My Ten Least Favorite Tropes in Storytelling
According to TV Tropes' home page, "Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations."
So, studying tropes is a way of looking at what is the same in multiple works of fiction, what elements are used to create character, plot, setting, and theme in a given piece of fiction. TV Tropes also are designed to apply to movies, television, music, and many tropes can be technical, medium-specific, or genre specific. I know some tropes that apply only to anime, for example, and some that are so universal they seem to show up in everything.
While TV Tropes makes a point of stating "Tropes are Tools" and "Tropes are Not Bad", everyone has their own "Pet Peeve" tropes; the ones they find to be especially irritating. This can be because they're irrational, based on faulty, prejudiced assumptions, outdated, overused, or just plain annoying. Some are used to describe devices that are often used as a "lazy way out" in writing, such as a Deus Ex Machina or some other Contrived Coincidence.
10. Protagonist Centered Morality
This is, well, when the story's morality derives entirely from the protagonist's actions (duh). In the most annoying offenders, this means the hero being 100% right and often sided with by the audience, despite doing things that are creepy, offensive, immoral, illegal, or outright evil.
This is used a lot in the superhero genre, where the lessons are usually along the lines of "screw the rules, I have money/superpowers/supermoney." Yeah. Big problem I have with that. See, in the real world, people who think they're immune from the rules because of their money or status are actually the bad guys. And the superhero genre is aimed at little kids, who are supposed to want to grow up to be like the protagonists that they're seeing. And we just hope that these kids know better than to think they can blow up entire cities to save their girlfriend..
It can be problematic when characters are vigilantes, as well. This means that they are effectively saying that they don't care about due process or a person's right to a fair trial, that they are above the law and can be the sole force for justice society needs. I think that this kind of person in real life would be insanely narcissistic and have an inflated sense of self-worth, because the vigilante character essentially thinks their beliefs about what a good society should have and not have supersede the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that everyone else should have. And in America, we take the concept of individual rights seriously (or at least we should, given our history) and then it seems strange to me that so many of our biggest heroes seem to have little to no regard for the rights of others.
And yet, this problem is prevalent in a lot of genres besides superhero comics and movies. It's also common in sitcoms, where a sociopathic jerk's jerk behavior is often seen as hilarious, as opposed to mean-spirited and crummy like it would be in real life. And romance movies often seem to have a hard time knowing the difference between stalking and romantic courting. The hero is always ethically correct, and you're not supposed to question it. In TV land, rules and breaking them aren't treated very seriously at all sometimes, even breaking the law and seriously violating the rights of others.
Sometimes this goes so far as to make a protagonist factually correct when they're going on insufficient evidence and guesses. See, in real life, nobody is right all the time, and when a protagonist is right all the time, even when they're just going off of hunches, that gets a little annoying. This is a big pet peeve I had with House, M.D., even though I immensely enjoyed that show overall.
9. As You Know, Beige Prose
Basically, any exposition done in the form of dialog, if the people are not having a conversation in a way that feels real and natural. "Dear father, Cynthia, your eldest of three children, married roguish bachelor..." Ugh. He already knows all this, so why is someone telling him? I know that writing exposition is challenging, but nothing kills my enjoyment of a book or movie quite like this trope being used as a way to handle it.
Like, I don't go up to my friends and go "Hello Kate, human girl with brunette hair and glasses about the same age as me who also likes anime!". I think a real problem with this one is that writers learn from writing books and professors to never use the passive voice. Also: show, don't tell. So when describing someone or narrating details about the setting and plot, they try to avoid sentences like "Kate was sitting there wearing a white tank top and grey sweatpants. She was thin and pale, with dark eyes and brown hair. She was slightly taller than Jessica, who was standing by the door while Kate sat on the edge of her mattress.", because it's passive voice and not showing an action that moves the plot forward. But, I don't think there's anything wrong with doing description that way, but people have gotten it into their heads that it's wrong to tell what a thing is, that they have to be active, active, active all the time. It makes sense, you want to catch the reader's attention and immerse them in the action, which is the main purpose and focus, of the narrative. Poetic descriptions of rooms from top to bottom seem dated and get in the way of THE ACTION.
