“Every character should want something. Even if it is only a glass of water.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
The castle looms on the horizon. Its shadow stretches across the kingdom, a beast with many heads, each poised to devour the villagers below. Its walls are aglow with an aura of amber. They lose their definition, as the sun dips behind the mountains. The spires disappear into the dusk. They join the stars, as the guards ignite their lamps.
Down below, the embers flare. The tavern owners light their lanterns. Revelers spark bonfires. Lighthouse keepers throw kindling into their furnace. They aim their mirror out over the harbor.
Still, no light in all the land can compare to the one that shines from the bell tower. The windows are lined with candles, a rainbow of wax that bleeds over the sides.
Villagers try to make out a silhouette, but all they see are the flames dancing across the giant bell, a blinding reflection, a second sun.
Lords and ladies gather around the fountain. They exchange crude telescopes. Some claim to see movement. Others say it’s a trick of the light, shadows at play.
The town crier announces, “Our grand tower has been topped with yet another ornament tonight.”
Offenders try to follow the plot from their place in the stocks. They shake the tomatoes from their ears. Peasants whisper of “The King’s trophy,” as they go to find a better view from the gallows.
The moon rises above the tower, a halo of white light. It reveals the gargoyles perched among the shingles. It brings clarity to their horns, to the curve of their wings, but not to the figure inside.
Muriel crouches behind the window. Wax drips into her hair. One bun remains up, while the other is a knotted mess dangling down her shoulder.
She looks the part of the damsel in distress. She sits there pouting, with her bulbous pink dress pushed up into her face.
The royal guard have never seen a princess like Muriel before. They make the journey up the spiral stairs to sneak a peak. They gawk at her writhing there. They trace the curves of her corset with their eyes. Their barracks echo with tails of her charms. Guards claim to have caught her undressing. Some go so far as to claim they were beckoned inside. Each declares their intentions.
They say, “Forbidden fruit ought not to go to waste.”
Muriel wants to look like a damsel, waiting there for her prince to save her. This way the guards won’t bother to take a closer look at her skirt. Those aren’t hoops keeping it aloft. They’re compartments. Ones she intends to open, come nightfall.
Muriel slips her dress off, snaps the hoops apart, and smooths the fabric out on the floor. She pulls at the folds until they surrender their bounty: a whetstone, thin strips of steel, links, and a hilt.
Muriel rips at the seams until a dozen lock picks spill out.
Muriel is no damsel. She’s not even a princess. She’s an impostor, a decoy, a dead ringer for royalty. This makes her a one woman Trojan horse.
She will not swing from the same cages that have claimed her brothers’ bones. Nor will she return to a home made of ashes. She will sheath her blade in the king’s heart.
There’s a knock. The princess-assassin crawls to the door. She readies her newly assembled blade. Her eye gazes through the lock in time to see the key turn. She hugs the wall. The door creeks open. The shadow on the floor does not resemble any guard Muriel has ever seen. There’s no armor, no helmet, and most importantly, no saber. There is however a crown, one whose points go off in all directions, like the spines of a porcupine.
Muriel raises her blade. She turns to find me with my hands already up. I stand there in jeans and a t-shirt.
I say, “Whoa whoa whoa. Time out.”
Muriel squints at my hair, a spiky mess she’s not accustomed to.
I look to my brow, “Oh, that. I asked my hairdresser to make me look like the grown up Bart Simpson.”
She gives that a blank stare, “Like Bartholomew the apostle?”
I return her gaze, “I wanted it to look like I had bed-head all day. It’s, um, the customary appearance of my people.”
I point to Muriel’s blade, “Do you mind pointing that away from my vital organs? I’m not here for a fight. I’m just here to narrate. You see I’m the author of this particular…” I search the roof for the right word, “…example.”
Muriel raises her blade. “Step aside, lest you wish to be made an example of. I’ve a throne to paint with the king’s blood, and a gate to decorate with his head.”
I nod, “That’s the spirit, and great use of imagery by the way. Let’s go kill us some character tropes.”
