Let’s Talk about Tropes #11: The Character in the Fridge

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I just watched the first episode of The Boys this week.

I have not read the comics, but I’m loosely familiar with Garth Ennis’ style from Preacher; I’ve read the first volume and intend to read the rest, and I watched the first season of the adaptation but lost track of it amidst the ninety million other shows to watch and haven’t continued. I know what kind of headspace his work creates, how gory, brutal, disturbing, and darkly humorous it can be.

I was also forewarned by both my husband (who has read the source material) and a good friend (who binged the entire show before I started) that this story is intended, in basically every way possible, to be upsetting and make the reader/viewer uncomfortable.

Brilliant success, there.

A lot of seemingly good people in this story do a lot of horrible things, but it’s the inciting incident that sets the tone, that grabs you by the stomach and makes you want to puke. So, obligatory warning, spoilers below for the first episode of The Boys.

On the surface, I was thoroughly disgusted by Robin’s death. It’s gore on a level I rarely see, for starters, with the slow-motion blood-drenching. When the camera pans down to show Hughie still holding her dismembered hands, I felt actively sick. And then, as I had time to absorb the implications of what happened, I was sickened by the apparently poor choice of having the white protagonist’s girlfriend be a woman of color and immediately get killed, because that’s a good look. (That being said, I don’t know what her ethnicity was in the source material, and I’m generally pro “colorblind” casting, it never bothers me if a canonically white character is cast as non-white, unless it creates other racially charged issues, as it may have done here. Or may not have.)

And, on a meta level, we all know fridging characters is bad, right? Especially when it’s a woman, especially to spur on the story of a male protagonist.

Yet, here, that’s actually the entire point.

As I watched the rest of the episode and saw that fridging a character was only the very tip of this horrible, horrible iceberg, I realized Robin’s death is emblematic of all the collateral damage the Seven, and superheroes in general, have caused, and that the story probably couldn’t have started any other way. What else would have caused Hughie, slightly neurotic and generally Everyman as he is, to take on the most powerful cadre of superheroes in the world? What else would have so gripped and angered the readers/viewers with its senselessness, its casual cruelty (especially after A-Train’s later scene, joking about Robin’s death,) and the combination of its horror in the moment, and discovering the horror of how very commonplace similar incidents have been?

I spend a lot of time and word count talking about tropes and how not to use them, how to avoid the common pitfalls involved, and before watching The Boys I probably would have said it’s impossible to fridge a character to good purpose. I would have been wrong. Ennis takes the laziness out of this trope by using it quite deliberately to evoke the expected reaction for his own story goals; proof that even the most overused tropes, the ones we consider the worst, the laziest, the least useful, still have their place when carefully thought out.

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Let’s Talk About Tropes #10: There Was Only One Bed

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First of all, a quick apology: somehow I neglected the Tropes series for over a year? I really didn’t feel like #9 was that long ago. Also, in checking over past subject matter to make sure I didn’t repeat myself, I discovered that the title format changed partway through, because I’m not great at consistency when I’m juggling this many projects, apparently. I’m making a category for them so they’re all available in one place if you want to catch up.

Now, about the beds. What do you do when you need to up the romantic or sexual tension between a couple? One answer is to put them in any situation where there’s only one bed to share. They could be traveling together and there’s a mix-up with their hotel, or they didn’t have a hotel to begin with and they’re pulling over into some cheap place that only has one room left, and guess what–there’s only one bed.

I love this trope, and I hate it. It can be handled well (anything can!) but there’s so many easy traps to fall into, so many assumptions made by the creators who use it.

1. In mass media, this trope is entirely heteronormative. “Oh no, a boy and a girl might have to share a bed! What will happen next?!?” But on one hand, not all boys are attracted to girls, and vice versa. This trope is pulled out to put the not-couple in a questionable situation where we can assume hanky-panky might ensue. But where are the subversions where it’s no big deal because the guy isn’t into women (or the reverse, of course?) Why doesn’t this ever get paired up with the gay best friend trope? (Not that that isn’t a problematic one, too, but that’s for another post.)