But, writing a book isn't just all about THE ACTION. I have to be able to envision what's happening in my mind, so I need visual description in the narration. You can't squeeze all the exposition and description of events into dialog. A big pet peeve is when someone just starts talking without being introduced in narration and described visually first. Many writers, even ones I like, do this, but it's annoying because it means I'm stuck picturing them as a cartoon stick figure until I get the details necessary to picture what they look like, which makes me not really get into what they're saying and doing.
Another thing I hate about a lot of contemporary fiction right now is the boring narration. Writers today are inept at poetic language, so all the narration reads like an instruction manual. This is what's known at TV Tropes as "Beige Prose". In contrast, "Purple Prose" uses flowery language and a lot of similes and metaphors. Both can be done well, but if you think of it as a spectrum, I prefer my prose to be more purple and less beige. Beige is the result of the modern author's attempt to hack into the meat of the story immediately, because they don't want to waste pages, waste the reader's time, and make them bored with the writing. But this often comes into not having enough detail and not making the scene interesting or more easily imaginable. So, I included both of these tropes, As You Know and Beige Prose, because they both seem to stem from the same concern. Since, believe it or not, I have that concern too, let's just go on to the next trope!
8. Single Biome Planets
Now, obviously, this one is specific to science fiction since it involves other planets. Star Wars is the number one offender here, especially episodes 4-6. However, it's not just Star Wars; most movies that involve travel to another planet involve worlds that are entirely one biome, be it desert, jungle, ice, etc. I guess that in real life, most of our explorations of other planets and their moons have shown us mostly ones with fairly uniform and consistent weather patterns, and few to none with the kind of climate and biome variety of Earth. But, life on Earth exists the way that it does because it has this kind of variety in climate and land formations. If a planet's weather is stable all the time, you don't get the cataclysmic events in cycles that cause new species to form. Life on Earth has been locked in a struggle against the changes the planet has been going through. It has survived past mass extinctions and adapted from prehistoric oceans to live in all sorts of more newly formed habitats on land, ranging from hot and dry, to cold and wet, and everything in between.
But in fiction, you can imagine a planet that's basically anything you want it to be. It's also weird to reduce a planet to just one culture or type of sentient creature, or have the story focus in on a specific part of a planet that's very big and could have a lot more going on on it. Is all of the world Pandora from the movie Avatar entirely jungle, and inhabited solely by the Nav'i, or are there other biomes and other types of sentient life there that just aren't in the movie? We don't really know based on the information given by the film.
I basically find this annoying because it's unimaginative. It's not exploring the full potential of the existence of other worlds containing sentient life, but reducing these other worlds to where they either only contain one kind of environment, one kind of society/culture, or both. And considering the vast amount of cultural and environmental variety we see on Earth, that doesn't make much sense. It also reduces the planet's inhabitants to stereotypes we might have about whatever stereotypes the (usually white) writers have about the people who inhabit such environments on Earth. And when you create an alien race based solely on Earth-based prejudices, that's really just lame writing.
It can also make a story monotonous to have it set on such a planet. It's sort of like having planets that resemble Mario levels more than believable places. Want a place that's savage and tough to survive in? Jungle. Need a place with greedy space Jews and space Arabs with their primitive, backward, war-like, greedy natures wrecking everything? Desert. Need someplace remote with little life to show how tough your character's survival skills are? Send them to an ice planet. Bam. Who knew writing speculative fiction could be this easy?
7. Princesses are Good, Queens are Evil
The main issue here is obviously that a woman who is called a queen and embodies the characteristics associated with that title, like being married or widowed rather than virginal and pure, being older and wiser rather than young, beautiful, and innocent/naive, and who has real political power, is often an evil antagonist, whereas princesses are usually good, and protagonists, or supporting friend characters to the protagonist.
A lot of movies revamp old fairy tales. But in those fairy tales originally; beauty, feminine passivity, virginity, youth, and whiteness were indicators that a character was good. What this trope also does is say that a woman cannot be in power without being crazy and evil, that only men are capable of being wise and just rulers. And in the cases where princesses are the rulers, it's a case of the title of "princess" with it's associations of youth and beauty being better (when it comes to selling the story to certain target demographics) than the title "queen", which is associated with age, wisdom, and authority. It's saying that wisdom, maturity, and leadership are less important for a female character to have than physical beauty, youth, and traditional feminine virtues.
