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?