Hey all, check it out, guest post! So, tropes are an interesting thing, sort of common details that pop up in a lot of stories with regularity. They aren’t bad on their own but, just like anything else, using them badly can ruin a work of fiction. Courtesy of Reedsy’s Desiree Villena, here’s five she’d happily be rid of.

5 Terrible Tropes That Need to Die in 2019

Since the dawn of storytelling, we have read… and read… and read the same tropes: popular characters, plot devices, and even whole storylines that are used repeatedly in literature. Whether it’s the accidental meet-cute or the “chosen one,” we all have those tropes that make us good-humoredly roll our eyes a bit whenever we see them.

But sometimes tropes aren’t just silly and fun, but distractingly unrealistic. Worse yet, they can be unrealistic and problematic — especially in genres like science fiction and fantasy, which are traditionally dominated by white men. Luckily, this trend seems to be changing… but that doesn’t mean these often-harmful tropes aren’t still pervasive.

Which is why I’m here to shed light on five terrible tropes that need to die in 2019. You’ve likely seen all of these at some point, but I’ll provide examples from both books and media so you can identify them in other works. I’ll also link to the original TV Tropes pages, so you can read up on them further if you like — and to give credit where credit is due for their amazing trope titles. Now, are you ready to learn the (t)ropes?

1. Instant Expert

Ever read or seen a battle scene where someone drops a gun, and the protagonist — despite never having used a gun before — picks it up and uses it perfectly to defend themselves? That’s the essence of Instant Expert: someone who has no prior experience with a particular tool/skill is somehow able to utilize it instantly and easily, usually to dramatic effect.

To be fair, this trope is more impractical than outright harmful. But it can definitely sidetrack the reader, even if it’s flimsily “explained,” such as in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. In the second book, Stone of Tears, Richard Cypher expertly wields the eponymous sword on his first try — supposedly because it encompasses all the skills of its previous owners. Cue eyeroll.

This trope also tends to be a hallmark of, shall we say, less sophisticated literature. The notorious Twilight saga employs Instant Expert in Breaking Dawn, the installment in which Bella Swan finally becomes a vampire… and immediately masters all the skills that the other centuries-old vamps have been perfecting for, well, centuries. And while it’s not like any of us expected a great deal of consistency after four books of supernatural madness, couldn’t Stephenie Meyer have thrown in a time jump or something?

Needless to say, Instant Expert is mostly employed for convenience’s sake and I understand the inclination to use it, especially in fast-paced narratives. However, I also feel that one of the most satisfying things for a reader is seeing how the protagonist actually learns to master something unfamiliar. So a word of advice to writers: don’t disregard the context for expertise, because context makes heroic moments that much more fulfilling to the audience.

2. Black Dude Dies First

Ah, Black Dude Dies First: the signature move of countless horror, drama, and even science fiction works. As you can probably surmise, this trope is another not-so-realistic one. It also presents a real challenge in terms of diverse representation. After all, if the only person of color gets killed right at the beginning of the story, the boat has pretty much sailed on diversity for its remainder.

Black Dude Dies First tends to be more of an onscreen phenomenon, but it’s critical for authors to avoid as well — especially since it won’t look great if they ever adapt your book into a show or movie. And even the most experienced writers can sometimes fall victim to this one, such as Nora Roberts in her paranormal romance novel Morrigan’s Cross. This book follows a gang of immortal sorcerers, warriors, and other such entities, and is pretty epic in scale… but its tired depiction of a black guy being the first to kick the bucket detracts from the story, and makes the reader wary of other overused tropes and odd character/plot choices.

Another particularly egregious example of Black Dude Dies First occurs in the second Alien movie, Aliens. Though the series gets points for a heroine as badass as Ellen Ripley, the first character to die at the hands (tentacles?) of aliens in this particular movie is Private Frost, a black man — and another black man, Sergeant Apone, quickly follows. Yes, we all know that someone has to die in order to keep the stakes high…. but would’ve been nice if it weren’t these guys in particular. In any case, it’s high time for the trope itself to die, in literary, cinematic, and every other form.

