch

Bad characters abound in our media, threatening to overwhelm our bastions of good storytelling. Or at least that’s how it can seem when you turn on the TV or flip through a random book. Many of these characters come from flawed archetypes that writers use thoughtlessly; these aren’t good ideas done poorly but bad ideas to start with, and our stories would be better without them. We’ve touched on this issue before at Mythcreants but barely scratched the surface. With so many bad archetypes and so little time, let’s jump right in.

1. The Overpowered Savant


In Angel, Fred is so smart, she knows how to defeat an enemy before the other characters have even identified it. Unfortunately, she’s been through so much trauma that she’s not stable. The team can’t count on her smarts in a crisis. Fred eventually works through her issues and learns to control herself, but once she does, her godlike intelligence is nowhere to be seen.

In Heroes, Hiro Nakamura has the incredible power to manipulate space and time. He’d be unstoppable, if only he could control his abilities. After a season or two, he’s mastered the timewarp, and no enemy can possibly stand up to him. But instead of using his abilities to their fullest, Hiro acts like an idiot. Presumably he’s giving the bad guys a sporting chance.

The overpowered savant is a character with an ability that will completely break the story. Unless that’s where the story ends, this archetype will create unbelievable conflicts and neutered characters. It’s one reason the Matrix works great as a single film, but doesn’t work at all as a trilogy. The first movie ends with Neo unlocking his god powers, and that’s a natural end point. The next two films introduce absurd enemy powers to challenge God-Neo, and it still doesn’t feel like he’s in danger.

Whenever you start a character on the path to discovering their true potential, ask yourself, “What happens then?” Plot out the next phase of the story, and see if it still works. You have to resolve that journey eventually, or the audience won’t be satisfied. If the character is too powerful after the resolution, you’ve got to tone them down.

2. The Great White Savior


Someone’s coming to pave over paradise. Whatever will the poor natives do? There’s a problem, and their idyllic native brains just can’t comprehend it. What they need is a white dude to show up and do everything they do, but better, and then save them of course.

Jake Sully in Avatar is the greatest, whitest savior ever. It feels like Cameron was checking off boxes on the great white savior qualification list: “He learns their culture after a few weeks of training. Check. He saves them from a threat they can’t understand. Check. He’s better at being a Na’vi than they are. Check check check.”

This character is a slap in the face to anyone who’s part of a disenfranchised group. Not only are they rarely represented in mainstream fiction, but stories about their culture and heritage are co-opted by white folks. Tom Cruise’s character in Last Samurai is another example. In theory, he’s there to support Ken Watanabe’s character, who is the actual last samurai. But Cruise gets a disproportionate amount of screen time, as if we couldn’t enjoy a samurai action film without a white viewpoint character.*

Beyond its offensiveness, the great white savior doesn’t make any sense. It’s absurd that a complete outsider can assimilate into a new culture so quickly, and even more so that he’d be better at their traditions than those who’ve practiced all their lives. This archetype also depends on natives being unable to understand the threat they face, which isn’t how humans work. History shows that when natives are defeated by colonizers, it’s because of a mismatch in numbers or technology, not lack of comprehension.

Most white savior stories feature a character that chooses to switch sides in a conflict, usually from the white side to the non-white side. That concept isn’t inherently terrible, but it has to be kept in perspective. In fact, there’s a decent example from Avatar, in the form of Michelle Rodriguez’s character. She decides to help the Na’vi but doesn’t become better at their culture than they are. Instead, she brings over some of the advanced technology the Na’vi had no access to. In doing so, she doesn’t steal the spotlight from the people the story should really be about.*

3. The Mega Competent Protagonist


Sometimes called a Mary Sue or Marty Stu,* this main character is too good at stuff. Mega competent protagonists come in two flavors: very powerful without a convincing reason or so strong that no adversity can challenge them.

Star Trek’s Wesley Crusher is of the first order. He infamously saves the ship over and over again, despite having no training whatsoever. He’s just that talented! Wesley draws nearly universal scorn because this premise is unbelievable. No matter how much inborn talent he has, there’s no way he could be that good. His scenes are annoying and forced.

Superman is a mega competent protagonist of the second order. Many people don’t like the Man of Steel because, short of deus ex kryptonite, it never feels like he’s in danger. This is especially clear when he works with less powerful allies; Batman, the Flash, and even Wonder Woman are taken down by attacks that don’t scratch Superman. Occasionally, a villain will have some weapon capable of harming him, but it’s miraculously never used on any other character.*

The problem is compounded by Superman’s incredible suite of powers. To get him out of a difficult situation, a writer can use some ability no one’s seen for twenty years. The audience can’t properly judge threats against Superman, because he has nearly limitless options depending on the author’s whim. Does he have freeze breath in this comic? No one knows for sure!

It’s tempting to make our protagonists powerful. We want the audience to know how cool they are! Many writers also shortsightedly increase a character’s competence to get them out of a sticky situation. But then the character can also get out of future conflicts, whether the writer likes it or not.

When imagining your character’s capabilities, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Increasing a character’s power is easy; decreasing it is hard. Keeping your protagonist’s abilities toned down also makes them more interesting. People love Batman because of his perceived underdog status in a world full of superpowers.*

If a character’s abilities match the scale of their story, they won’t be a mega competent protagonist. Batman works best at the scale of insane criminals with few super powers; he would not work in a story about schoolyard tussles. This is true even for very powerful characters. There are good Superman stories, but they’re difficult to craft because the scale he lives at isn’t relatable to us earthlings.

4. The Loveable Misogynist


Ah, he’s just a bit of a womanizer. It’s a quirk, like forgetfulness or being a picky eater. Except that it isn’t. Hawkeye is a great character in M*A*S*H, except for the way he treats women.* He constantly jokes about how women he doesn’t like aren’t attractive enough, he pursues them after they’ve clearly said no, he touches them when they don’t want it, etc. This is all supposed to be funny.

