Ten terrible character types that should be consigned to the bin

I love fiction. I love writing it, reading it, watching it and listening to it. But there are some cliches that always make me bristle.

Obviously, there are a whole lot of sexist, racist, poorly-written and unbelievable stock characters out there. But I’m writing about these ones today because they always make me grit my teeth, and because I believe they’re slipping through the cracks.

Here are ten character types that we really ought to do away with.

 

10. The Hot-and-Cold Love Interest (aka, The Tsundere)

Who they are: 

A character who is in love with another, but tries to hide it by being mean to him or her. The Japanese term ‘tsundere’ comes from the words ‘tsun’ – ‘irritable’ – and ‘dere’ – ‘lovestruck’.

Why I hate them:

Simply put, this character romanticises abusive relationships. The audience is supposed to believe that – despite all the insults, humiliation or even outright violence they deal towards the object of their ‘affections’ – they’re a good person underneath, and they really do love their victim.

No. It’s not cute. It’s not romantic. This character is an unequivocal terrible person, and creators need to treat him/her as such.

How to fix them:

Show this character for what they are: a bully.

9. The Coolguy McSmarmface 

dickhead

Who he is: 

A self-absorbed, immature smart-arse with little regard for the rules or the people they’re supposed to protect.

Why I hate him: 

This character reeks of out-of-touch corporate types trying desperately to appeal to a demographic they don’t understand. He’s a vain, cocksure, misogynistic manboy, yet we’re supposed to empathise with him for some reason.

How to fix him:

This character makes for an awfully boring hero. But when these same traits are transposed onto a villain, minor antagonist or general fool, he becomes a comical narcissist who allows us to laugh at the arrogant jerks in our own lives.

8. The Superfluous Cutie

Who they are:

A character who’s only there to be cute – frequently a child, pet or being that resembles one.

Why I hate them: 

This personification of twee usually serves no purpose in the story, and is only included to manipulate the audience’s feelings in the cheapest possible way (ie, playing on our protective instincts by making them look and act like an infant). Also, in TV and film, they tend to have extremely annoying, high-pitched voices. Regrettably common in anime.

How to fix them:

Dial this saccharine baby-creature way down until they resemble a real child, pet or anything else that’s actually cute and charming.

7. The Shrieking Harpy Wife 

Who she is:

A wife or girlfriend who does nothing but nag.

Why I hate her: 

Frequently, she appears in media in which a central male character just wants to have fun with his buddies. Damn women, delegating household chores and trying to communicate about the issues that plague our horrible relationship! Those uptight bitches just won’t let us relax!

This character smacks of a chauvinist creator airing his personal grudges in his work. She’s frequently a straw feminist as well.

How to fix her: 

Write her with some sympathy, or leave her in the fifties where she belongs.

This character is especially annoying when coupled with…

marriage-communication-nagging-wife-2

6. The ‘Lovable’ Slacker

Who he is:

A dumb, lazy slob.

Why I hate him: 

Frequently, this waste of oxygen overlaps with Coolguy McSmarmface above, except without the confidence. He’s set up as the hero, but he’s so awful that it’s not simply difficult to care about him; it becomes actually frustrating that the author expects us to do so. It’s okay for a character to bumble a bit, or fail to live up to the expectations of those around him. But a guy who never gives anything back to others, fully aware of – and even smug about – that fact, is about as much fun in fiction as he is in real life.

How to fix him:

Shunt him to second or third fiddle and depict him as the pain he is. Otherwise, if the story demands a loser for a hero, have him step up to the plate now and then, because it’s damn difficult to identify with a character who cares about nobody but himself.

Similar, but even more annoying, is…

5. The Sack of Potatoes (aka, The Useless One)

sack-of-potatoes

Who they are:

A character who, despite accompanying the hero/es everywhere, doesn’t do anything to help them. Could be replaced by an inanimate object with no harm to the story.

