1. Eyes Broadcasting Thoughts
The human face is very expressive, and over millennia of evolution, we have learned to recognize body language. If someone’s eyes widen, they’re surprised. If their gaze darts back and forth, it means they’re nervous. Storytellers love this, and they’ll fill their prose with characters looking into each other’s eyes.
But these subtle cues have limits. There’s only so much you can tell from looking into another character’s eyes or reading their body language. Think of the Star Trek episode Allegiance. In the final scene, Picard gives Riker a knowing look. Riker then gives Worf a look, who gives Data a look. This chain of glances somehow results in the bridge crew working together to trap some alien intruders in a pink forcefield.*
How did they know to do that? Picard could have meant any number of things by his knowing look. Perhaps he wanted security called, or for Worf to stun the aliens, or for Data to trace the aliens back to their hidden ship. All of those are valid actions in that situation, but the crew somehow picked out the exact one Picard wanted. Did they rehearse ahead of time? Maybe Picard was expecting them to do something completely different and just rolled with it: “Ah yes, a forcefield. That’s exactly what I meant to happen.”
If you ever find yourself writing “he saw treachery in her eyes,” stop and consider. What does treachery look like? How do one’s eyes communicate it? If you can’t imagine a real person doing this, then you’ve entered unrealistic trope territory.
Writers use this trope as a lazy shortcut to avoid explaining how a character knows something. If the author forgets to budget time for a dialogue exchange, the protagonist can just magically read the villain’s intent by looking into their soulful eyes. Unfortunately, it makes the characters come off as weird mind readers, always knowing exactly what everyone is planning.
What to Do Instead
Embrace the uncertainty of human communication. How many times have you been talking with someone and desperately wished you knew what was behind their smile? Do they love the local sports team as much as you do, or are they just fishing for a promotion? When the salesperson says they’ve cut you a special deal, are they trying to trick you?*
It’s a relatable feeling, because we’ve all experienced it. Characters who don’t always know what everyone around them is thinking are more immersive. They have to guess at hidden motivations just like we do.
Without mind-reading vision, your characters will have a harder time acting like a perfectly coordinated machine. That’s fine. Use it to increase tension. Your characters are like real people, desperately hoping their teammates will understand the right thing to do. Miscommunications via soul-gazing are also great points for humor if that fits your story.
“You looked at me and then glanced at the fire extinguisher, I thought that meant to grab it and club the zombie!”
“No, I was looking at the fire escape. I meant we should run. Now we’re going to get eaten.”
2. Villains Lose Power When They Switch Sides
Writers want their villains to be sympathetic, so they give them redeeming features. Sometimes, a villain is so sympathetic that they can’t stay a villain. They hit a breaking point where their morality forces them off Team Bad Guy. These can be pivotal moments in a story. Who didn’t love Vader turning on the Emperor, or Faith finally coming back to the light?
The problem is that writers also want their villains to be threatening, so they make them powerful. If a super-powerful enemy crosses over, they’re in danger of overshadowing the other characters. Readers won’t care about the protagonist when their super strong archenemy is pulling for Team Good Guy.
For many authors, the answer is to make the former villain inexplicably weaker and hope no one notices. Dragon Ball Z is infamous for this. Each season, an unbeatable villain would change allegiances, and by the next season they were somehow weaker than Goku. It happens in much better stories too. In Angel, Connor is the perfect example. When he’s a bad guy, he’s nigh invincible. Even the titular character can’t stop him. When he becomes a good guy, all that power mysteriously goes out the window. This happened multiple times, as Connor could never quite decide whose side he was on.
Authors take this path when they write themselves into a corner. They’ve invested too much in a villain’s redemption arc to not go through with it, but they aren’t willing to change who the story is about. Despite what the authors might hope, the audience will always notice. People pay attention to consistency. It’s irritating when a character who could punch through steel walls last season is now as meek as a kitten. It robs the redemption arc of all meaning, because the former villain is now a different, much less interesting character.
What to Do Instead
There’s always the option of killing the villain after they switch sides. You won’t see Darth Vader fighting beside the Rebels anytime soon. But that’s a cop-out, and often a bad trope in its own right.
Instead, focus on what the villain loses by switching sides. If their power comes from being a military officer, it’s unlikely they’ll convince all their soldiers to switch sides with them. If the villain is a swordmaster, they might have to give up the cursed blade that keeps them immune from harm. Not only does that mean the new good guy has a reason to be less powerful, but it makes their switch more meaningful because they sacrificed for it.
At the same time, the former villain needs to bring something new, otherwise they’ll fall by the wayside and be forgotten. Even without their army, the military officer brings tactical training and expertise that none of the other characters have. The swordmaster also knows how to forge new blades, keeping the ragtag protagonists well-armed.