But M*A*S*H is a show from the 70s and 80s; surely things are different now. Well, not really. Plenty of prominent characters still feature blatant sexism as part of their loveable persona. Look at Marvel’s Tony Stark, who repeatedly pulls the old “have sex, then never speak to you again” routine.* He only stops because he finally meets the “right woman,” not because he realized it was wrong.

It’s bizarre to imagine this played out with any other kind of bigotry. Even in the 70s, Hawkeye would have been cringeworthy if he randomly told passing black people not to steal stuff.* We’re even to a point where homophobia is generally considered a serious character flaw, yet casual sexism persists in our stories.

Flaws need to be treated like flaws, or it sends the message that this kind of behavior is acceptable or even praiseworthy. It also dates your work. The long arc of history bends towards justice, and future generations will judge your story by their own standards. If you’ve ever cringed at an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, you know what I mean.

While sexism is a legitimate tool in storytelling, and an all too common part of society, we must always acknowledge how serious and damaging it is.

5. The Benign Bully


No one likes a bully, or at least that’s what I thought in my more innocent days, before I watched Enterprise. In addition to his many other flaws, Captain Jonathan Archer constantly berates his Vulcan science officer, T’Pol. He rags on her for the way she eats, for the way she approaches problems, basically just for being a Vulcan.* T’Pol never does anything to provoke such outbursts. While Archer eventually tones down his insults, it’s never acknowledged just how much of an ass he was.

An even more recent example is BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. This version of the character goes past being a misfit and straight into sociopath territory. He treats the characters around him like garbage, even after two seasons.* No matter how nasty he is, Watson and Co. keep coming back because… I’m honestly not sure. It’s either because Sherlock has some kind of abusive hold on them or because he’s good at solving weird crimes. Take your pick.

It’s one thing for a character to occasionally lose control and lash out or to be generally disagreeable. But these characters make the lives of those around them a living hell. Anyone who’s ever spent time with a bully knows what I’m talking about. They tear others down, either because it gives them pleasure or because they don’t know any other way. It’s upsetting to see this behavior passed off as something others have to put up with.

Imagine if Archer or Sherlock constantly punched their friends in the gut. That would obviously disqualify them from good guy status, yet they’re doing the emotional equivalent and no one bats an eye. This pattern makes the protagonists less relatable and creates ambiguous motivations for their victims. Are T’Pol and Watson really supposed to be stuck in an abusive cycle they can’t break? That’s a lot darker than the writers probably intended.

6. The Straw Activist


There’s nothing quite like taking an important cause with critical consequences in the real world, then writing a story about how silly it is — not just the problem itself, but how silly those fighting it are. This usually comes in the form of straw feminists, though it can be any important social issue. The character in question will spout some obviously over-the-top nonsense, and the other characters then chide them to stop being so uppity! Occasionally, such as with Femme Fatale from the Powerpuff Girls, they’ll point out actual problems, but the story still depicts them as wrong.

Writers usually do this out of a misguided attempt to be funny.* Activist characters can and should be funny (see Liz Lemon or Jessica Williams), but it crosses a line when the cause is a target. Good comedy challenges the powerful, rather than targeting those who are already marginalized.

The straw activist plays to one of our worst tendencies: an instinct to assume those complaining about a problem are the problem. It validates the dismissal of those who campaign against police brutality or pay discrimination. After all, they can annoy us sometimes, and isn’t that the real crime?

Sometimes the straw activist isn’t an activist at all, just someone who points out a problem but can’t be taken seriously. In the A Song of Ice and Fire book series, Cersei Lannister is the only character to address how badly Westerosi society treats women. Sure, characters like Arya and Brienne fight against it in their own way, but only Cersei fully understands it on an intellectual level. The message is diluted because Cersei is one of the most evil characters in a universe of evil characters.

Destructive archetypes like the lovable misogynist, white savior, and the straw activist won’t be acceptable forever. They’re not acceptable to a lot of people right now. If you want your work to stay relevant, drop these archetypes like hot potatoes. Your work will improve, and the only audience you’ll lose are those actively looking for excuses to be prejudiced. Who wants that audience anyway?

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  1. Alverant

    I enjoyed Avatar and saw it twice in the theater. Funny thing though, the blu-ray is still in its wrapper on the shelf unwatched. Go fig. GWS not withstanding, it’s a visually appealing film. Could this story have been fixed?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Could the story have been fixed? Certainly. In fact, if you can find the original concept for the script that used to be floating around, it was a lot better. In short, make the Navi less stereotypical and more active, make the conflict three dimensional, and replace Jake with Michelle Rodriguez’s character.

      • Eli Herstal

        I think you may have missed a few things. In Avatar, instead of reaching a compromise, a treaty- the humans were simply exiled from the planet because of the actions of a few.

        The Na’vi were a primitive species in every sense of the word. How much could this society have benefited from science, medicine, and technology? None of these things are inherently ‘bad’. If anything, the Na’vi could have been a spacefaring civilization and joined the rest of the intergalactic community.

        However, if we’re going to pretend that any civilization is better when it is isolated and left alone- then replacing Jake Sully with someone with different genitals and a slightly darker skin tone isn’t going to change the fundamental flaw- your people are primitive and you can’t save yourselves, so I’ll do it for you. Essentially, this would be like saying that Dances With Wolves would have been enriched if the main character was a Chinese lady.

        • SRM

          The point wasn’t to make it a minority woman. It could have still been played by Jake Sully. The point — as stated in the article above — was to make it a character who sympathized with the Na’vi but wasn’t better at being Na’vi than the Na’vi themselves. Michelle Rodriguez was used in the original article as an example of an outsider who does the “going native” thing without becoming an offensive stereotype.

  2. Rand al'Thor

    Also ditch the Tough Girl archetype: Female supporting protagonist who tries to act exactly against the Girly Girl stereotype for no apparent reason. Sometimes softens up in the end, making it even more ridiculous.