2. On the other hand, why doesn’t “one bed” every raise any alarm bells for same-gender pairs? In high school, I went on a trip to Toronto to see The Phantom of the Opera as a part of the National Honor Society. Obviously all the hotel rooms were segregated by gender, so I was sharing a room with two queen beds in it with three other girls. I drew the short straw and had to sleep beside a girl I barely knew, whose first name I think I remember but last name, no clue. (To be fair, this was just over twenty years ago.) Why didn’t that raise any concerns to any adults? What if that girl was a lesbian? What if I was? (I identified as straight at the time, now I know I’m bisexual. I didn’t start anything with that girl or either of the other two in the room–but if I’d been a boy, all hands on deck, it’s a nightmare!) If a boy and a girl are in danger of having sex with each other simply because there’s only one bed, why not two boys? Why not two girls? Why not two of anybody, regardless of gender identity?

3. Which brings me to the third problem. Yes, the trope is generally trotted out to be specifically about sex, to create the will-they-won’t-they tension. But that only reinforces negative stereotypes about men/boys and predatory sexuality. Why can’t two people share a bed without sex being a specter hovering over the situation? Why do we assume the men/boys won’t be able to control themselves and take advantage (or try to take advantage of) the women/girls? A) Why can’t it be the girls lusting after the boys; or B) why can’t these two just act like rational human beings and understand that sleeping in the same bed doesn’t mean sex is happening? (It’s sort of forgivable when we’re talking teenagers who don’t have the life experience, necessarily, to make good/safe choices, but when I’m reading an adult romance novel that falls into this trap, I usually walk away disappointed. Men aren’t hormone-driven chauvinist pigs, and when they are, they shouldn’t be the hero of the story!)

That isn’t to say that two people can’t be uncomfortable with sharing a bed, ever, at all. If one person (character) has personal space issues; if they have real reason not to trust the other (though this brings up the larger issue of whether or not the two of them can even share the room at all, let alone the bed;) if one admits to being a total cover hog, or a tendency to toss and turn, or anything else that might make the other person uncomfortable sharing a bed with them. There’s no reason not to be considerate, after all.

And this isn’t me, O Great Author Elena Who Knows Everything About Everything, telling you not to ever use this trope. (/sarcasm) It’s popular for a reason. It’s a back bone of fan fic, especially alternate-universe fic, everywhere, and since I don’t read a lot of that these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if the more progressive fic authors are already dismantling the classic trope in the ways I’ve taken issue with. (And probably a few ways I haven’t even considered yet.) As with all my Tropes posts, I’m asking you to consider why you’re writing a character or situation the way you are, and if there’s a way you could break free of the same old patterns everyone else uses. And if you choose to follow the pattern, if you’re doing so deliberately, that’s fine. Just take the time to examine the tropes you use and make sure you’re not writing them out of laziness, and you’ll be fine.

 

Let’s Talk About Tropes #9: Exercise

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It’s no secret that in addition to writing romance, I read a lot of it. I’ve seen so many different types of heroes–white or black or brown skin, every hair color, every eye color, tall or not-so-tall. But do you know what they all seem to have in common?

Muscles.

Even when the book cover doesn’t look something like the guy in the picture above, he’s described as well-muscled. Sometimes lean but still defined; sometimes outright bulky; always noticeable.

I’m even sort of guilty of it in the What We Need series! Paul’s no gym rat, even before his life went haywire, but with the drastically reduced quality of his diet, I expected most of his body fat would be gone, revealing the lean muscle underneath. I never describe him as bulky–in fact, I have other characters call him things like beanpole and skyscraper and scarecrow, so you know he’s rail-thin, but I still let Nina admire his muscles.

Because who’s a man without visible musculature?

Well…a lot of guys, actually! I’ve been attracted to plenty of men IRL who don’t spend hours at the gym, who don’t have the ridiculous V leading to their groin, who can’t bench press a city bus.

I know the romance genre, the authors are often going for more-attractive-than-real, for the kind of swelteringly hot dudes we see in movies, for the guy you think maybe you could never get yourself, but at least you get to read about him. And I don’t want you to think I’m trashing books with those heroes, or the authors who write them.

