Unfavorite Tropes, Part 1

Fiction enthusiasts, beware: TV Tropes.org will lure you in and hold you with its vast catalog of tropes and its numerous examples of each. The homepage takes care to make clear the distinction between a trope and a cliche. While cliches are hackneyed repetitions, evidence of a faltering imagination, tropes are patterns, and the site sheds light on the infinite number of forms these patterns might take. It’s a dangerous site for anyone interested in the power of Story. It will take up hours of your life. Trust me. I know.

TV Tropes is as useful as Goodreads in pointing me toward books I might want to read, and conversely, pointing me away from those I might (for now) wish to avoid. It also gets me thinking about how different tropes may turn up in my work as a writer. I benefit from being aware of them, since I don’t want certain ones to work their way into my stories unconsciously.

I’ve been building a short list of tropes I’m inclined to shun, as reader or writer or both — unless, of course, they should prove an inseparable part of a story that demands to be told. (The mind should always be open to exceptions, after all.) Before I begin, I should make clear that the presence or absence of such tropes does not indicate whether a story is, in general, worth reading. Many excellent stories have employed my unfavorite tropes, and by no means do I suggest my readers should automatically avoid them.

1. The Smurfette Principle

This trope is most often found in action-adventure, thriller, science fiction, and fantasy. In its most common form, it’s the inclusion of just one sympathetic female character in a cast dominated by men. If you think this sort of thing is found only in testosterone-driven stories with male protagonists, you’d be wrong. Plenty of female authors surround their female protagonists entirely with male characters. Much is made of the position of Elena in Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten as the only female werewolf in her pack and indeed, in the world. Since she interacts almost exclusively with her pack, she doesn’t have much of a chance to exchange words with another female character. In Patricia Briggs’ Masques, heroine Aralorn exchanges (very few) words with exactly one female character in the novel’s entirety — a child who subsequently disappears from the narrative. Why Armstrong, Briggs, and other female writers seem so keen on isolating their heroines from all other women is best known only to them, but this isolation is a sticking point for me.

A sub-type of the Smurfette Principle might be called “Exceptional Woman Syndrome,” in which other female characters do appear, but only as two-dimensional contrasts designed to highlight the heroine’s awesomeness. In Gail Carriger’s entertaining historical fantasy Soulless, for example, we have the smart, unconventional protagonist, Alexia, and them we have her shallow, stupid, cringingly conventional mother, stepsisters, and “best friend.” The mother and stepsisters are blatantly unsympathetic, but why such a smart woman as Alexia would choose to spend time in the company of a drooling moron like Ivy Hisselpenny is perhaps the story’s greatest mystery (along with why Alexia’s father would have been attracted to her mother in the first place). The absence of anything like mutual respect from this “friendship” actually makes Alexia a little less sympathetic than she might be. Perhaps this was Carriger’s intention? The heroine is supposed to be soulless, after all…

I find the Smurfette Principle bothersome for two main reasons. First, the only woman in the cast, the sole representative of her gender, is often loaded down with so much of what the writer might term “strength” that she doesn’t get the chance to be interesting or complicated; she’s less a believable person than a collection of PC traits. A fine blog with an attention-getting title, “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” points out this problem.

Second, having a heroine interact primarily or exclusively with men furthers the anti-feminist notion that only men truly matter in a woman’s life. Nearly all relationships are drawn as potential romances, unless the male character is significantly older than the female lead (and even then it’s often not much of a stumbling block). No matter how strong she supposedly is, she lives for love/sex or she doesn’t live at all. Universal heterosexuality is also implied here.

Surely a woman’s life can be wide and complex enough to hold room for all kinds of relationships, and surely some of those relationships can be with other women. In Atterwald, my heroine Nichtel first learns about love from her foster-mother, Ricarda, a capable heroine in her own right. Even though they’re apart for many pages, Nichtel’s relationship with Ricarda is a significant force in her life throughout. In all the novels I have planned for the foreseeable future, I intend to have at least one female character matter to the heroine, and to free the heroine from the need to carry the Burden of Awesome on her shoulders alone.

2. Cast Full of Pretty Boys

I define this as the phenomenon of a book, movie, or TV show gaining a huge female fanbase even though its female characters are few, underdeveloped and/or unsympathetic, because hey! Hot guys! A review I read once on Goodreads encapsulates the problem I have with this phenomenon. The female reviewer questioned the introduction of a girl character in the second book of a boys’ adventure series, when the first book had no female characters at all. Was the girl added so girls would read the book? Then it was pointless, the reviewer said, because “girls want to read about guys.”

This strikes me as sad, not because I can’t see any value in any book with an all-male cast — hey, I loved The Hobbit, though I admit I still like to imagine Bilbo and at least one of the dwarves as female — but because I find it a regrettable commentary on the way girls are written in a lot of middle-grade and young-adult fiction. As I noted in a previous blog, too many writers peg adventure stories as “for boys,” while love stories are “for girls.” Young female readers with a taste for adventure probably do “want to read about guys.” If girls in action-driven stories were better written, and served more of a purpose in the plot, then those readers might enjoy reading about girls as well.

For my own part, I’ve lost my taste for stories where girls and women are left out of the adventure, no matter how hot the guys are, unless there is a sound reason for leaving them out — for instance, a historical military setting. Of course I enjoy reading and watching a hot guy in action, but only if there is a capable, courageous, and root-worthy gal working alongside him. I try to imagine myself writing a story in which women linger in the background (if they’re there at all) while a cast of exceptionally attractive men dominates the scene, and my imagination won’t reach that far. Since as a reader I have no interest in those stories, why would I write them?

Coming Soon: Part II


2 thoughts on “Unfavorite Tropes, Part 1

  1. My WIP suffers from Exceptional Woman Syndrome. I thought I was finished, and then realized my other female character ends up looking like a real b*tch. I’m trying to write a scene or scenes that soften that impression – she’s really just paralyzed with fear – but it’s not working out so well.


  2. Pingback: I love it when a plan comes together | J Harris

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