    • Skylark

      “Tough Girl” to me works as a personality, but not as an archetype/embodiment. Like feel free to have a gal who is tough as nails and rejects girly things, but have it be because that’s her personality and taste. Most egregious when the line “I’m not like other girls” is used.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Oh how I hate “I’m not like other girls.” To make their female character look cool, the author implies that all other women are not cool. Bleah.

        • Leon

          I agree with your statement in general. But, what about a trans or gender fluid girl (or even a lesbian who, has decided to take on a male role (for a number of reasons(reasons I have heard from cousins, aunts and friends(who are lesbians)))) who exists in a time or place where non-binary gender concepts are almost non-existant?
          I’m just curious, how would you have the character explain it?

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          A character having some kind of minority/marginalized identity is certainly a different situation than a character who likes horseback riding and archery over sewing and cooking, but I still wouldn’t use phrases like “not like other girls” to indicate it. That phrase is too deeply entrenched in sexist themes. I would try to find other ways to indicate the character’s marked state, using specifics wherever possible so I’m not misunderstood.

          • Leon

            That phrase seems vaguely familiar but I can’t remember where I came upon it.
            I wonder if it would be helpful to put together a glossary of words and terms with negative connotations.

    • Space Queen cherry puff

      Yeah, what’s wrong with having a heroine who likes makeup, clothes, or any feminine thing? I don’t mind reading about tomboys, but I LOATH it when she says she’s “not like other girls” or mocks other girls for liking pink stuff. Or when the “girly girl” is a weak, Timid and fragile little weakling who can’t do anything, because “oh, she’s just a girl! She too busy with her hair and makeup to off space aliens! NO. THANK. YOU. ???

      • SunlessNick

        It would be interesting to have an immortal heroine from, say, early Victorian times who doesn’t like pink because she still sees it as it was seen then – as a masculine colour associated with long-spilled blood.

      • Leon

        I totally agree with you. Star butterfly is my favorate example of a badass girly girl.
        You just have to remember that Star Butterflies strength is based on moxie and magic. If magic were nullified and things came down to a battle with conventional weapons. Jackie Lynn Thomas (an athlete with physical strength, mental toughness, and a knack for learning new skills) would probably be the one saving the day.
        Different dogs for different jobs, and all that.

        • Leon

          Aaaarg! “Different dogs for different jobs” is a saying I picked up from an ex girlfriend. I’m not equating women to dogs.

  3. Eli Herstal

    Here’s a recommendation- stop telling people what to make when they create art. Create your own. These things are popular.

    And those ‘straw activists’ wouldn’t exist if ‘Social Justice Fanatics’ weren’t actively trying to ruin everything for everyone.

    • Space Queen cherry puff

      Social justice *activists* wouldn’t exist if the world just treated everyone fairly, and not judge them because of how they look, and just because something is popular doesn’t mean that it’s good.

    • Greg

      Yeah we shouldn’t allow anybody to criticize art unless they can do better. No matter how crummy a movie is, I can’t say anything unless I made a better one.

      In fact, let’s get rid of editors and editing altogether and let all the artists just put whatever dreck they want out on the market. Editors that can’t write a best-seller are clearly not qualified to do their job.

      And music producers that can’t play an instrument really shouldn’t be telling bands how to mix their songs.

      Thanks for setting us all straight

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Greg you know just how to charm a critic! Your comments have been great to read, and we’re super glad you’re enjoying the site so much.

  4. Faith Chapman

    What you said about Sherlock is true, but your comment about straying into “sociopath territory” doesn’t make much sense because Sherlock actually is a sociopath. He says so himself in the first episode. “I’m not a psychopath, I’m a highly functioning sociopath. Do your research.” (A Study in Pink). Why the police force continues to put up with him is a different question, but I don’t think you can list him as your average bullying character, given his established nature as a sociopath.
    The rest of the post was good, although from your other blog posts I’m starting to think you just enjoy demolishing characters.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m glad you enjoyed most of it. I’m not so concerned with why the police tolerate him, but with why his ‘friends’ keep coming back to him when he treats them like garbage.

      • Cay Reet

        Which friend?

        Mrs. Hudson owes him a debt.
        Mycroft is a) just as bad and b) his brother.
        Moriarty … ’nuff said.

        Watson seems to have a thing for sociopaths, see his wife Mary.

        • Faith Chapman

          According to Sherlock, he doesn’t have “friends.” He only has one, Watson. Watson is an adrenaline junkie and gets thrills from Sherlock’s adventures that he doesn’t get anywhere else. Also, I don’t personally think he treats Watson that badly. As someone who has trouble interacting with other human beings, I can extend that to Sherlock’s level of social incompetency, and I think Watson understands that (sort of). Anyway, I think he’s mostly there for the adrenaline.
          True, Sherlock treats his other coworkers like garbage, but he never pretended to be friendly with them in the first place.

          • Faith Chapman

            Side note: in the first episode he makes a comment about being “very hard to room with,” which could imply that other people tried to get along with him and, just as you said should happen, took off when it became clear they meant nothing to him. From my limited understanding, sociopaths can bond with one person or group, and Sherlock bonded with Watson as soon as he joined him on his adventures. So there are some friendly feelings there, anyway.

          • Carly

            Molly was the first person Sherlock went to when John was targeted by Moriarty in the season 2 finale, and she even went to John and Mary’s wedding as well as Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson. She even felt sorry for Sherlock at the end of “Sign of Three”.

        • Carly

          Mrs. Hudson actually seems to like John and Sherlock, and so do Molly and Mary.

          • Cay Reet

            Even though she evidently also thinks they’re together (John and Sherlock, I mean), see her reaction to John telling her he’s getting married in “The Empty Hearse.”

  5. David MacDowell Blue

    You make some excellent points, imho. But you’re also missing something when it comes to SHERLOCK, namely what we actually see happen amidst his interactions with others. It is a bit subtle, but it is also pervasive.