I tilt my head to look past Muriel’s puffy shoulder. I give you a nod of recognition. You’ve been watching us from your perch on the windowsill, oblivious of the wax pooling at your shoes.
I’m addressing you, when I say, “A character trope is when a person is reduced to a plot device. They don’t do things, so much as have things done to them. They don’t go places, so much as they’re taken there. The hand of the writer beckons and they obey. They’re labels, stereotypes devoid of any free will. They’re just as much a part of the scenery as the props strewn about this room. They have one master and that’s the story.”
Muriel tries to see the window out of the corner of her eye, “Who are you talking to?”
I raise my chin in your direction, “The audience.”
Inching over the threshold, I shuffle around the princess-assassin. She twirls her blade down her fingers, an expert maneuver.
I back into the bell. It tips. A gong echoes through the tower. The room shakes. Pigeons abandon their nests. They flutter off into the night sky. I drive my fingers into my ears.
Muriel senses an opportunity, and flees for the stairs.
I spin around to face you. Shouting over the noise, I say, “Do you see how having a stake in the story empowers Muriel? She started as a familiar character trope: a princess waiting for her prince. She was just a plot device, an object of desire. Then we learned she had a goal and she became a different person. Not as complex as I would’ve wanted, I mean the cold female assassin trope isn’t exactly a new one either, but we didn’t get to spend that much time with her.”
Muriel dips her head back into the room. She says, “It’s not as though I am an assassin by trade. My true passion is sewing. In fact, I made this entire ensemble myself.” She points to the shredded strips of fabric on the floor. When you look back she’s gone.
I say, “You see.” I managed to grab a sledge hammer while you were distracted. I swing it into the wall.
Don’t mind the bricks falling down around you. They’re Styrofoam props. The tower is a creaking heap of balsa wood. The night’s sky is a painted backdrop. The bell tolls over a set of Dolby 5.1 surround sound speakers overhead. All that debris at your feet? That’s just the forth wall breaking.
You thought you were looking in on a narrative, only to find yourself in the middle of a blog entry. Sorry for the bait and switch, but I’m a meta writer like that.
Tropes vs. Everyone
This is to be the first of many “Kill Your Tropes” entries.
This one is inspired by Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women video series. If you’re an aspiring writer, I cannot recommend her YouTube Channel enough. It will give you a sense of how the representation of female characters will matter to your readers.
For those of you who are not familiar with Sarkeesian’s work, she is a feminist and a pop culture analyst. I know the word “feminist” has a negative stigma, pundits have turned it into a trope onto itself, but don’t dismiss her work.
Let me give you some examples of how the tropes that devalue women, reducing them to plot devices, also devalue the story.
Think about the last movie you saw where the hero’s love interest was abducted. Think about how much chemistry the characters had before she was taken. Did it seem odd how disproportionately older the actor who played the hero was to the actress who played the love interest? Did they seem like a believable couple, or did their relationship defy your suspension of disbelief?
Think about the last movie you saw where the hero’s lover was brutally murdered, and ask yourself the same questions.
Hey, I loved The Crow as much as the next guy, but those blurry flashbacks didn’t exactly sell me on Eric and Shelly’s relationship. Note to screenwriters: if your idea of romance consists of a woman whispering, “Forever” over and over, then you need to get out more.
(For those of you who haven’t seen The Crow, just swap the name with any of the following comic book films: Spawn, The Punisher, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. All of my examples will still apply.)
While Sarkeesian’s side of the conversation focuses on the impact of tropes on women, I want to focus on the impact of tropes on the story. I also want to examine a broader range of character tropes: the Korean store owner who’s always finding bodies, the black partner who’s never off duty, the gay best friend who’s on call for sage advice.
I want to explain why these tropes are used, how they pull the audience out of the story, and what their alternatives are.
We writers are told to draw from life experience. The problem is we don’t want to populate our worlds with clones of ourselves. That’s why character tropes seem so attractive. They feel familiar. They’ve been vetted by generations of storytellers. They give us the plot devices we need to further our stories. With these obligatory setups out of the way, we can move onto the scenes we really want to write.