3. Characters With No Experience Are Better Than Experts
The protagonist has spent all of their life farming, yet within moments of picking up a sword they’re defeating trained soldiers. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a short training montage. In Legend of the Seeker, we don’t even get that much. Richard doesn’t even practice before becoming an engine of destruction. In one scene he’s never held a sword, then he’s matching blades with an elite warrior, then he’s taking on dozens of enemies single-handedly. It’s so over the top, you can’t watch it without laughing.*
This is perhaps the most annoying aspect of the Chosen One trope. Authors want their characters to start off as disadvantaged underdogs like Frodo, but they want them to end up as ultimate badasses like Aragorn. While this transformation is possible, it has to be stretched out over a long period to be believable. No matter how many prophecies you quote, no one will believe the peasant child becoming an expert killer after an afternoon’s practice.
While it’s true that audiences like a competent protagonist, that competence must be earned. Characters who are super good without even trying are not looked on favorably. Most people know on some level that it takes hard work to get better at something. Neophyte experts are irritating, because it feels like the author is leaning out from behind the page and saying “see how much better this guy is than you?”
What’s even worse is when the neophyte is taught by someone who actually earned their ability. The audience is left wondering why the mentor isn’t the main character. Nowhere is this more clear than the recent Ant-Man film. Hope spends all her time training an unprepared Scott how to use the shrink suit and ant-control device, when it’s clear she should be the one going on the mission. Not only has she been practicing the necessary skills since childhood, but she also really wants to go. Instead, the film ties its plot in knots trying to justify why Scott has to be the one wearing the suit.
Not only is this nonsensical, but it’s sexist as well. Trinity from the Matrix, Valka from How to Train Your Dragon 2, there’s a long list of highly competent female characters who are pushed aside in favor a male with no idea what he’s doing.
What to Do Instead
It’s OK to start your character at a decent level of competence. Han Solo, Terminator II’s Sarah Connor, Harry Dresden: These are all characters who begin the story with enough expertise to get the job done. They can still learn and grow, but no one is questioning why they’re here in the first place.
You can also have characters with lower levels of ability, but have the story hinge on one of their overlooked qualities. Frodo isn’t a great fighter, but he is good at resisting Sauron’s call. That’s why he works as a main character, because the most important skill for defeating the Dark Lord isn’t sword fighting; it’s not falling to temptation.
If you’re dead set on a character who begins the story with no ability and ends as the master of their craft, you have to do a lot of work to justify it. Gaining new skills must be part of their journey, and they must sacrifice in order to do it. The Luke Skywalker model works fairly well here. His training on Dagobah requires him to re-examine his preconceptions about what a great warrior looks like and whether he’ll be able to defeat the Empire with anger alone. When the time comes to make a sacrifice, by letting his friends stay in Imperial clutches, he can’t do it. Because he couldn’t let go of his friends, Luke loses his battle with Vader. A harsh consequence indeed.
4. Science Can’t Match Common Sense
The interspatial wave matrix is collapsing, and when it goes, it’ll take most of Earth with it! What’s to be done? The scientists are in a panic, their vast knowledge only equipping them to explain how doomed everyone is. Good thing the plucky protagonist is here to point out a solution so simple no one else saw it until then.*
Syfy’s Eureka was the platonic ideal of this trope. Sheriff Jack Carter plays the uneducated “average Joe” surrounded by egghead scientists. Episode after episode, the scientists create some new form of mayhem and are powerless to stop it. Good thing Carter is there to set them all straight. They might be geniuses, but that’s no match for red-blooded American common sense.
This trope is insulting to scientists and implies a deep inferiority complex in the rest of us. We think scientists are smarter than us, resent them for it, then tell stories about how their smarts and fancy words are all for naught. That’s more than a little disturbing, considering the anti-intellectualism that’s all too common in the United States.
Scientists’ feelings aside, the trope is completely nonsensical. When was the last time you heard arguments from competing theories of dark matter and suddenly had a simple insight that solved everything?* More likely you were completely baffled, not understanding the argument well enough to offer meaningful commentary. Complicated subjects require a basic level of knowledge before a character can say anything useful. That knowledge need not come from a formal education, but it must be there. Otherwise the character is just talking out of their ass.
A person doesn’t suddenly lose common sense because they’ve become an expert in their field. If there’s an elegantly simple solution lying in plain sight, they’re just as likely to see it as the main character.
What to Do Instead
First, remember there’s nothing wrong with your character knowing things. They don’t need a Ph.D or a professor’s tweed jacket, but they do need some idea of what they’re talking about. Perhaps they’ve picked up a few terms and ideas just from hanging out in the labs all day. With that baseline of understanding, the character can function as a fresh pair of eyes, seeing potential solutions that those who’ve been working on the problem for a long time already discounted.
It’s also important to remember that most of the time, scientists and experts aren’t any smarter than the rest of us. They just have specialized knowledge that they’ve spent years acquiring. They’re vulnerable to the same foibles as everyone else. If you want your expert physicist not to understand why the fusion reactor won’t shut down, tie it to something personal. The theory that explains what’s happening was championed by a hated rival, and now the physicist can’t see past their bitter animosity.
5. Hate Turns to Love
Because no fictional relationship is interesting without conflict, writers often have the two lovebirds start off hating each other and then go through a long and rocky courtship before finally acknowledging their true feelings. Sometimes this works well. Contrast is a storyteller’s friend, and few things are more gripping than the ups and downs of a couple that are clearly meant to be. On the other hand, stories are often so determined to get the two characters together that they skip over the reasons why the happy couple hated each other in the first place. That’s when it becomes an unrealistic trope.