    Quite simply we have here a character so intelligent he seems unhuman, and also routinely abrasive. Yet he has these interesting flashes of insecurity. Whereas some–like Sally–simply look at him and get their back up, judging his coldness as proof of psychopathy (to me he comes across as borderline autistic, with broad spectrum savant characteristics) others are impressed by his brilliance so look further. They see and feel (whether consciously or not) the odd flashes of really intense vulnerability, such as his startled pleasure when Watson compliments him for the first time. The more we learn about Sherlock’s life–including his nightmare of an elder brother–the more those flashes stand out, and the more his subtle changes become clear (or in terms of his speech at Watson’s wedding, not-subtle-at-all).

    When someone goes around claiming to be a high functioning sociopath many will take him at his word. Some–such as Mary, Watson, Lestrade–see that piece of self diagnosis as flawed, given the real emotions that leak out. Mind you, this is very dependent upon the performers involved. Here we have the great conundrum dramatic (as opposed to literary) writers face. We are by the nature of our art collaborators always and forever–and the actors who breathe life into our characters must do their jobs to a certain level for the story to work. This is unavoidable when writing scripts. Fortunately SHERLOCK benefits from a superb cast, and we should not belittle their vital and inevitable contribution to telling the story.

    • Carly

      I agree. Moffatt and Gatiss like the duo of Sherlock and John a lot, they’re not up for ticking off the fanbase.

  6. RandomPerson

    Okay, you have some good points but…. “The Great White Savior”? Seriously? I don’t even know how to respond to that. I personally loved Avatar, anyway that’s unrelated. I can slightly see your point, but do you have ANY idea how racist it sounds when you say(or write)things like that? I’m not by any means saying you are, but still. If you hadn’t targeted a specific race, you would’ve had a far broader range of items to pick from.
    Why not, “The Great Savior”? It adds rather than detracts, just by adding race in-which is something humans possess only because of which region they’re in-immediately makes you sound less professional and more like you want to take a jab at a race.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey RP, thanks for reading my article.

      I get why it bothers you that I called it the Great ‘White’ Savior. It feels like I’m unnecessarily dragging race into the equation.

      The unfortunate truth is that race still matters, despite how much we wish it didn’t. White Europeans and Americans have been oppressing other countries and ethnicities for a long time, and the effects of that are still being felt. Native Americans and other indigenous groups feel it particularly badly, because they are still living on the reservations they were forced onto, reservations that were specifically chosen because they were the worst land available. That’s why Native Americans are perhaps the poorest group in the United States, with occasional exceptions in tribes that have made the casino thing work.

      That’s why I specifically called out the trope as a Great “White” Savior. When you see this trope, it’s almost always a white character, and it really adds insult to injury for any Native American or other indigenous viewers. Bad enough they live in poverty because of what white settlers did to their ancestors, but now they have a movie about how white people are better at their own culture (or an analog of it) than they are.

      Anyway, I hope that gives some context for why I made the choices I did. Thanks again for reading.

      • RP

        I understand where you are coming from. It is sad that race still matters, however much we wish it didn’t. And yes, I feel so bad for…Ah, basically all natives(not just in the U.S), because they do always seem to get the short end of the stick, no matter who is the person who comes to/invades their area. ? It’s a vicious cycle. I wish we(as humans) could get past race and racism, which was why most of the things like that in history happened.

      • Sedivak

        I get your point but I think you mistake the specifically american racial issue for an universal or global one. To many people / nations race is a non-issue (which is good) and it feels weird to be repeatedly slapped by it. If one wants to fight racism it is counterproductive to constantly emphasise racial differences, even historical ones. We either are one people or not.

        Or maybe I’m wrong – I have little experience in discussing this issue – if you feel I’m mistaken I would like to debate this topic a bit more.

        • Sedivak

          Just to clarify – I was replying to Oren Ashkenazi.

        • C.C.

          This is a writing site made by americans, so it’s natural that they deal with their own community and the issues they have there. I know exactly how you feel though, I grew up in one of the most non-religious countries in the world, so it felt a bit strange when I first saw how much religion pops up in worldbuilding-articles on american writing sites. But it’s such a big part of US history and their present, just like race-issues.
          I also relate to what you said about not emphasizing the racial issue, because I do that with gender issues. I get so much of gender-related stuff through the media, so in my stories I just want a break from it all and instead write equality like it’s so normal no one really needs to comment on it in-book. I think you feel the same way about race. Oh, and I also vote for the utopia of “one people.”

          • Sedivak

            Thank you for the reply. I agree with you on all the points.

            As for the cultural specifics – I wonder which things I myself consider normal or even universal would seem strange to people in other parts of the world.

    • SRM

      The GWS term was coined long before Avatar for a wide range of stories… it comes initially out of the legends of Lawrence of Arabia, I believe, although we see it in settings in early USA with Native Americans. Lawrence was a historical figure generally trying to make peace between the sides, but in the retellings, his character becomes more and more insulting because to depict how much he is helping the other races, the storytellers felt the need to demote the intelligence of the other races. And Jake is white in Avatar. He carries on a long tradition of British/American saviors. I’m unable to name an example of GWS syndrome without the “W” being involved.

  7. Lucy

    I’ve never seen a show with more problems in it’s writing that Once Upon a Time. It got very painful after season 2. I could overlook all the flaws because it’s a show about fairy tales, ok. But what I couldn’t stand was their “Loveable” Misogynist character which is their captain Hook. The writers obviously fell in love with the looks of that character (he was supposed to be a villain at first) and suddenly and without any kind of explanation he was a hero and all the good guys were falling for him and he was in every scene, most of the time just as wallpaper. He was a misogynist, a bully, a character whose lines were always full of sexual inuendo, and yet he suddenly was the hero. A lot of people stopped watching that show after season 2 because of that. The fans jokingly started calling the show Once Upon a Hook. Since then their ratings have been going downhill week after week. I mean, the show has a lot of problems. But this “Loveable Misogynist” hero is one of them. A very bad one.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yikes, that sounds really bad. I only watched the first few episodes of Once, but perhaps I should go back to it so I can see this thing for myself.