Every enchanted kingdom keeps a handful of damsels on retainer. They offer them up to dragons. They set them on dark woodland paths. They leave their bedroom windows wide open. After all, how else are the kingdom’s heroes going to prove themselves. Real men must quest to save their women. Not only does this trope shortchange women, representing them as a rite of passage, but it shortchanges the audience.
Rather than give us a fresh premise, the trope pulls one out of the same old hat. Rather than give us a fresh character, the trope makes a plot device sit in for one instead.
A character trope turns a person into the X of an algebra equation. It gives us a result without showing us the variable. It fills a seat, while we wait for the guest of honor to arrive. It stands in, while we wait for the star to come out of their trailer.
Character tropes have a way of acting like robots posing as humans. They’re automated. They’re bound by duty, by social perceptions. Their responses are predictable. Slaves to the story, they desire nothing for themselves.
Their selflessness defies belief. They’re the monks who raise the hero from birth. They have no wish to see the world beyond their temple.
They’re the silent bodyguards that live to take bullets. To push heroes out of oncoming traffic. To take the brunt of the semi-truck head on. To clutch the hero’s fist and say, “It’s not your fault.”
They swoop in to catch the hero before they can fall off the cliff. They drop them to safety, only to have their vine cut by the villain. They must plummet to their death to fuel the hero’s need for vengeance.
They get bitten by the creatures that roam the wasteland. Their last words are, “I’d just slow you down.” They wait to pull the pin out of their grenade until they can take as many of those things out with them.
They dismiss their own passing as “meant to be.”
They’re the characters we can’t help but laugh at when they die. When they go down they take the whole production with them. We’re supposed to feel something for them, but we don’t. After all, who morns the death of a robot?
So what’s to be done about these character tropes? Let’s start with the damsels in distress.
What I Learned from Game of Thrones
When George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Fire and Ice series, was asked why he writes women so well, he said, “You know I’ve always considered women to be people.”
Martin is not afraid to put his damsels in distress. They just refuse to stay that way. They’re active players in their own fate. They make deals. They plant rumors. They poison their captors.
They appear to be plot devices on the surface, then they betray our expectations with aspirations of their own.
The moment you give a character trope a goal, they start to change. A goal is the monolith that jump starts their evolution, the ooze that mutates them, the gamma radiation that empowers them.
Have you ever wanted something so much that it changed who you were? You stopped seeing yourself as just another reader, and started to see yourself as a writer instead. You wanted to tell stories so badly that it became part of your identity.
Give a character a goal and they wander beyond the borders of their origin. They grow one too many dimensions for the cookie cutter. They go from a prop to a person. Sure, they still have farther to go, but they’re on the right path. Give them a goal and their nuances will reveal themselves.
Martin gives his characters such lofty ambitions that they defy story telling conventions.
Just because one is chaste, doesn’t make her virtuous. Just because one is seductive, doesn’t make her wicked. Tyrannical empresses can be empathic mothers. Innocent girls can be deadly warriors. Prostitutes can be insightful. Princesses can be bureaucrats. Wildling huntresses can be fragile lovers. Dragon tamers can be diplomats.
Martin’s characters are not their titles. They’re not plot devices. As far as they’re concerned they’re the protagonists of their own stories. They each have an equal stake in the realm.
His characters are complex. They set out on quests only to find themselves fighting against the goals that led them there. They commit terrible atrocities, and still, they hold their children tight. There are so many facets to their personalities they’re forced to compartmentalize.
Think about this every time you introduce a new character, even if they’re just a walk on role. Do they have a stake in their universe, or are they resined to their small plot of land? Are they there to get your hero from point A to point B, or do they have someplace else to go? Do they want something? Does it conflict with what the hero wants? If so, good.
I don’t care if you’re writing about a man or a woman. I don’t care what color their skin is, their sexual orientation, or how old they are. I only care that they want something bad enough to be relevant to the story. It doesn’t matter if you can relate to their background. Find authenticity in their shared desire. Nothing resonates with an audience more than a powerful drive. Give your character’s that, and they’ll reveal themselves to you.