But I don’t actually see most of those heroes doing anything to account for their crazy-hot bodies. Sometimes, sure, there’s a passing reference to him hitting the gym or going for a run. Or he’s got a job that does it for him, like construction workers. Or he’s a sports star, and the training’s built into the story. Which is fine.

Everyone else, though?

So let’s make this general, now. If you’re going to write yourself a super-fit character, male, female, or NB, make sure there’s a good reason they are that way!

  1. Why does this person exercise enough to have a hot bod? Healthy and unhealthy attitudes toward hardcore fitness abound, from things as simple as “I like working out and feeling good about my body” to “I have acute insecurity about other aspects of my life and work to perfect my body as compensation or control.”
  2. What do they actually do for those muscles? Weight training is obvious but not the only answer, not if you don’t make the person super-swole. Swimming is a fantastic whole-body exercise. Dedicated martial artists can get pretty buff. Or maybe it’s less traditional, like rock climbing. The gym is not the only place to get fit.
  3. What would someone dedicated to the activity you choose actually look like? Distance runners might have defined legs but less going on up top, if they don’t supplement running with something else. Yoga practitioners could be quite sculpted, but not necessarily huge and buff. Honest-to-god gym rats might be huge, but move differently due to less flexibility.
  4. When does this rigorous exercise fit into their day? What else aren’t they doing because of it?
  5. Does this exercise come along with a specific diet plan? Can this person eat a whole pizza by themselves reasonably, and would they want to? Or is their kitchen full of protein powder bottles and pre-chopped fruit for smoothies?
  6. Is this person a fitness-conversion fanatic, constantly trying to get the people around them to work out with them, or just in general? Do they offer advice? Do they offer unsolicited advice? Some gym rats are toxic and obnoxious about it–plenty aren’t. Which one is your character?
  7. How is this person’s mood affected when they miss a workout? Do they have to skip more than one before it hits, or is it more immediate? How does that manifest in their behavior?

Not every character (not every romance hero!) has to be a fitness guru, but if they are, that lifestyle should be on display in the story beyond someone else admiring their physique. I hope these questions help you think about how to make fitness a more integral part of the characters who require it!

Let’s Talk About Tropes #8: Fashion

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What characters are wearing is a near-constant frustration for me, both as a reader and a writer.

On the one hand, unless the character is obsessed with or works with fashion (Sophie from The Boss series comes to mind) I don’t want to read every detail of every outfit, right down to the precise shade of designer lipstick. That level of description is almost always unnecessary.

But on the other hand, I also dislike reading a story where I never know what any of the characters are wearing. If it’s a contemporary work, I can fill in basic styles from my knowledge of current fashion trends–if you tell me Scott’s a hipster but then don’t describe his outfit, I’m going to assume tight jeans, a tucked-in plaid shirt, and a floppy beanie hat–but sometimes an author doesn’t even give me that much to work with.

So how do you balance how much description to give, and beyond that, how do you avoid falling into the easy tropes like Scott the Hipster?

  1. Decide, for each character, how important their outward appearance is to them.
  2. Build them a (small) mental wardrobe appropriate to both that level of interest in fashion, and their life/job; write down a brief, general description, something one or two sentences long that you could use when introducing the character.
  3. Examine any contradictions that arise: do they have a business-wear job but would love to rock a boho look, so they can only do that on weekends? Does their job come with a uniform that prohibits much (or any) individuality? Do they not care about clothes at all, and wear what they have to with a minimum investment of money/effort?
  4. WRITE ABOUT HOW THEY RESOLVE THOSE CONTRADICTIONS.

That’s going to tell me far more about the character than giving me a piece-by-piece inventory every time they show up in a new outfit.