3. Stuffed Into the Fridge

Also referred to as “fridging,” getting Stuffed Into the Fridge is another unfortunate fate that typically befalls female and/or minority characters. Of course, they don’t have to literally be stuffed into a fridge (the trope takes its name from an infamous scene in the Green Lantern comics), but they do have to be killed and then presented in a threatening way to another character. This character is almost always a male hero, and often the family, close friend, or significant other of the dead character, so they’re incited to take revenge on the killer.

In theory, this trope is merely gross, but given that it overwhelmingly affects female characters, it also seems pretty sexist — and even when it’s not happening to a woman, it’s almost always a minority character of some sort. Predictably, it’s used mostly by male authors, such as Scott Lynch in The Lies of Locke Lamora and Glen Duncan in The Last Werewolf. In the former, a man’s daughter is killed and delivered to him in a barrel of horse urine; in the latter, the main character’s gay companion is decapitated and his head left in the trunk of the MC’s car. (Perhaps the decapitation aspect and the equine aspect are both subtle references to The Godfather?) But cultural references aside, I think we can all agree this trope is prejudicial, gratuitous, and should be eliminated for the sake of readers and viewers everywhere.

 

  1. Beauty Is Never Tarnished

And in a similar vein to Stuffed Into the Fridge, we have Beauty Is Never Tarnished, another ridiculous (though less macabre) trope involving female characters. The premise of Beauty Is Never Tarnished is what it sounds like: no matter how much action or duress a female character experiences, she will still emerge looking aesthetically pleasing.

Like Black Dude Dies First, Beauty Is Never Tarnished is another trope that’s more common in movies than books, but can still come into play with on-page female characters. Phèdre, the protagonist of Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey, is one such object of this trope. Regardless of fairly severe physical injuries, Phèdre’s scars are rarely mentioned, and her lovers (Kushiel’s Dart is an erotic fantasy novel) don’t ever seem to comment on them. Perhaps this is merely a function of the “erotic” angle — people’s lovers never really care about their imperfections, after all — but it’s definitely unrealistic for Phèdre’s scars to not even come up in conversation.

Another, perhaps better-known example: as much as I love the Star Wars movies, they almost unfailingly keep Princess Leia’s beauty weirdly untarnished. She has super-elaborate hairstyles that never seem to come undone, and her clothes and makeup are always, as the kids say, on fleek. I look worse after walking down the street on a windy day than Leia does after being dumped in a literal trash compactor. So while those cinnamon buns are undoubtedly iconic, writers and on-set stylists alike should take more reality into account when formulating their female characters’ “looks.”

 

  1. Black and White Morality

Finally, let’s talk about Black and White Morality — a trope that anyone who’s ever read classic fantasy will no doubt recognize. Again, this one is pretty much what it sounds like: the idea that morality can be broken down into two distinct camps of good and evil, directly opposing each other and usually involving a Good Guy and Bad Guy who must fight to the death (spoiler: the Good Guy almost always wins).

I’m not saying that every single novel needs to be grimdark, but works that operate under strict Black and White Morality tend not be very believable… especially when they don’t give any particular reason for the bad guys to be bad. This is particularly prevalent in children’s books, like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — a fantastic story, don’t get me wrong, but one that’s predicated on the White Witch wanting to kill Aslan and rule Narnia simply because she’s a wicked person. (She gets a bit more backstory in The Magician’s Nephew, but it still doesn’t explain her motivations in much depth.) Yes, C.S. Lewis was probably just trying to make his themes more palatable for the younger set… but we should also remember that children understand more nuances than grown-ups tend to think.

Of course, some of these tropes are more pernicious than others. At best, they distract and diminish the reader’s engagement with the story; at worst, they perpetuate stereotypes and poor praxis for storytelling. Luckily, just being aware of them should make you much less likely to use them in your own writing.

Comment below with your least favorite tropes and why you dislike them!

 

Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. She tries her best to avoid using terrible tropes.

You can check Reedsy out here!