Why I hate them: 

Calling this character a sack of potatoes is unfair to bags of tubers the world over, because both sacks and potatoes have many uses. This character’s total inability or unwillingness to contribute makes them a shackle to the hero, and while s/he may have the patience of a saint when it comes to this character, I – the reader or viewer – do not.

How to fix them: 

Make them resolve a plot point. Help the heroes. Do something to justify their existence. Anything.

4. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

mpdg

Why a peacock? Because she’s just so RANDOM!

Who she is:

A quirky, childlike, free-spirited young woman whose only purpose is to dance into the dull male protagonist’s life and help him discover himself. (Male examples exist, but are less common; the exciting guy who sweeps a shy lady off her feet doesn’t tend to be characterised as ‘cute’ or ‘kooky’, but rather as a dashing rogue, so I won’t be discussing him here.)

Why I hate her: 

Look, part of it is jealousy. I’m more Miranda Hart than Zooey Deschanel. I’m loud, clumsy and hate spontaneity. I will never be as effortlessly skinny, cute and fun as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I will never be able to turn a cartwheel without looking like an Oompa-Loompa. I will never break into Disneyland after closing time to dance in the rain, wearing a man’s bowler hat, paisley shorts and three hundred bangles.

But the other part of it is that she’s so transparently an object. One has to question what a fun-loving, interesting, charming woman sees in the bland loser in the first place. Her sole purpose in the story is to guide the character transformation of the male protagonist. She’s an infantilised, idealised fantasy of womanhood. And she pisses me right off.

How to fix her: 

To quote a certain fairytale about a prince forced to become a peasant, ‘you must do yourself what you want to have done’. It shouldn’t be another character’s responsibility to change the hero. Give the quirky girl her own motivations and goals. And maybe depict her as anything other than a heterosexual, dainty, conventionally pretty white girl.

Or maybe write her as an actual insane pixie masquerading as a human, who uses her apparent joie de vivre to seduce the loser hero and use his blood in an arcane ritual. I would read the hell out of that story.

3. The Mean Ol’ Sceptic (aka, the Hollywood Atheist)

Who he is:

A lonely, bitter, nihilist cynic who loves nothing and nobody.

Why I hate him: 

Creators (if you’ll pardon the pun) who use this character are invariably pushing an agenda – and I’m always inclined to believe it’s a sinister one.

The existence of this character implies that religion (or some other belief system) is somehow a ‘natural’ state of being, and any deviation from this is extremely weird or perverse. The character’s atheism is treated as the reason for his grumpiness, or outright evilness, as if a person can’t be good without belief in a higher power. He’s a friendless, humourless wet blanket, out to spoil all the magic and beauty in the world simply because he can’t suffer fools gladly.

Here’s the thing: this  atheist thinks there’s plenty of magic and beauty in the world if you know where to look. I never get tired of thinking of the laws and systems of nature, or observing them up close. Why, I came across two gorgeous little mopoke owls in the wild yesterday, and they awakened in me a rapturous joy and gratitude for both my presence and theirs upon this earth. So there.

How to fix him:

Do research. Round the character out. Scepticism (and indeed, atheism) is compatible with a wide range of character traits. Atheists and sceptics are as diverse a group of people as any other.

2. The Blank Slate (aka, The Reader Avatar)

cardboard-face

Who they are:

A character whom the author has deliberately left underdeveloped, in the hope that the reader will project their own strengths, weaknesses, virtues, foibles, likes, dislikes and insecurities onto the space where those traits should be.

Why I hate them:

Because they’re not just boring: they’re boring on purpose.

How to fix them: 

Put some time and effort into building this character. It’s actually much easier to decide how a character will behave in any situation once you know a little bit about them, their motivations, and the things that have happened to make them who they are. What’s more, while the possibility for more readers to identify with the character may be lost, those readers who do recognise themselves in a three-dimensional character will identify with them in a deeper, more meaningful way.