Other tips:

  • Include detail when something major changes. For example, if a character shows up to gathering of friends at a bar with a drastic new haircut or wearing something totally out of their comfort zone, there’s probably a reason, right? And their friends would (hopefully) notice and comment on that.
  • Caring about fashion/appearance is not solely the province of women and queer men. Let your straight men care, too, and don’t equate fashion with femininity or queerness.
  • Don’t fall into the vanity trap, either, unless you’re setting out to make a vain character. Caring about how you look =/= vanity, which is defined as excessive pride in one’s own appearance or accomplishments.
  • A similar argument can be applied to making fashion-conscious characters shallow, as well. It’s a common shorthand–but shallowness as a deliberate trait, rather than an incidental one, should be more concerned with the appearance of others, and what that says about them, rather than actually knowing them as people.
  • Finally, if a character springs to mind with a fully-formed look, great, you’ve got a head start. But be sure to examine your assumptions about why it’s the best look for that character. Check for obvious cultural appropriation or stereotyping. It’s fine for someone to fit into an established fashion mold–people can spend lots of time and money to do just that!–but don’t let your view of fashion bias you into lazy or actively harmful character building.

Want more character development prompts?

Let’s Talk About Tropes #7: Second-Chance Romance

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There’s a special place in my heart for a good second-chance romance story, but when this trope goes bad, it goes super-bad.

Why?

To answer that, let’s break down the basic elements:

#1 – Establishing the previous relationship and conflict

For the current story to qualify as a second chance, there needed to be a first one. Were the characters already dating/engaged/married? Was this a childhood sweetheart situation, all innocence and cuteness, but then they went off to different colleges? If the separating conflict is too serious (cheating, abuse, etc.) it may be hard to show the characters recovering from it believably. If the separating conflict is too weak or mundane, our beloved second-chance aspect of the new romance may feel shortchanged.

#2 – Reconnecting the characters

By far the most common one I’ve seen is for one character to move back to their hometown–second-chance romances are often paired with a Small Town Setting™ to up their charm factor. But that’s not the only option by any means. If the characters work in the same field or related ones, one of them could take a new job that puts them in the other’s sphere. They could run into each other randomly in a Big City Setting™; they could both attend the same important event, like the wedding of a mutual friend; they could stumble over each other on social media somehow. The Internet is a magical thing, after all.

But with all these viable options and more, why do so many seem forced? Well, because, to some degree, they are. If the point of the story is the romance (which it is, of course, to us romance authors) sometimes we’re more focused on getting the relationship going again than how the characters reconnect, which means we’ll slap any old reason on the face of it to put our two leads into each other’s faces. Take a little extra time to think through reasonable situations. Ask your friends where and how they’ve run into people they used to know, and what (if anything) came of it, whether the relationship is romantic or not. I mean, I ran into someone I had a crush on in junior high while we were both in line at the post office to send Christmas presents to our families. Absolutely nothing came of it–no number exchange, no attempt to contact each other again, I haven’t seen or heard from him since–but for a pair of fictional characters, that meeting could have had different consequences.

#3 – Layering old and new conflicts

Every romance has to have conflicts; the best question to ask is always “Why aren’t they together now?”

But second-chance romances have an extra layer to handle: resolving the old conflict somehow while maintaining new ones. Your leads aren’t the same people they used to be, no matter how familiar they may seem to each other–they’ve changed. What is it about how they’ve changed that means the unresolved conflict from their previous relationship can be overcome?

Sometimes I’m disappointed by the couples rekindling their flame too quickly, because they toss the old conflict out the window with barely a pause to breathe. Make sure the issue is given the weight and consideration it deserves (which will depend, of course, on how serious it was to begin with) before letting your couple fall into bed together.


So, my lovely readers, do you like second-chance romances? What is it about them you enjoy, and what pitfalls are you tired them falling into?

Let’s Talk About Tropes #6: Dreams and Nightmares

Do you usually cringe whenever you have to read about the dream a character is having? Because I do.

So let’s talk about why dreams are written poorly, and what we, as writers, can do about it.

(Caveat: This is meant as a criticism and exploration of dreams in realistic fiction. If you’re writing a world where dreams work significantly differently on purpose, a lot of this won’t apply, but being aware of the potential pitfalls can’t hurt, right?)

