Have you ever read a book and come across a particular theme, plot device, character type, or cliche story-line that immediately made you roll your eyes? “Ugh, another one of these!”. The offender is probably a trope, and a boring, over-used one at that.
The word trope actually has several meanings, but in this case we’re using it to describe common literary devices, motifs, themes, and cliches. When used well, tropes can be really valuable, helping the reader to understand the writer’s intentions and reference points. Unfortunately, many of them have been used so often and so poorly that the mere hint of them will absolutely ruin an otherwise fine story. What’s worse, some tropes are outright damaging and discriminatory. This week, I’m going to shame the seven most boring tropes in literature.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Let’s start with the easiest, most widely decried trope in literature (and movies, and television, and every other medium): the manic pixie dream girl. The pithy name comes from a review of the movie Elizabethtown, back in 2005:
“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imagination of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
Come on, you can probably name at least a dozen of these without even trying: the adorable, quirky, fun-loving girl who is nothing but a ray of sunshine in the life of a retiring young gentleman. She shows him all that is good in the world. Even though he is a miserable bore (and he probably won’t shut up about his screenplay, or his band, or his other miscellaneous “artistic” endeavor), she inexplicably takes a liking to him, and she drags him along on crazy “adventures” that are just, like, so totally random: hiking, karaoke, shuffleboard, hash brownies, spontaneous trips, dive bars, swinger parties, whatever. Think Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Sam from The Perks of Being A Wallflower, or even Augustus from The Fault In Our Stars (yes, lately even boys have been manic pixie dream girls, how lucky for them!).
Ask any random person on the street what they consider to be the most boring trope in literature, and chances are the Manic Pixie Dream Girl will rate a mention.
The Newbie Who Saves The Day
We see this one everywhere, particularly in young adult and fantasy fiction (think Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games), because it’s easy writing that makes for easy reading. Take a thoroughly average protagonist, and throw them into a brand new world – a world of wizards, or a world of luxury, or whatever. They need to learn the ropes quickly, so luckily there’s a cast of supporting characters that have been doing this shit for years, and are miraculously willing to volunteer all their time and knowledge to support the protagonist. See, this way, the reader gets to learn all of the “rules” of the new world right alongside the protagonist, which is a much better read than just pages and pages of straight-up explanation. Neat, eh?
What really bores me, though, is that the newbie (who, remember, has only been there for a minute and has had to take a crash course in magic or fighting or whatever) somehow still manages to save the day. They beat the most notorious dark wizard of all time, or win a reality show by fighting all opponents to the death, or whatever. You’re expected to believe that a completely unqualified, inexperienced, sometimes-talented-but-always-the-outsider protagonist is able to decisively beat the bad guy and prove themselves the Greatest Of All Time. Yeah, oh-kay! (yawn)
This has been done so often, and yet it never once – in my recollection – has seemed realistic. Sometimes that’s okay, because the writing is so good and the story so engaging that you can forgive the use of a hackneyed plot device… but more often than not, it just bores the pants off me. I’d much rather read about a newbie that falls on their face, any day of the week. Or, heck, how about giving one of those “supporting” characters the recognition they deserve?
The Woman Who Is Defined By Her Womb
OK, this is the one that really lights my fuse, so apologies if I sound particularly angry when I say what the heck is up with all the female characters that are defined solely by their wombs?
This particular source of annoyance and boredom can take many forms. It might be the desperate housewife who had children but wishes she hadn’t (forgive me, but that’s the vibe I got from Mrs Dalloway). It could be the woman thrown into the depths of despair by her infertility, and it’s really the only thing that drives her character (hello, The Girl On The Train!). Plus there’s the women that dream of nothing but meeting the “right” man so they can get down to babymaking, the plucky older gals who are “brave” enough to try surrogacy, the beleaguered single mothers, the driven career women who don’t have children and it’s the sole source of conflict in their lives… on and on it goes.
I understand that these are all real issues for women. This trope actually reflects a great number of very real stories. I know a lot of women experiencing these problems personally… and yet, I also know that the state of their womb is never the only facet of their personality. They have other motivations, desires, conflicts, and needs. I’m yet to meet a woman whose whole and sole purpose in life is to be found in her uterus.
This particular trope in literature wouldn’t be such a big deal if male characters were reduced and defined in the same way. Can you name half as many men in fiction who are equally defined by their fatherhood, or lack thereof? I doubt it. Male characters are allowed to just be characters unto themselves, with many and varied flaws – like John Self in Money: A Suicide Note (see my full review). Female characters aren’t granted that “luxury”, and I say boo to that!
Related: I hate the trope in film and television of women going into labour and delivering so fast that they “can’t make it” to the hospital. They end up birthing children in the backs of cabs, in bars, on the sides of roads, at their best friends’ weddings… sure, it heightens the drama, but my goodness, couldn’t they strive for something remotely realistic? In real life, labour can last for days, and women almost never drop a shorty in under 5 minutes. The sooner film and television writers give up that particular trope, the better!
The Dead (or Missing) Girl
Why are we so obsessed with dead (or missing) “girls”? (And, yes, they are always “girls” – fully grown women that we infantilise as part of a gross publishing trend that seeks to deny female characters anything that hints at actual agency.)