1.The Mary Sue/Marty Stu

Who they are:

A character who is the best at everything he or she does. This character is the best-looking, most popular, smartest, coolest, kindest, sassiest and most talented creature in the room on any given occasion. In fantasy, a Mary Sue/Marty Stu is often some kind of ‘Chosen One’, and/or has the strongest magic and best fighting skills. (The name comes from a character in a parody of a Star Trek fanfic, who at fifteen was ‘the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet’.)

Why I hate them: 

These characters are the equivalent of your annoying friend in primary school who ruined your games of make-believe by always pretending to have stronger powers or weapons than yours.

They ruin our suspension of disbelief because they are ludicrously perfect. Any flaws or weaknesses they have will be negligible; any tragedies in their lives will be included simply to try and make you, the reader, feel sorry for them. It’s impossible to identify with a Mary or Marty because they are not recognisably human.

More often than not, Mary Sue is simply the author as she would like to be.

How to fix them: 

Make them flawed. Make Mary and/or Marty into dazzling side characters that our imperfect, relatable hero can envy and despise. Or make them secretly a race of sinister alien creatures that mimic us, because a character who is too perfect cannot be human.

 

So concludes the ten terrible character types that need to die. There’s no news post this week, because my birthday is this week and I’m giving myself a break. Join me next week for the ten awesome character types that I can’t get enough of!

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4 thoughts on “Ten terrible character types that should be consigned to the bin

  1. rubberlotus says:

    ‘ey, Amelia. Howyoudoin’?

    I understand this list was probably whipped up in a hurry,and it’s certainly a decent read in itself, but I feel it might be better if each entry were given an actual example from literature/film. The #1 spot especially – “Mary Sue” has become something of a loaded term as late (especially where Episode VII is concerned), with a lot of the feminist blogosphere condemning it as inherently sexist.

    I mean, Bella Swan is still, as far as I know, the “safest” target to lambast as a Mary-Sue, but you’ve almost certainly read more books than I have – surely you’ve come across lesser-known-but-no-less-foul ones?

    Like

    • Amelia says:

      Long time, no see! Welcome back. I actually didn’t want to give examples for these tropes for two reasons. I didn’t want to seem full of myself by criticising too many other successful storytellers, and I didn’t want the hassle of arguing with people who enjoy those stories in the comments.

      As a feminist, I think the criticism of Sues/Stus is unfounded. I find myself rolling my eyes at male examples way more often. And it’s possible for a character who doesn’t technically pass an MS test to still be enjoyable. For example, I really enjoyed Fullmetal Alchemist, even though Ed is characterised as a freakishly accomplished, golden-eyed martial arts and science prodigy, because he has enough flaws and weaknesses to balance out the things that make him exceptional. Arakawa worked really hard (in the manga, at least) to round her characters out. Ed isn’t just smart, funny and determined as hell; he’s frequently arrogant, socially clueless and too quick to anger, and these flaws have real consequences throughout the story.

      By contrast, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon is a classic Stu. Written by the teenage author as a reflection of himself as he would like to be (by his own admission), Eragon is an orphan farmboy and secret heir to the throne with a tragic and mysterious past who masters several complex skills within a year including swordfighting, reading, and speaking an ancient language. He’s the first Dragon Rider in over a century, uses incredibly powerful magic that almost nobody else does, has telepathy, is a human-elf hybrid (in a world where elves are the nicest, smartest, sexiest people eveeeer), is the only one who dares hunt in the local forest and is bound to more races than any Rider in history. On top of this, Eragon is supposed to be a hero with whom the young reader identifies (because he’s smart and noble and handsome and what-have-you), but the way he treats other characters doesn’t bear that out: he’s downright awful to his dragon. This is hardly surprising, because Paolini’s parents gave him a free ride into print, instead of giving him a chance to get published properly and to improve and grow as a writer.

      I haven’t seen Episode VII yet.

      Like

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