This trope is also extremely prevalent, to where it's hard to even find exceptions. I can think of a few good queens in fiction, but evil princesses are even rarer. And a princess who's ugly? Unless she's a one-shot comic relief character in the background, forget about it. "Princess" means she's a 10. And of course, queens in fiction are always shriveled and hideous, because how could a woman with political power be desirable as well? And if she is beautiful; look out, her jealousy of younger women as she gets older will cause her fall into rage and insanity.
I don't even understand why American shows have this PRINCESS, PRINCESS, PRINCESS obsession anyway. Monarchy being illegitimate and democracy being ideal are our country's core principles. And yet, when it comes to marketing shiny bullshit to little girls, I guess this is how they prefer to do it? I feel like girls deserve better than that.
(Author's note: I started to write this entry when I identified more with feminism than I do now, to say the least, but this trope is still annoying because it's prevalent and cliche. It really has less to do with feminism for me now than that it just makes a story, especially of the fantasy genre, a genre I usually like, too obvious and predictable. I also still think it's bad the way women are represented sometimes, but the solution to that isn't to whine until the content creators in control now change, it's to produce and sell your own content in the marketplace that values women and girls according to your standards. I also think now that feminists need to look harder at the way men are fictionally represented too, instead of having a one-sided, gynocentric viewpoint on the subject.)
6. The Chosen One
To say Jesus of Nazareth has had an impact on Western culture is, well, a huge understatement. But does that mean every protagonist has to be Jesus in some way? Superman, Harry Potter, The Doctor on Dr. Who, etc., all seen doing Jesus-like things such as self-sacrifice, dying and being resurrected, etc.
I also hate whenever there's a prophesy that basically makes the movie say, "You're the protagonist because prophesy.". Of course, in real life, most people can't actually predict the future, so the existence of a prophesy that can is actually interesting, except that you'll never see them use it for anything useful or cool like winning the lottery, they'll just get an awkwardly-worded poem that's supposed to be about future events.
And then what happens if say, the high school magical girl labeled "The Chosen One" was going to, idk, drop her magic stick and get killed? Would her best friend be like, the runner-up Chosen One?
Too often, it's just a way to explain why the main character has special powers or is to be entrusted with magical secrets no one else knows. Usually, this isn't explained well, in that the main character is usually so dumb and boring that there is no real reason to see what's special in them that the plot of the movie wants to force us to believe is there.
This is because of the simple fact that movies and anime and books and so on want to sell. And to do that, they like to make a protagonist who, aside from a few minor quirks, is so generic as to be easy for most people to identify with and envision themselves as.
And that's what makes me the most mad about the whole "Chosen One" thing. Because usually, "The Chosen One" is in no way special, but exactly the opposite; they're ordinary and average in every imaginable way. I guess it can create a kind of escapist fantasy for the average people in the audience to imagine themselves becoming heroes capable of extraordinary things, but I just find the whole thing forced, fake, and cringe-worthy if done poorly.
In fact, I like The Lego Movie for subverting this trope.
5. The Alpha Bitch
In his list of least favorite cliches in movies, the Nostalgia Critic had "the school bully" high on his list. This is basically the female counterpart, and she's seen in almost everything ever made that is set in a high school or junior high school. She's usually rich, blonde, popular, and pretty, and very adept at manipulating people and pulling pranks to humiliate the protagonist, who is usually an unlucky everygirl character.
Some of my favorite Alpha Bitches include Connie from Family Guy, Diamond Tiara from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Big Red from Bring it On, Sae from Peach Girl, and Sandi from Daria. The last one is something of a different version than you'd normally expect, because, while she is very much this in behavior and attitude, you would expect the cheerleader, Britney, to be this role. But while Britney is very popular and dismissive of kids who are not, she's really just a harmless dumb blonde who's not mean to anyone.