If your story requires that one character persist in courtship until the other character’s resistance is worn away, put on the brakes. That way lies an embrace of rape culture. It implies that ‘no’ means ‘try harder,’ that romance is a contest to be won. This shows up even in supposedly innocent stories. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, we see the titular Kiki pursued by Tombo, a boy she clearly doesn’t like. Eventually, his determination pays off. Apparently, Kiki finds the obnoxious inability to take a hint attractive.
Even when there are no consent issues involved, this trope is often nonsensical, with characters forgiving past sins for no reason other than the author deciding they should. In the film Willow, Sorsha falls in love with Madmartigan so hard she abandons her army to be with him. She does this based on the fake devotion he shows while under a love spell. Somehow, this attraction translates into her being fully convinced that Willow must succeed on his quest to defeat the witch Bavmorda, who also happens to be Sorsha’s mother.
How did that happen? Sorsha seemed perfectly happy being a general in the army of evil, until one day a hot guy rolled through, and suddenly she’s completely smitten? There’s no indication that she had any objection to how her mother ran things, no secret consideration that she might be on the wrong side. We’re also expected to believe that everyone on Team Good Guy is OK with this. No one has any grievance against the woman who lead the evil witch’s army. Doesn’t seem likely.
This trope leads to unbelievable characters and unsatisfying relationships. Audiences won’t believe that someone could change so completely without a good reason. There must be a better explanation than “because this story needed a romance line.”
What to Do Instead
When two opposing characters are going to end up together, make sure their differences aren’t insurmountable. If one is working for the villains, keep them atrocity free. Make sure the audience understands why they might be inclined to fall for the other character and switch sides. The series Legend by Marie Lu is a good example. In those books, June starts off as an agent of the dystopian government, but quickly falls for the rebel Day.
June believes in the government, but only because she’s kept in the dark about what it really does. While she and Day have plenty of reasons not to like each other, none of them come from June willingly committing acts of evil. Their reconciliation doesn’t depend on glossing over her past.
If a character switches sides out of love, remember that most other characters won’t buy it at first. In Legend, many of Day’s rebel friends are suspicious of June. They either don’t trust her motivation or hold her responsible for the terrible acts perpetrated by the government she used to serve. By keeping the other characters skeptical, you signal that you as the author haven’t forgotten the obstacles to this unlikely romance.
6. Pointless Sacrifice
Spoiler Warning: The end of Legend.
Moments of great sacrifice, physical or emotional, create great stories. Spock leaning against the glass in The Wrath of Khan is one of the most iconic scenes in all of Star Trek. Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog hits us right in the feels every time. Self-sacrifice is such a highly valued trope that sometimes writers employ it even where it doesn’t fit. At that point, it becomes a curse rather than a blessing.
Characters who rush to give their lives needlessly only inspire confusion and irritation. The audience is left wondering if the character had some kind of martyr complex, or if the author just couldn’t come up with a good justification. Dramatic climaxes become unintentionally funny as characters throw themselves onto enemy swords despite there being a perfectly good escape route available.
I praised Legend in the last section, and now I’m going to throw it under the bus. At the series’ end, Day suffers an injury and loses his recent memory. This includes all his memories of June. Instead of explaining what happened and helping him recover, June lies to him and acts like they’ve never met. She does this because their past is just too painful for him, and she must sacrifice her own happiness so he doesn’t have to remember. Never mind that he seemed perfectly well-adjusted before the accident. Not only is this condescending of her, but there’s no way it would work. Day has friends who know about their relationship. He’ll ask them what happened in the months he can’t remember, and they’ll tell him about this soldier girl he was dating.
June’s actions do not make for a better story. Instead, they taint an otherwise excellent conclusion. It’s as if Lu looked at her action-packed ending and thought it wasn’t quite dramatic enough, so she decided to add some angst, regardless of the consequences. Worse still, despite all reason, Day never finds out about June. Did she form a conspiracy with his friends offscreen? Both main characters act inconsistently with how they’ve been established, and it’s a big disappointment.
What to Do Instead
It’s OK to let your characters live happily ever after. I know the happy ending is relentlessly mocked, but if that’s where your story is going, let it happen. Don’t inject tragedy simply to avoid what some call a cliché ending, because in doing so you fall victim to a far worse problem.
When a character does sacrifice themselves, make sure it’s necessary. From the character’s point of view, there should be no other option. Most people don’t want to die, even if they feel really bad about something they’ve done and will always look for ways to survive.
At the same time, a sacrifice should resonate with some other element of the character’s story. June’s sacrifice doesn’t fit, because by that point she has nothing to atone for. Gandalf’s sacrifice, on the other hand, signals a turning point in Tolkien’s story. Without the powerful wizard to guide them, the hobbits are more on their own than ever.
Many more unrealistic tropes lurk in the dark corners of storytelling, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting writers, but these six warnings should be enough to get you started. Bad tropes are insidious. They look like easy shortcuts to storytelling, which is why they’re used so often. The most important thing is to look at your own writing with a critical eye and not just do things because you’ve seen other stories do them.