Problem #1: Do you really need to include a dream?

A dream scene can accomplish quite a few things, if used properly. The most common attempted purpose I’ve seen is to show a character’s inner turmoil without needing them to freak out in real life, where it wouldn’t be appropriate or in character. And that’s fine.

But how many of us have dreams that lay out our inner turmoil in understandable literary metaphor? Speaking from my own experience, if I’m stressed about my day job, yes, I might have an anxiety dream where something has gone wrong there and I’m being yelled at, or trying to cover for three people who didn’t come in that day, or whatever. And then, if I turn around, suddenly I’m wandering an empty hotel looking for Smurfs (yes, I’ve dreamed that) or chopping veggies in a high-end restaurant kitchen (yep, that too.)

Which brings me to…

Problem #2: Dreams are often absurd.

Lots of people like to ascribe deeper meanings to dreams, but I’m not one of them. Science hasn’t fully explained the function of dreams in our brains to anyone’s satisfaction yet, but mine are usually a scramble of recent memories or daily actions, a smattering of long-term ones (my high school friends will occasionally make appearances if something has reminded me of them, even though I haven’t seen most of them in over a decade), and rarely some recurring theme involving a fear of mine, like spiders or the feeling of running out of time to complete a task.

I subscribe to the theory that dreams allow the brain to decompress, basically. It’s stress relief for your mind, a chance to process new or recent information without the needs of the conscious brain interfering.

So dreams, for most people, are not the clean-cut, detailed mini-stories they’re portrayed to be in books. Too much meaning is ascribed to them in order to justify their inclusion.

But that’s not how they work, so reading that style of dream leaves a sour taste in my mouth, because it doesn’t relate to my experience at all.

Problem #3: Lots of people don’t remember their dreams.

I’ve heard quite a few people state this as “I don’t dream,” but the science doesn’t back them up on this, because REM sleep deprivation has a number of significant effects, and the brains of individuals who are chronically deprived due to various forms of insomnia will overcompensate by falling into REM sleep faster and staying in it longer until the shortfall diminishes. (I don’t have a source on that because I read it in my biology textbook long ago, so feel free to holler at me if that’s no longer sound.)

It’s much more accurate to say these people do dream, but they don’t remember their dreams. I myself dream vividly, but I don’t remember them every night. So unless you make your character a vivid dreamer deliberately and weave that into the story in other ways, turning to dreams often to develop that character (or, blech, move the plot along) is just a plot device.

So what can you do?

  • Keep a dream journal for yourself, if you do remember your dreams. Write down as much detail as you can remember. This will give you an idea of how to write a more realistic dream if you do need one for a story.
  • If you want to have a dreamer character, use the meat of the dream in conversation instead of as a separate scene. (I often tell my coworkers about my strange dreams, because I can usually get them laughing over whatever crazy things happened.) It doesn’t have to be more than a line or two, and it’s a way to work extra information about a character into the story without dragging the reader through the dream itself.
  • Failing that, skip including a dream altogether and find another way to make the scene work.

Now, onto nightmares. If anything, the treatment of nightmares is often worse than regular dreams.

Problem #1: The plot-convenient nightmare.

People have nightmares. It happens. But in stories, it always seems to happen only when necessary for dramatic tension.

(yawn)

Boring.

Problem #2: Nightmares as emotional manipulation.

Forgive me for not linking, but there’s no possible way I could find it again–but when Jenny Trout read and recapped the Fifty Shades series, she made the observation that Christian Grey only seemed to have nightmares whenever Ana shows signs of distancing herself from him. (I tried searching for it, but there’s a lot of individual chapters to dig through, and I read them all as they were published, ie, not recently.)

Now, if E.L. James actually intended Christian to be an emotionally abusive asshat, this is brilliant characterization, because Christian would be using/faking his nightmares as a lure to draw Ana closer, feeding on her nurturing instincts, with actual nefarious intent.

Since the author has made it abundantly clear outside the works themselves that Christian is not supposed to be an asshat, I’m left feeling like the readers are the ones being manipulated, that we’re supposed to fall for that nonsense.