    • Kayla

      There’s more to Hook than the original villain persona we see at first. Yes, at first he’s a real player. Not gonna say he’s not misogynistic, in plenty ways he is. But ultimately, his character grows and learns and changes because of his love for Emma. There’s plenty to debate there, about how only the “perfect” woman change a guy, etc, but while Hook may have his flaws, he does grow and they become less outstanding.

      Plus, part of the main theme of the show is the idea that good and evil aren’t so clearly defined. Hook doesn’t originally become a hero because “Oh, he cares about other people, aww!”, he only chooses to help because it gets him something *he* wants: his revenge on Rumplestilskin.
      Anyway, that’s just my viewpoint. In fairness, I haven’t seen the early episodes where Hook is first introduced in a while, so it isn’t entirely unlikely that I’m being blindsided by his “newer” persona in later episodes.

    • Space Queen cherry puff

      I watched once upon a time until the 5th season, when was hook ever a lovable misogynist?

  8. Lori Fleetwood

    A parallel for the “Great White Savior” is the “Magical Black (or native) Man. Exemplified in The Legend of Bagger Vance and many others. The wise, mysterious, person of color; the omnipotent shaman character who knows all but only tells when he thinks your “ready” or are in an impossibly tight spot.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh yeah, that’s a good one. Didn’t think of it.

    • Skylark

      The worst is when these tropes are combined. The mystical “ethnic” character has the power or key to saving the day, but rather than using it him/herself, they give it to the white savior to go save their people for them.

      • Skylark

        My emote comes out a lot more smiley than I intended (colon P).
        I wanted more of a >:-P

      • SRM

        Stephen King’s _The Stand_ comes to mind.
        To be fair, the wise, mysterious minority sage is generally old and the GWS is young, so it could just be the sage is being practical. “You know, if I were your age, I’d just do it myself, but, you know, my back is hurting…” I don’t know if that makes it better or worse. ;-(

  9. Brigitta M.

    The problem with Sherlock (BBC) is deeper than what’s mentioned here, and while I can forgive Sherlock for acting like he does due to his roots being a sociopathic drug addict (way back in the original books). It’s all of the other characters like Dr. House, most of the characters on “Big Bang Theory” (especially that one who says “Bazinga” whose name escapes me right now) and every other super-intelligent character who is an unprofessional, arrogant a**.

    For anyone who was picked on for being “too smart” or “messing up the grading curve” having anyone who is intelligent constantly being written as being a socially incompetent whatsit is a dangerous bias.

    It’s worse with women (mostly in visual media) because on top of being arrogant, they also have to be model hot. Or…worse…

    “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” tried to subvert this by showing how the arrogant folks were the ones who picked on the smart gal. But why did the smart gal suddenly need glasses when she wasn’t even wearing contacts before? It went from stupid people telling her what to look like to someone who supposedly loved her/cared about her telling her what to look like.

    I know that was a kids’ movie, but really, that makes it worse. And yeah, it went from a rant about smart-ism (no, not a word, but there isn’t an equivalent) to sexism, but… yeah…

    • Cay Reet

      Dr. House is actually modelled on Sherlock Holmes, which would explain his behaviour. I’m not one hundred percent sure, however, if the original (stories and novels) Sherlock Holmes would pass for a sociopath. He’s a very reserved character (not unusual in his time) and, yes, an occasional drug addict (only taking his drugs when there’s nothing to occupy his mind). There are, however, scenes which show he does care for Watson and, presumably, also for his brother Mycroft. On the other hand, the original stories and novels never include a love affair with Irene Adler (she’s merely a woman who is capable of outsmarting him, which earns her the title “The Woman”). Holmes is reserved towards woman and doesn’t seem to care much for them, but at the same time, he usually acts polite and appropriate towards them. He might bend the law (and occasionally break it, if it’s in his customer’s interest and there’s no severe consequence to be expected), but he’s never shown in any way that might suggest to modern readers that he might be a sociopath.

      Apart from that, the intelligent, but socially inept character (who often shows up as arrogant to a certain, sometimes very high, degree) is a stereotype you’ll find very often. That is a very bad trope overall. It seems even twice as bad in “The Big Bang Theory,” because the show features many highly intelligent people. And it’s annoying that an intelligent woman still neets to be super-hot as well. (But the flip to this one is just as bad, suggesting a woman can either have a brain or a hot body.)

      • SunlessNick

        There are, however, scenes which show he does care for Watson and, presumably, also for his brother Mycroft.

        The original Holmes was also courteous to clients (albeit in a reserved sort of way), even those with cases he considered beneath him. The whole “only does it for the intellectual challenge” thing was what he thought of himself when he was bored and depressed – his behaviour during cases quickly puts the lie to it, and shows a keen interest in justice.

        • Cay Reet

          I’ve actually read a lot of stories from contemporary authors about Holmes recently (discovered a series with four to five of those stories in each volume) and he comes across as polite and courteous towards clients there, too. Plus they give Watson his dignity back which he loses in some of the TV series. Watson is not a fool, which is why he makes a good companion for Holmes. He’s not just a medical man and not just a second gun, but someone Holmes knows he can rely on. There definitely is a friendship between them, in the original stories as well as in newer ones, which speaks against a sociopath Holmes, too.

  10. Wastrel

    I agree with all of this except for the part about Archer. I hated early Archer too, for just this reason. That said, if you actually watch through the whole show, the very end is about Archer confronting a large anti-Vulcan, “Earth First” group of xenophobes who want “Earth for humans.” He talks openly about how embarrassed he is to have treated T’Pol as poorly as he did at first, about what he’s learned about what a worthwhile crew member she’s been, and defends her when other humans and even other Vulcans criticize her. His entire character arc is basically learning *not* to bully T’Pol – it’s literally the point that the entire show is trying to make.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So I remember that episode. I liked that episode. Season 4 is no doubt better than any previous season, and by the time we got to Terra Prime, the writers were at least able to get something out of Archer’s bigotry. But I still feel his attitude at the beginning was a mistake.

