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4 Character Tropes Used in Most TV Shows

Updated on August 2, 2015
The Big Bang Theory follows a common TV show formula for character tropes.
The Big Bang Theory follows a common TV show formula for character tropes.

Most TV shows involve a team or group of characters living together or working towards the completion of a task. The group could be trying to solve a crime (drama), defeat some aliens (sci-fi), survive the apocalypse (horror), or they might just want to hang out (comedy). Whatever the situation, the group usually consists of 4 familiar character tropes that appear in most TV shows. As we shall see, the way these characters are presented can reinforce some particularly racist stereotypes.

Character tropes are common, culturally popular characters that the audience expects to see or is receptive to seeing. For example, the muscled hero is expected to have a smaller and slightly jealous sidekick. When placed within a group of four or more characters, these tropes are arranged to find a formula that brings in viewers. One particular formula appears time and again in successful TV shows. It's a combination that invariably includes the following 4 character tropes.

Stargate SG1 fit the 4 trope formula perfectly and ran for 10 seasons.
Stargate SG1 fit the 4 trope formula perfectly and ran for 10 seasons.

1. The Male Lead

This character is usually a white, slightly macho, alpha male who is leader of the group. Many women want him; many men want to be him. To make him less of a cliche, he's equipped with a few quirky habits, hobbies, and phobias. He may be lactose intolerant, have a fear of snakes or heights, or perhaps he frequently resorts to sarcasm as a defense mechanism; anything to make him seem less wooden. He's usually funny, good looking, and at least one woman will throw herself at him per season.

2. The Female Lead

The female lead is usually a white, alpha female with an unfulfilled quasi-attraction to the male lead. Either she wants him and can't have him because they're both hard working professionals who can't let a relationship affect their careers, or they have a rocky history and on-off relationship that makes them reluctant to rekindle that old flame.

The female lead is a strong but complicated woman. Her backstory involves being hurt at some point in the past; yet the pain only made her more resilient. As a result, she's sometimes seen as emotionally off-limits. Every woman wants to be her; every man wants to think he could `tame' her.

House hired a rather familiar team.
House hired a rather familiar team.

3. The Beta Male (Nerd)

The beta male is the brains of the operation. He often dons a pair of glasses and harbors a plethora of nerd cliches. He's less muscular, less attractive, and has a personality built on tetchiness, irritability, and insecurity. He's submissive to the dumber male lead, but doesn't like that someone with less intelligence is more successful than him. He's usually found seated at a computer, using words that cause the male lead to shout at him to "talk in English please".

The nerd is often attracted to the female lead, and constantly suffers from a belief that she's out of his league. As the TV show progresses, the male lead takes him under his wing and they become best of buddies. For example, he may help the beta male succeed in finding a mate.

4. The Minority Character (Wing-Man)

It's a sad truth that many TV shows use racial minorities solely to be politically correct. They include a `token minority' to avoid being labelled racist, or to make the show appeal to that section of the audience. It's unrealistic for nearly every show (and movie) to have precisely one African-American, Asian. or Latino in a notable role, and yet this is usually what occurs. TV show producers seem reluctant to use more than one minority character, demonstrating the prejudice they are so eager to hide.

The minority character will usually be an African-American male who serves as a `wing man' to the group leader. He takes his orders well, becomes an integral part of the team, and like any wing man, he saves the day when it's required. TV show producers are all about preaching multiracial inclusion, but do nothing to remove this inferior, underling character trope that they believe the audience will be comfortable with.

Scrubs covered all the bases too.
Scrubs covered all the bases too.
CSI seemed to like placing the minority character(s) to one side.
CSI seemed to like placing the minority character(s) to one side.

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Examples of the Character Trope Formula

Science fiction series regularly use the four characters listed above. The popular Stargate franchise used it in the SG1 and Atlantis shows. They ran for a combined 15 seasons, and both focused on the exploits of a 4 person team protecting Earth from aliens.

Medical drama is a genre that's especially prone. When `House' (Hugh Laurie) constructed his crack team of medical students, he picked an African-American male, a female lead, and a male lead. The group leader (House) happened to be the nerd in this instance, though many shows are now merging the nerd and male lead roles. As the formula dictates, the male and female leads had a relationship, and the minority character became the group leader's most valued wing-man in medical matters.

Comedy is perhaps the most common category that uses our formula for character tropes. In The Big Bang Theory, the male lead (Leonard) assumed the leader role, and had a relationship with the strong yet "hurt in the past" female lead (Penny). The two of them reached a point where they'd had a history, causing them to be reluctant to rekindle the relationship. As most of the group were nerds, the Sheldon character was defined as the beta male by becoming a `super-nerd'. Raj was the token minority, and Howard was included because a 4th member of the group was needed for when Penny was necessarily absent.

Scrubs was another immensely popular show that hit the right formula. In a similar way to House, the nerd and male lead characters were intermingled, with both J.D. and Dr. Cox embodying elements of both. As with House, all elements of the formula were nonetheless covered.

Crime drama often involves a team of problem-solving individuals. The show `Bones' certainly fit the formula for this category, while CSI covered all of the bases in each of its incarnations.

Veiled Racism and Stereotyping on TV Shows

For each of the posters shown in this article, you'll notice the minority character has been placed to one side or they're on the periphery of the picture. This is no accident. The TV industry seems to think this is what audiences will be comfortable with. They're trying to reassure the majority of people that the show is not about the minority character.

If the TV industry genuinely see the public as harboring these archaic racist views, our society may be far less equal than we'd hoped. Alternatively, it's possible that the TV industry hasn't caught up with the times, or it actively wants to promote the stereotype because they're more racist than the rest of us.

It's also worth noting that these posters nearly always show the male lead being flanked by the female lead, often with her `pointing herself' in his direction. This perpetuates the stereotype that a machismo image or leadership role is necessary to attract women.

Bones is another formula show.
Bones is another formula show.


These 4 character tropes presumably persist because they're what the audience is comfortable with. The audience don't want their expectations shattered; they want the same old story told in countless different settings by people they can relate to. Unfortunately, this leads to the creation of cliched characters who are flung together in the most culturally acceptable way. It reinforces existing stereotypes and undoubtedly molds our culture as much as the converse.


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