This one seems to have become particularly prominent in the last few years (see, once again, The Girl On The Train), but it has been bubbling up in television (think shows like Law & Order: SVU) for much longer than that. Once again, there’s a disturbing misogynist element in this particular trope in literature. I recently heard an interview with Roxane Gay (who I love and admire endlessly), where she said (I’m paraphrasing, forgive me) that dead
girls women are very convenient for storytellers, because they are compliant. They don’t cause trouble. They don’t need a character arc, they don’t need to develop, they don’t need motivations or desires or fears, because their sole purpose is to give purpose to a protagonist (the witness, the boyfriend, the detective).
I think this one is going to linger for a while, because it echoes the cultural scripts we have for the behaviour of
girls women. All too often, the dead or missing girl was promiscuous, or naive, or annoying, or broke the “rules” in some other way – and she got what was coming to her, right? Personally, I think this trope (in literature, and in real-life media) is super played-out and boring as all hell.
The Buried Gays
This particular trope has a long and storied history; it waxes and wanes, depending on the temperature of the literature community (and society more broadly) at the time. At its worst, it looks like this: simply put, gay characters get tragic endings.
This usually happens in the context of a mostly-straight story. Historically, it happened more often to female characters (indeed, the trope was originally called “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”), but lately authors have been killing off a lot more dudes. The gay character usually dies as a result of AIDS, a homophobic assault, or suicide – all very real issues for the LGBTIQ community (being that they are disproportionately affected by all of these risks), but so over-represented in literature and other media that it becomes boring to the point of the ridiculous. The problem is not the story of gay deaths, it is that only the gay character dies, or that the character dies as a direct result of… well, gay-ness. Key examples would be Jack from Brokeback Mountain, or poor ol’ Dorian Gray (I reviewed the story about his magical selfie here, by the way).
Thankfully, we’re on a bit of a down-swing with this one at the moment, and we’re seeing more and more popular representations of happy endings for LGBTIQ characters and couples. Still, I think the effects of overexposure to the buried gays trope will linger for me for quite a while…
Poor Communication Kills
I haven’t nailed down exactly where the terrifically punny name for this one comes from (communication skills, communication kills – geddit?), but whoever came up with it should know that I would very much like to buy them a beer.
This particular trope is a little more vague than the others, but it’s still something that drives me up the wall: the primary source of action or plot development is the fact that characters don’t or can’t communicate with one another. Whether the impediment is caused by character (the one with the information being too stubborn or scared or busy to share) or circumstance (the characters being separated by time, distance, or totalitarian governments), it’s the lack of adequate communication that causes conflict and drives the story forward.
Seriously: think of all the times that things would have worked out just fucking fine if the characters had, y’know, actually talked to one another! Romeo and Juliet might have lived happily ever after. Mina probably never would have copped that nasty love-bite from Dracula. If Madame Bovary had just told her husband that their marriage was choking the life out of her… well, she was still pretty nuts, so things might have ended badly regardless, but my point remains valid!
This literary trope has frustrated the heck out of me for quite some time, but now I’ve seen it done so many times that it just bores me. I just want to shout “talk to one another, dammit, and we can be done with this plot a lot sooner!”.
The Henpecked Husband
Every time I encounter one of these, my mind floats back to Everybody Loves Raymond. Now, I don’t ever recall actually watching that show, but I must have seen bits and pieces from it somewhere – because I can picture very clearly in my head how every episode goes: wife wants something reasonable, husband complains and/or makes joke, wife rolls eyes, canned laughter. Every single time.
I don’t get why so many people find this funny or entertaining. We really seem to collectively get off on highly dysfunctional relationships – or, at least, feel sympathy for the poor little man squished under the brutal thumb of the domineering witch. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any of you that I actually love these “awful” wives and mothers – the loud “bossy” women who could rule the world if they didn’t have to waste all their time fixing the problems of their husbands and sons… but that’s a rant for another day 😉
This particular trope in literature stretches all the way back to the Brothers Grimm (remember how Hansel and Gretel’s father abandoned them in the woods because his wife had had a bloody gut-full?), and still floats around today (in fact, I read a couple just recently in The Dressmaker). Granted, we’re making steps towards actually examining these two-dimensional shrill harpies that have bullied their husbands for so long, and I think that’s great to see – mostly because it highlights how truly boring the henpecked husband trope actually is.
I’ll also give an honourable mention to The White Saviour – I’m not the best person to break downs all of the problems associated with this particular trope (as seen in books like The Help), but I want to reassure you that it bores the hell out of me, and encourage you to check out this piece about the white saviour in film.
You may also notice that I’ve not included The Love Triangle on this list – even though there are so many of them, and they’re often so poorly written. The fact is, I think that there are plenty of love triangles that actually work really well, and some that are downright subversive, and some that are just plain fun. I know it’s not a popular opinion, but love triangles don’t bore me (and they’re usually not as damaging as some of the others listed here). And, in the end, isn’t listing a “love triangle” as a loathed literary cliche, in and of itself, a bit of a cliche? 😉
What trope in literature bores you the most? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).