The problem is, the prevalence of these types of characters implies that friendships are based on power hierarchies and can't be emotionally supportive. I also think that usually these types of characters are one-dimensional antagonists. In the real world, I've known bullies that grew up and learned their lessons as they became more mature. Basically, the Alpha Bitch is just someone who is there to make the protagonist's life hell, for no real reason. And, much like in Carrie, they never give up or stop until the shit really hits the fan (or the pig's blood). I also think it's an unfair stereotype because, just being pretty, athletic, popular, cool, or rich in real life doesn't automatically make someone a vicious psychopath.
They're a high school stereotype, and I just think that fiction could present these characters in a way that's new and unexpected. For example, at first, Trixie from Fairly Odd Parents seems to fit the stereotype. But later on, she's revealed to have a sweet side to her personality, despite being rich and popular. Or like Rarity, from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
It also seems like sour grapes, like a person who is like me who's never been rich or popular is supposed to hate these characters for being what they aren't. But the truth is, people like me chose something else in life as a priority, and I could have been more popular if I had been more extroverted and less inclined towards geekery. Yet, I don't resent others for making different choices, or for being a different type of person than I am. Or even for being privileged, I mean, nobody chooses to be privileged anymore than they choose to be disadvantaged.
I mostly hate the level of prevalence of this trope in popular culture. Every time I see a high school, I'm looking for the popular, rich bullies, and usually, they're there. I don't like having such an obnoxiously cliche, one-dimensional antagonist, because I feel like that's uncreative writing. It's one thing to show bullying, but it's another to create artificial, meaningless conflict with this kind of cheap cop-out.
6. Unresolved Sexual Tension
This is one annoying recurring trope in anime, probably because Japanese culture discourages frankly telling someone up front how you feel about them. But this happens a lot in western media too, especially with stories involving younger characters who tend to flip out a little more than older characters would about dating. Younger characters are also less experienced with things like flirting and expressing their romantic intentions. I can understand that some of this is just a reflection of what actually happens with adolescence in real life.
But... ugh... it can be way overdone too. In many long-running series, where the romance is not the whole point of the plot, a lot of times the romance is scantily hinted at or ignored completely and shelved with the label "friendship" when realistically, the friendship probably would normally have evolved into something more given the length of time and all that the pair have been through together. The biggest offenders here? Inuyasha, Rurouni Kenshin, and Futurama. It just sucks when the not-relationship is so obvious you can see it from space, and yet not happening for forever. Every episode and completed story arc you watch, it's like, how much longer are they going to drag this out? It just seems unrealistic after a while.
5. Say My Name
While this is commonly overused in anime, it's also found in movies, comic books, and TV shows. And it's always a bit annoying. Like TV Tropes mentions, it can sometimes serve the narrative purpose of reminding us what the heck the characters' names are, but you don't need to do sequences where all the characters do is shout each other's names over and over again. They even made fun of this on an Adult Swim promo for Inuyasha back in my day, and Inuyasha does this trope so much it's almost downright painful at times. But, it's not the only anime to do this. It might have to do with the fact that pronouns are less commonly used in Japanese; in many instances where we might use a pronoun, they would use a person's name.
For example, I might say in English, "Is that your jacket?" to my friend whose last name is Smith, but in Japanese, I'd say, "Smith-kun no jacket desu ka?", "Is that Smith-kun's jacket?". So, anime does this "big yelling of the other characters' names" thing a lot, especially during intense bursts of action.
It also shows up in comic books and manga mainly due to the need to make dialogue short, for the sake of not having overly cluttered-looking speech bubbles. And I know that emotionally intense moments don't always make someone spout eloquent poetry or anything.
But really, it just seems like bad writing, and if overdone it makes something look cheesy. It just makes me think of that scene from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
4. Good is Dumb
This one is more prevalent in Western animation and film than in anime, because Asian cultures generally value being smart, productive, and a hard worker, whereas the most important values in the West are those coming from Christianity; kindness, purity, sincerity, charity, love, faith. Plenty of anime have protagonists who also embody Western values, like Sailor Moon or Goku.