      It was too over the top for me to take seriously. He wasn’t a flawed man, he was a racist cartoon. I didn’t believe that Star Fleet would put someone like him in charge.

      • Wastrel

        No blame there! It’s totally your prerogative not to sit through that. However, in terms of disbelief, remember that this was the Star Fleet of 200 years before Picard! Rome wasn’t built in a day.

        If there was still enough resentment on Earth for a movement like Terra Prime to come together, it shows human attitudes about aliens in general still had a long way to go. It’s common that “we” as a species try to become more evolved but have to deal with “laggards” – I mean, the bigoted way people are reacting to immigration right now doesn’t give us a moral high ground as a society, I would think.

        Of course, this gave the Vulcans further “justification” for having held back what they did, which in turn gave the humans “justification” for resenting them. I thought it showed how racism tends to reinforce itself in insidious ways based on intersecting privilege realistically. And I thought the Suliban prison break episode was neat because it showed Archer was willing to risk his life to save downtrodden members of a species he’d only seen as soldiers attacking him until then.

        In short, I get why you picked him as an example for this particular article – early Archer does fit that trope – but it also seemed fair to the series’ writers to have some of your readers who make it here know that they weren’t writing it with the intention to sanction his behavior. Speaking as a queer adult who was very homophobic in my youth, it can be easy to internalize negative attitudes from society when you’re young and don’t know any better, but I still think people deserve some credit for learning to grow past them as well. Have a pleasant day!

        • Janet

          The problem with Archer was that the writers couldn’t make up their minds whether he should be flawed or a Mary Sue. He was written inconsistently. Daedulus erased his growth from the Xindi war and Vulcan arc. And don’t get me started on his changing attitudes toward the Prime Directive in Cogenitor. It didn’t help that Scott Bakula was hammy whenever Archer was angry. Bakula is reportedly a very sweet guy so maybe he was overcompensating.

      • SunlessNick

        Archer was the son of the guy who designed the Enterprise’s engine – which makes me think he was a political/PR stunt of an appointment.
        (I seem to recall Bakula deliberately wanted to portray him as not really up to the job).

  11. Devlin Blake

    Ok, Avatar was boring as dishwater. I almost fell asleep in that movie. Fern Gully and Dances with wolves used the same plot as Avatar but were far more interesting.

    But I object to you use of the word “archetypes”. These characters you’re describing (yes, they’re horrible) are NOT archetypes. They’re stereotypes. I’m not just quarreling over semantics here.

    An “archetype” is a mythic model filled with personality and depth. A 3-D character.

    A stereotype is a character that is defined by a single trait, such as the ones you’ve listed. A 2-D character.

    I believe in using Archetypes for writing, and I believe all writers should know archetypes. But by misusing the two words, I fear you’ll convince novice writers not to use a great tool that could really help them.

    However, stereotypes should never be used.

    • Alix

      Thank you. That was my first thought when I read this, too.

      Further, I don’t agree with articles telling people what NOT to write. All that leads to is self-censorship and people staring at the screen thinking, ‘Oh, no, I can’t write THIS because it’s not .”

      Personally, with the appalling lack of characterization anymore, if you’re going to attack *anything*, then why not attack the whole trend towards characters who have absolutely no backstory or depth other than being representational in some way?

      Do not read that as, “Oh, no, this writer’s against representation!” Representation’s great — as long as the primary focus is upon making them a PERSON. Read it as, “write a good character, period, don’t just create a 3D puppet that’s there to check boxes.

      Also, while we’re hitting annoying stereotypes, how about The Gay Best Friend of Endless Knowledge and Wisdom? Or The Angsty Gay Teen Who Is Going To Rub Our Noses Endlessly In His/Her Coming Out Pain?

      Gay characters = great. Gay characters who are just going to be stereotypical is an insult to the community and the laziest writing imaginable.

  12. William Estes

    To me two characters to ditch are:

    1. The token (blank). The single person of one race, religion, species or a gender added into a group. For example the one woman in a group of men or the single man in a group of women heroes.

    2. Similarly the lone traitor in a group. Quite a number of stories involve a single member of an enemy race or army joining up with the heroes.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So, we need to be careful when we talk about token characters. It’s true that in some stories, horror movies really come to mind, you get the one black guy or what have you that the writers clearly didn’t put any thought into. Usually, they die first.

      But I want to emphasize super hard, the way to fix that is not by getting rid of these characters, but making it so they are no longer token. If we had more balanced casts in general, and the writers gave everyone the time they deserve, this wouldn’t be an issue.

    • Carly

      What about the traitor originally fighting with the good guys?

    • Leon

      Sorry, i just have to point out something. When you were a kid, how many girls did you see riding thei bikes around with the boys at he quarry and playing Red Dawn down by the river?
      The “token” girl in action and adventure stories reflects relity. Most girls simply don’t want to get dirty and bloody (i know some who do and they are awesom). Good luck finding a real life “token boy”.

      • Cay Reet

        When I grew up, the kids in my neighbourhood all played together a lot, boys and girls. It split up a little when puberty hit, but mostly because of peer pressure.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Editor’s Note: I have removed a comment here for derogatory statements about women’s motivation. We welcome strong disagreement, but insulting marginalized groups is not allowed.

          • Leon

            I don’t recall saying anything derogatory, but I’m sorry if it came off that way.
            I only wished to point out that boys generally don’t reject girls.
            There are very few girls who like doing the things that boys like to do, and we all love them. This is why the “token girl” reflects reality.

          • Cay Reet

            You need to define ‘things boys like to do,’ you know. Because a lot of things people like to do are not ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ by nature. If, of course, you mean something like a peeing contest, I agree with you. Girls don’t have the necessary equipment for that (and there are many times in public restrooms when we regret that fact).

