Tired Character Tropes and How to Wake them Up

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles lately about the tired character tropes. You know the tropes: the chosen one, the girl next door, the femme fatale, the damsel in distress, and on, and on. If you don’t know them, let’s break them down quickly.

But first! Tropes exist because they do carry value. They work. So it’s a little nuanced, because everything is nuanced. You can appreciate the trope while still wanting to avoid it.

The Chosen One

Popular example of the Chosen One Character Trope
Season 1 cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Photo credit provided.

My favourite chosen one is the Chosen One herself, Ms Buffy Summers. Other Chosen Ones include Harry Potter, or another of my favourites, Frodo Baggins. Their entire identity is about a task that only they can do.

The Girl Next Door

Katie Holmes plays Joey Potter, which is a prime example of the Girl Next Door character trope.
Katie Holmes played Joey Potter in Dawson’s Creek. Photo credit provided.

The most famous girl next door is not right next door, but just across the creek. That would be Joey Potter in Dawson’s Creek. She’s usually the antithesis of the femme fatale because she’s stereotypically feminine, and domestic, innocent, blah blah blah.

The Femme Fatale

Jessica Rabbit is an example of the Femme Fatale character trope.
Jessica Rabbit is a character in the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Photo credit provided.

Paging Jessica Rabbit! This woman uses her sex appeal to get her way, to manipulate, to trap. This character is common in noir, and mysteries.

[Sidenote: I should look and see if there are any papers or studies about the emergence of the femme fatale vs the girl next door and how it was used to keep women “in their place”.]

The Damsel in Distress

Rescuing the damsel in distress is a tired character trope that needs to be switched up.
She doesn’t really look too excited to be rescued. Photo credit provided.

This character exists only to be saved. She exists only to pump up the main (usually male) protagonist which is BORING.

While doing a little research on the tropes, I came across a fun “What Character Trope are You” quiz by SparkNotes. Here’s what I learned: I am the Ominous Housekeeper.

“You’re the long-suffering housekeeper who has been here for decades, knows everyone’s business, and is just dying to spill the beans to the first outsider who happens to stop by. The crumbling Gothic manor you call home has certainly seen better days, but you’ve never thought of living anywhere else. It’s obvious something horrible happened here many years ago, and with the right audience you just might be persuaded to sit down with a cup of tea and tell all.”


Three things.

  1. I hate cleaning, so I’d have to be the Ominous Bludger,
  2. I love the idea about living in a gothic manor to an extend, and;
  3. I also hate moving, so even if I hated living in a gothic manor, I’m still a bludger.

There all obviously a lot more tropes out there, but I don’t want to go on too long here. Let’s look at how we can wake these characters up!

How to Wake up The Chosen One

If the chosen one exists only to solve the task you’ve created for them, then you need to revisit that task. Who are they outside the task? Do you know? Buffy just wanted to be a normal girl, but she was never given the opportunity. If she was, would she still be the Slayer? If your characters still feel compelled to complete the task why? So, what is their drive? If Neville was given an opportunity to step up against Voldemort, what would Harry do?

How to Wake up The Girl Next Door

The girl next door – and pretty much any female character should exist for more than just the male protagonist’s growth. What are her motivations? If she’s only in the story as a reward and her existence makes the male protagonist look good, back to the drawing board. Maybe the girl next door turns into the femme fatale. Ooh, that’s a twist!

How to Wake up the Femme Fatale

She should exist for more than just a sex scene. As with every other character, she has her own life outside the protagonist. Everyone does. Don’t forget we are all the main characters in our own story. I’m also tired of the martyred femme fatal. It is not a twist that she’s making this decision under emotional duress, it’s actually uncomfortable and it takes agency away from women. Make sure you know what motivates her so you can make sure she knows that, too.

How to Wake up the Damsel in Distress

At the risk of repeating myself, female characters should exist for more than just the male protagonist’s growth and character journey. If the only way he can be a hero is rescuing some poor woman, then go back to the drawing board. Women are more than just beings that need to be rescued.

I realize that I really focussed on female character tropes and there are a lot of male character tropes that need to be woken up too. My first thought is the dumb muscly guy. An abundance of muscles is not synonymous with a lack of brains.

If you want your book to be unique – which often seems like an insurmountable task with the number of books out there, then you need to do something different. Don’t be afraid, actually, do be afraid and do it anyway. Readers are thirsty for a shakeup.

Do you see these tropes in your draft? I can help. Contact me today to arrange a manuscript assessment and a chat.