But not many Western protagonists embody what we might call Confucian or bushido ethics, of being cultured, highly educated, literary, scholarly, and dedicated to hard work and self-discipline. In fact, in most Western movies and shows aimed at a younger audience, the evil people are usually smarter and more sophisticated than the younger, more naive and sometimes downright stupid protagonist. For whatever reason, in so many movies, but especially kids ones, good = stupid, uneducated, unsophisticated, and naive, while evil = smart, sophisticated, cultured, and well-spoken (English accent a plus).
I guess maybe there is a little bit of an undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in American culture that may account for this. A high level of sophistication and education makes one seem prissy, and exposure to European culture makes one seem like a snob. In our society, we don't mind someone having wealth, but everyone is supposed to be middle class and have middle class values. Interestingly, more people in surveys in America self-report themselves as middle class than the number of middle-class people who actually exist, as shown by taxes. Meaning here, being average is good, and being superior is bad. Perhaps it's similar in the areas under more Confucian influence; Confucius being so concerned with order that people bragging or trying to be upwardly mobile was seen as a threat to stability. It just all sort of seems like a pointless herd instinct to me though.
3. Jump Scare/ Scare Chord
This is, obviously, mostly used in horror movies. But it's overdone, super cliche, and makes a movie go from enjoyable to painful if used too often. Basically, startling me constantly isn't scary, it's just annoying. You have to work harder to scare the cynical, and maybe that's why horror movies do so poorly generally in terms of critical reception. Also, you shouldn't need excessive auditory cues to highlight the scariness of a scene, it should speak for itself.
2. Happily Ever After
Specifically, I'm talking about when the story ends in marriage. It implies that once people are married, they're no longer relevant, except to wind up as the next generation's dead Disney parents. It's like saying that once two people get married, that's the end of them having anything interesting to do or say at all, barring some usually awful sequels. It also implies that the reward to the adventure has to be a marriage. In some cases, a marriage or romance can feel like it was tacked on for the sake of having one. Like beating the bad guy isn't enough, he also has to Get the Girl. Or she has to get the guy, more rarely.
This discredits the idea that people can be happily single, and I also think it does a disservice to married people because it makes it seem like life ends at marriage. Marriage is a struggle. Marriage is difficult. But it can be a beautiful thing too, but creating that beautiful harmony between two people is not as easy as "find the person you're destined to be with forever".
Actually, a lot of the hard work happens after marriage; figuring out jobs, kids, blows life deals you, your spouse, or both of you, and growing older. I think what we need is to not tell young people that marriage is some kind of magical guarantee of eternal happiness. We need to show them more of the sweat that goes into married life. Not in a tacky, bitter, sitcom way, but in a way that shows off both the challenges and the rewards for overcoming them.
Glurge is basically any sappy, feel-good drivel that doesn't challenge the audience or engage beyond making them feel good and enforcing their beliefs. This can take the form of the bad Christian propaganda movie, which I love when the Amazing Atheist or some other Youtube atheist mocks. But it can also be those bad made-for-TV movies like on Lifetime or some such (The Lifetime movie is a kind of cliche phrase for what I mean, but I've never actually seen one because I don't have cable).
Basically, it just beats you over the head with a message that obviously good things are good and obviously bad things are bad, so it's not really teaching something new. Those movies are made usually by people who care more about preaching their message than they do about engaging, intellectually stimulating, and entertaining the audience. They spent all this time on a propaganda movie about their beliefs, only to end up making a parody of them that no one can take seriously.
It also takes the form of those annoying emails and Facebook posts and other pesky crap on the internet that are like "share this or you're a heartless person who doesn't care about the chemo receiving baby girl who's going to die in a fire". Um, emotional blackmail like that isn't cool. It's also usually obviously made up in order to have some emotional impact on people.
It's not like I hate anything sentimental, but I do hate emotional manipulation and when something preaches rather than tells a good story. Jesus himself preached often through the use of the parable, which is a story intended to be a metaphor for a faith-based topic. But contemporary Christians trying to make modern-day parables usually fail because their story is too forced and unnatural feeling, or just plain badly written.
This is my list of some of my least favorite tropes, or storytelling devices. I think they're not clever, that they're used too often, and that their presence makes me just start watching the clock rather than the movie or show in question. What are your pet peeve tropes?