            Girls don’t play video games? They do, but a lot of them use a male avatar, because they’re not getting harassed that much online with it. Girls don’t like to be outdoors? Some do, some don’t, but there’s boys who prefer indoor stuff as well. Girls normally are a little less reckless, but how much of that is upbringing (being told ‘be careful’ constantly will ingrain it into a brain) and how much is biology is hard to say.

            Girls seem to do better in science subjects, if they’re not taught them together with boys. A valid theory about that is that boys tend to dominate the room, because they’re not always told to ‘hold back’ and ‘not be too forward,’ but instead to speak out and be active and visible. Another is that girls don’t want to show their interest in the subject as much when boys are in the room, because society still often considers it ‘not normal’ for girls to be interested in science (technology is often coded as ‘for boys,’ even though there’s no logical reason for it). I do remember an all-girl team in an international robot building contest recently who came out very well. So there you also have something which both boys and girls might like doing, if society let them. The STEM field currently is infamous for discouraging women (see the Google engineer situation recently), otherwise there might be a 50/50 split there, too.

            During certain phases of their childhood and adolescence, boys do reject girls (and the other way around), but those are only phases and might also have a social component (even though the shifting perception of the other sex surely does play a role).

          • Leon

            Cay Reet,
            Sorry, I have never put any thought into why some people consider some activities to be gender exclusive.
            All I know is that around about puberty most of the girls stopped hanging out with us.
            My original comment was about tokinism, which I would discribe as; begrudgingly including a xxxxx.
            I was trying convey that, in my ecperiance, strong confident males don’t care what gender (or race, or sexuality) their friends are, its just not important to us.

          • Leon

            Oh. Cay,
            You talk about society as though it is an invention of men to control women.
            Women are society too.
            I hope your not seeing only half the problem.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Just a mild warning that part of keeping the conversation respectful is not talking down to people. I’m not gonna delete anything, but Cay Reet is perfectly aware of how society works, implying that they don’t know something obvious isn’t helpful.

          • Leon

            Sorry if that came off condicending. I know that alot of media I recieve via youtube is heavily biased toward illogical right wing thinking, because the technology and health and fitness channels I view get me lumped in with a certain demographic (I watch some of it because it’s amasing how warped their thinking is). I imagine this is the same for everybody.
            BTW, what did I say in my deleted post that was offensive? This is really bugging me.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Unfortunately it’s been long enough that we no longer have that comment saved, so I don’t remember the specifics, but from what I recall the issue was attributing motivations to women in a derogatory manner.

          • Leon

            Thanks. Thats kind funny because the motivations I mentioned are things that girls and women have told me. They were not my personal opinion.
            I asure you, I have no negative opinions about women in general.

  13. Carly

    I’ve never seen Sherlock treat John horribly. That would make a bad show if John was treated horribly since John is supposed to be Sherlock’s best friend.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree … Sherlock might not always be easy to live with (body parts in the fridge as an example), but he’s never actively treated John bad. The worst he ever did to John actually was not telling him he was still alive during the two years he disappeared (and for that he got a bloody nose afterwards).

  14. Carly

    He also disappointed John once with the whole “not being a hero” thing but managed to keep him safe from Moriarty and helped him not get arrested during the thing with the cabbie. He also commented on John’s bravery and got him out of the situation he was in during the climax of The Blind Banker and helped with Major Sholto and kept both Mary and John safe from Magnussen.

  15. Henry Hallan

    Isn’t the whole of Iron Man 2 the consequences of one of Tony’s one night stands? From that, at least through the standard moral lens of Hollywood serial monogamy, it represents character growth of a sort.

    • Carly

      And wasn’t Tony surprised about the fact that his weapons were being used against humanity? What the heck, Stane?

  16. Lee

    Pertaining to your example of Jonathan Archer, all I can say is that he was supposed to be that way. That allows for the evolution of humanity’s relationship with other cultures over the next 200 years. One of the main difficulties in writing for Star Trek-TNG is that by that time, there was no conflict between the crew, no pettiness, jealousy or anything like that. All conflict had to come from without. Or so they say in the books written about TNG. So you see, Archer had to have some serious flaws.

  17. Aubrat

    Well, now I have a story idea in my head…..maybe a backstory for a character who is a last survivor….with a reason to be last survivor…. Or how an entire ancient race for wiped out.

    Starts as white savior tale, but he’s an idiot. His arrogance leads him to believe that he knows more, just because his race is naturally physically stronger, allowing him to best a few warriors who were teaching him.

    When “hero” guy’s own people come to take over, the natives begin preparing, including setting up a Magical apparatus (their strength being magical more than physical) which is charging and will assist them in battle.

    He sees the fighters falling and decides it’s better to act now, so no more of his new berries die, rather than wait for the spell to be completed. He believes his gut instinct and minimal knowledge of the culture more than he has faith in those who actually built the darn thing.

    He interupts it. And destroys an entire population in his blind pride.

  18. Tumblingxelian

    I am so much in agreement with these, especially how good humour punches up not down, the white saviour and emotionally abusive characters. Heck one of the supporting characters, a police officer, constantly gets crap from Sherlock for her romantic and life choices and is one of the only people who ever calls him out on his BS, but gets hated by the fandom and treated like trash in the show because of protagonist centred morality.

    Sorry for not knowing their name, the info came from articles I read awhile ago and I didn’t really care for the show to begin with so most details fade, especially names.

    • Carly

      It’s Sally Donovan and Sherlock actually does not treat John like crap.

  19. Jackinthebox

    It is strange to see, at the outset, such misaprehension of the very concept of archetype. An archetype is ineradicable. The very idea that an archetype could be “ditched” shows at best a tenuous grasp of the profound psychological reality represented by the archetype. Literary theory is fine to discuss changing, but the evolving aspects of human psychology cannot be changed with a hypothesis about human nature that hasn’t a chance of being true.

