Learning the Ropes of Character Tropes

So sometimes I like to watch YouTube videos that make me angry. This usually happens at ungodly hours of the morning/night in a sleepy haze, and I usually regret them the next morning. The variety of these videos changes as time goes on, but recently the genre of video I find myself drifting toward is the “criticize Original Characters/Other People’s Art”-variety.

I should say that this isn’t the first time I’ve referenced these types of videos. I actually referred to them a while back on this post, but in that one I was more standing in defense of young creators in general. This time, I want to address one particular point in one particular video. I’d feel strange linking you this video, since I feel like my anger toward them may be a bit blown out of proportion, and thus, I don’t want to draw any undo hatred onto this person, so instead, below is a transcript of the specific point of theirs I want to debunk.

“Number Five: Be Creative.

Now I know that sounds really cliche and unhelpful, but this is actually really important. Make your character different. Just different. Just put a bunch of character traits on a list and pick a few at random and work with that, I don’t care. 

How many people make a character that is completely bland and uninspired? It is really amazing how such great and talented artists can draw exceptionally well but their ideas are just so, so boring.

I think the most important thing someone can ever do when making an OC (original character) is thinking. Just think. Play around with different ideas; anything can be used. There are no boundaries. Make something new and unique.”

(Actually, fine, here’s the video. Do with it as you will.)

I see a lot of advice of this ilk thrown around in guides to making characters, and it always strikes me how completely useless it is in particular. He even says it himself at the beginning – it’s cliche and unhelpful. But you know, he’s gotta say it anyway? I guess? For brownie points? Who knows.

You ask, “How do I make an interesting character?” and this advice answers, “Make an interesting character.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who can see the issue.

So allow me to help. The answer lies in the most dreaded, most feared concept in character creation, perhaps even in all of fiction. A trope.

…I’m kidding, obviously, but it is somewhat taboo to suggest using tropes to your advantage. For many young writers, artists, and creators it may seem contrary to the goal of creating an interesting character to look to commonly used character and story conventions. That’s fair, but here’s another way to look at it.

In the world, over the course of all time, hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of characters have been created for the enjoyment of audiences and creators. Do you think it’s easy, or even possible to create a character that is completely original?

And even putting that fact aside, there’s a reason why tropes persist. The art of storytelling is essentially the art of using the space you’re given in the most efficient way possible. The best storytellers want to minimize the amount of time spent explaining things about their characters (and world as a whole, but for now we’re focusing on characters) so they can get on with the story. After all, exposition is often the most boring parts of any story.

That’s where tropes come in. Tropes are commonly used and understood storytelling conventions. The princess in a tower is a trope, as is the heroic quest. Even the concept of a hero is a trope – a brave, youthful person with unusual abilities or strengths.

Tropes are often confused for cliches, and tropes can be cliche, but not inherently. Tropes become cliche when they’re repeated over and over for no reason other than to fit a perceived trend and not to contribute anything to the story itself. The love triangle is an example of this. In the past, love triangles were put into a story for a reason beyond just to create needless drama, and the outcome of who would end up with whom was normally unclear, adding intrigue. Nowadays, though, most love triangles are unnecessary, boring, and predictable.

However most tropes aren’t cliche, and can actually make for really efficient storytelling. Think of a trope as a shorthand for a lot of other information about a story element. Since we’re specifically talking about characters here, let’s pick a character trope for example. A jock, let’s say.

Now, what is a jock? Well, a jock is a person who plays sports, and defines themselves primarily by the sport they play. A jock is athletic, and usually places physical prowess above mental and emotional skills. Most jocks also are popular with other people, and can be seen as a hero by fans of the sport they play.

That’s a pretty sizable amount of information about a character. So consider the efficiency! If you establish that your character is a jock, you don’t have to explain why any of these things are true. They simply are. So when a character who is established as a jock (explicitly or implicitly) is approached by a group of, let’s say, students of their high school, a writer doesn’t have to explain why they treat them like a hero-figure. The jock trope contains that fact, and thus, explains it.

But this is not to say making every character an exact copy of a trope is a good thing. No, of course not, but tropes are incredibly valuable jumping-off points for creating an interesting character.

So let’s take our jock again. Let’s call them… Theresa. Theresa is a jock, and she plays… let’s say, hockey. Theresa is a hockey jock. We establish that Theresa is a jock by depicting her playing hockey and wearing hockey-related memorabilia a lot. In this way, our audience will make assumptions about Theresa based on this trope – she’s athletic, she’s popular, she doesn’t care about intelligence or emotion. But we can make Theresa an interesting character by throwing in traits that aren’t necessarily a part of the jock trope.

For one, making Theresa a girl immediately makes her more interesting than your normal jock. Girls don’t usually fill the “jock” trope in fiction. And picking hockey as her sport of choice is another unconventional choice, you might more commonly see football or basketball as the jock sport. But we can add even more. Perhaps Theresa was once very close with a group of friends who more align themselves with the “nerd” trope? This establishes that she might care more about intelligence than your typical jock, and gives her history and conflict with other characters. Perhaps, while she is very skilled at hockey, she isn’t entirely sure she wants to play hockey in college, but the financial benefit of accepting a hockey scholarship is difficult to ignore?

Now Theresa is a more well-rounded character. Sure, she very much fits the mold as a jock, but it’s the ways that she differs from this trope that make her interesting. Now, you get the benefit of the trope – that readers will automatically understand a selection of facts about your character pertaining to that trope, reducing the amount you need to explain – but you also get an interesting, original character.

This effect increases when you add in the fact that these tropes can just as easily be applied to genres where they might not be traditionally expected to appear. Consider the possibility of a fantasy jock! A sci-fi jock! A historical fiction jock! The possibilities are, to quote an actual cliche, endless.

So that’s why I always find fault in people who advise others to strive 100% for originality always. It certainly sounds like good advice, but in practice, it doesn’t really help, I think. There’s too much out there that’s already been done, so if you were to try to make a character who isn’t like any of those characters, your character would probably end up a blank slate of strange, inexplicable traits.

I suppose you could make a character drawing random traits from a list, like the video maker suggests, but I have a hard time believing that that character wouldn’t end up falling into some tropes anyway. Might as well embrace it, especially if it will help make the process of character creation easier.



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