Ask the Editor - July 2020
"What are some overused character qualities to avoid when trying to develop a strong protagonist to a story?"
Overused qualities in characters, settings, and stories, are called tropes. This can be anything from the standard good vs evil, to the protagonist being the "chosen one," to help arriving at the last second to save the day. If you think about some of your favorite books and movies, you can start to see where they overlap in tropes. That's not inherently a bad thing because these tropes tend to be the bones of a story. It's only bad when all the current stories use the same things. Here’s a quick list of tropes that are super common:
1. Ordinary teen who is actually extraordinary and doesn’t know it
A good example of this is Tris Prior in Divergent. Her character starts off as ordinary, but she’s one of only a few Divergent in her society, which means that she’s special.
2. Born with great abilities, and seemingly doesn’t have to work at it; such as having a sharp mind or physical skills
I think of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. She is also different because she has skills in hunting and survival in her district, which is mostly poor by contrast. She also becomes the face of a rebellion because she outmaneuvers the gamemakers of The Hunger Games. I love The Hunger Games. I’m a huge fan. But I can also recognize a trope when I see one.
3. Female character is only “plain,” but her love interest(s) is/are described in great detail
For me, this one screams Bella Swann and Edward Cullen in Twilight, but you can also substitute Ana and Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve not read Fifty Shades, but I’ve seen the movie and the trope is the same. These two female characters are glossed over in their looks. They believe they are plain and not pretty, but they have gorgeous love interests. And how do we know they’re gorgeous? They’re overly described, that’s how. Where was all that flowery language for our girls?
4. Strong female protagonist who is super snarky in order to fight the power
Strong and independent is good! But fighting the patriarchy with snark and sarcasm is overdone. I tend to think of Juno when I think of this trope, but I know I’ve read a half dozen books where our main girl is well read and intelligent, and she uses that to act super snarky all the time. I love me a smart and independent female lead, but I know there’s more ways to undermine the patriarchy; we just have to find them.
5. The Antihero - the protagonist you love to hate, or who goes against the grain of your average hero
Recently, the antihero has become more popular than your ordinary hero. Deadpool is a good example of this trope. We tend to like him because he’s hilarious, but he also undermines everything we know about heroism. It’s an interesting concept, but it’s rising popularity means it’s starting to feel overdone.
I recognize that most of the characters I listed as examples for these tropes are female protagonists in recently popular books and films, but they’re the perfect examples of traits that inspired a lot of other books and films to have the same types of characters. You don’t have to avoid these traits. I would, however, suggest subverting them, or allowing your character to grow out of these traits. Spend time with your character and get to know her and learn her background.
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Your friend at the Henlo Press,