Problem #3: Lots of people don’t remember their nightmares, either.

They just wake up feeling some level of stressed or panicked–breathing heavily, sweating, racing heart, etc.–without knowing what caused it. And that’s okay, too. It’s not realistic (for most people) to have a recurring nightmare, perfect in every detail, dog them night after night after night, as I’ve seen in some stories.

Recurring nightmares do happen, certainly, and are often caused by/centered on some recent trauma–that part, stories often do get right. Goodness knows I had my share of nightmares about a car crash that I was in–but over-reliance on the recurring-nightmare trope, again, usually to make a character sympathetic either to the reader or to another character, is overdone and stale.

So what can you do?

  • If you need to give your characters plot-significant nightmares, sprinkle in some throwaway nightmares too (just don’t devote too much page-time to them), and/or let your character wake up knowing they had a nightmare, but not remembering it.
  • Don’t rely on nightmares to try to make your characters more sympathetic. If he’s an unrepentant jerk while he’s awake, your bad boy love interest isn’t suddenly going to become appealing just because he has a squishy nightmare underbelly.
  • Failing that, again, consider leaving nightmares out entirely. They’re not a requirement for either character development or a good plot, so use them wisely.

 

Let’s Talk About Tropes #5: Stoicism

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The tough guy, who feels no physical pain, who never cries. We’ve seen him a thousand times in a thousand stories. He shrugs off bullets with “It’s just a flesh wound,” or shuts down rather than project any emotion but strength or confidence.

He’s boring. Worse than that, he’s harmful. Idolizing the stoic male figure tells boys they have to deny or hide their pain, and if they don’t, they should expect to be ridiculed. (Usually by being called a girl, or otherwise being compared to the “weaker” sex. Don’t get me started on that, it’s a fruitful but dangerous tangent that will quickly devolve into me ranting about how strongly gendered most common insults are.)

The first step down from the perfect stoic male is a common character archetype: tough guy in public, teddy bear in private. He’s popular, especially in genres aimed at women, like romance, because he’s pretty lovable–a wall of muscle who can protect the heroine from danger, but turn around and be sweet or cuddly when his guard is down. And that’s fine.

But why aren’t we going farther?

Here’s what I want you to think about, when you’re building your male characters. (And yes, a lot of this applies to women, too, but the stereotype definitely skews male. As for trans or non-binary characters, the pitfalls surrounding their gender identities are too deep for me to dive into as part of this trope examination, but you could certainly use some of these ideas as jumping off points for how they might relate what they feel about themselves to what society expects of them.)

  • Let your male characters feel the effects of physical pain. I’m not saying they can’t be influenced by the boys-don’t-cry expectations of Western society. They can certainly try to tough it out–but that has its own consequences. A runner who sprains his ankle might not give himself enough time to heal before hitting the pavement again, which could lead to a more serious injury. An office manager working through his terrible headache might slip up on some paperwork, which could lead to all sorts of dire situations, depending on the job and what he screwed up.
  • If he accepts the pain and alters his behavior, don’t let the other characters shit on him for it. Okay, no one likes covering for the coworker who goes home sick, but unless the guy’s boss has been established as a complete ass already, having his superior guilt-trip him is crass. Or if the character has to cancel a date, let his significant other believe him! Don’t make the other person assume he’s lying to get out of the date. (I hate that one in particular. Sometimes you just get sick, right?)
  • Let your male characters have, and express, emotional pain as well. Men cry. It happens. And it doesn’t always need to be the heart-wrenching, “something terrible has happened and I trust you so that makes it okay for you to see me cry” scene. And it doesn’t always have to be crying, either! Anxiety, frustration, snapping anger. They all work, too. And yes, the expectation is often that a man will try to hold himself together, try not to give in. But show the conflict. Let the reader see the struggle to stay composed, instead of pretending he was fine all along.

I’ve only scratched the surface of all the ways this character aspect could be approached, but I hope I’ve encouraged a little challenging of common assumptions. Pain makes characters relatable, and denying your male characters that aspect of their character won’t help anyone.