  20. Quinte

    I think the white saviour archetype is actually interesting if done cleverly. So I think Rand from the wheel of time and Lelouche from code geass are good examples of white saviour. The common problem you see with the white saviour archetype is that they tend to be written by white people for the purpose of showing that white culture is awsome. However white saviours can be interesting when they’re used to contrast between the differing strengths and weaknesses of the cultures.
    Ps. As a rule white saviour characters tend to be Mary/Gary Sues which is a big problem

    • Dark doug

      I don’t know that Rand is a White Savior. First of all, the Aiel are white. Secondly, Rand is Aiel himself (well, his mother was an immigrant who assimilated with the Aiel, but no one ever calls him half-Aiel – Aiel bigots deny his Aiel qualifications while his Aiel supporters flat out assert he is Aiel). Third, he doesn’t really outdo the Aiel at being Aiel. Yes, he quickly learns their hand-to-hand combat techniques, but there is way more to being an Aiel than that, and a natural aptitude for combat & learning techniques is an established skill of Rand’s (strongly implied to be a hereditary trait from his mother). Rand is never shown to have mastered the Aiel skills of desert survival or to completely grasp their moral values and honor code. He doesn’t bring anything to the Aiel from his own superior culture, his role as their savior has more to do with his preternatural destiny to save the world from supernatural evils and unite humanity to fight that evil.

      When Rand comes to the Aiel, he does his best to get along with their ways of doing things, but he does not become one of them and then turn out to be better at important skills than they are, and rise to the leadership position in this manner. Rather the Aiel seek him out because their own magic & prophecies indicate he meets the criteria to pass a trial that will indicate their foretold unifier. They tell him of his Aiel parentage, and he undergoes the trial because the Aiel prove sufficiently capable that there is a definite incentive to having them as followers, and because at the moment, he is trying to lure an enemy into a trap and pretending to be absorbed with the Aiel is a convenient way to get his foe to expose himself with his pursuit.

      Rand’s relationship to the Aiel is not about showing how cool Rand is, rather it is a way for the author to exposit his invented badass culture.

  21. Oren Ashkenazi

    A comment was removed from this post for being transphobic. We love a good debate, but we’re not interested in make transpeople prove they exist.

  22. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I removed a comment here for using the R-word as a slur. We don’t mind vehement disagreement, but slurs are not acceptable.

  23. John

    “The long arc of history bends towards justice, and future generations will judge your story by their own standards.” What a bunch of religious nonsense. There is no “arc” of anything. Future generations, assuming they can still read or write, and aren’t practicing lobotomic hyperslavery, omnicidal occultism, or exponential mass raping, still probably won’t give a shit. But considering the universe is doomed to decay, its probably one of the worse things.

    • Cay Reet

      You mean as we don’t give a shit about history? That might be true for a set of humans, but we wouldn’t be studying history, if we had no interest in it as a species.

  24. Youkiss

    What is the main idea of this article

  25. RHJunior

    Superman is not a mary sue.
    A Mary Sue is a character who is so powerful that they are unchallenged and unchanged by the events of the narrative. Superman is continually faced with threats that are far greater and more powerful than he is– and not just the monster or villain of the week. He’s had to go up against everything from corrupt governments(the entire President Lex Luthor arc) to world hunger (Superman: Peace on Earth– read it. It will SHATTER your heart) to spousal abuse to teen suicide, and he’s not always come out the winner, either. And while he may be “the Big Good,” that’s where the challenge comes in– not “will he overcome his flaws” necessarily, but “will he win without being corrupted” (“What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?”)

    You want a mary sue, go read “My Immortal.”

    • Tiberia

      Thank you. You’e saved me a a lot of time writing out a defense of Superman.
      I think people over-obsess over tension and physical conflict. There is a tradition and strong place, and need for Paragons; Characters who are good, competent, overall ideal. It is great to see these Paragons deal with an un-ideal world. Like Captain Picard
      It’s an old adage, and has fallen to the side some, but I think it applies here.
      Marvel makes characters you can relate to
      DC makes characters you can look up to

      There is more than enough room for both, and I think it is to our collective detriment that the paragons have been shamed for being good. Not every story has to be about struggle. Sometimes it can be about just seeing good people use tremendous powers for others.

      And there are other ways to make it engaging. Have them face interesting philosophical problems. Good supporting cast. Puzzles and mysteries.
      Don’t discard this archetype just yet! Just stop trying to treat it like a conventional protagonist or story. There is so much more you can do!

      • Tiberia

        Woops. I done did gone and wrote up much stuffs

  26. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I have removed a comment for slut shaming. That sort of thing is not allowed.

  27. Amniote

    You can do the ‘great white saviour’ right, if the saviour of the more technologically advanced society is a different species to the less technologically advanced society. Then, they could use their physiological skills, rather than intellectual skills, to help them fight against the threat.

    • Cay Reet

      It’s still the same ‘they can’t help themselves, but need a superior being’ trope behind it, which makes the ‘great white saviour’ trope so bad.

      • Amniote

        Not if you show the saviour as just having better tech, and being equal in all other ways.

        • Cay Reet

          ‘Better tech’ is superiority – technical instead of magical or moral or other. It’s still the principle that only a ‘better’ being can save them and they are unable to save themselves. Instead of, for instance, having a hero from within the group who dares to challenge the status quo and change things.

  28. Amaryllis

    What do you think about “Animalia”? Alex and Zoe seems to me to be close to the “great white saviors”. They come from human world (are foreigners in Animalia), and frequently save Animalia. The explanation of why it’s them saving the Animalia, is that malfunctions of The Core have no effect on them most of the times, while native Animalians (who are sentient talking animals) are usually seriously impeded by it (unable to talk/have memories erazed/frozen when unable to find a rhyme/or even became usual wild animals).

    • Tifa

      Interesting. I was just thinking about that series. I used to watch it when I was younger.

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