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Character Development
January 24, 2022

4 Character Tropes To Avoid in Your Screenplay

How do you make sure your characters are believable and realistic instead of cliched and flat? The most important thing is to avoid overdone character stereotypes or character tropes that viewers can see right through. There are many different character tropes that are unnecessary and overdone. However, here are 4 that you should either avoid altogether in your screenplay or re-invent creatively.

What are character tropes?

The word "trope" actually refers to a common pattern or motif in a work of art. Thus, in the context of film, character tropes refer to the attributes of a character. In simple words, a character trope is a recognizable element within a story or plot that defines or conveys information about a character.

Character tropes can either define a character's entire role in a plot (think "The Evil Bad Guy," or the "Chosen One"), or the character's personality or motivations.

Without further ado, let's dive into the four main overused character tropes you should avoid in your script.

1. The overly loyal sidekick

Batman and Robin, Holmes and Watson, you might think that every hero needs a loyal sidekick that never leaves your hero's side no matter what. That's not always the case.

If you are writing a police procedural, then it's common for a more senior officer to have a professional partner who is a rank or two below him. Think about British crime dramas.

In Luther, John Luther has DS Ripley to assist him, and in Morse DCI, Morse had DS Lewis accompany him, with the latter getting his show and sidekick in later series. However, the truth is that such relationships are fluid and not fixed. Most people have a series of close friends and not one friend they rely on continuously. If you want to make your hero human, we should see them clash with any close companion they have. This is how you create great characters. Sidekicks should also weave in and out.

Your viewers will want to see the complexity of a relationship: think about your strongest and great friendships. They have usually grown out of a situation where you have both been severely tested. In drama, we also like to see character foils as sidekicks: characters that possess characteristics or temperaments that your hero doesn't have.

No sidekick is ever going to be entirely loyal to a hero for no apparent reason, nor are they ever going to accept being second best. So we need to understand the nature of their relationship.

2. The lone hero

It's unusual for a hero to be so single-minded and alone that they don't follow or take the advice of their friends, colleagues, and family and still manage to save the day.

True heroes can't interact with the world in this way. In crime shows, this is often the maverick cop like Bud White in L.A Confidential. But the lone hero doesn't always have to be wild and aggressive.

Arguably, the understated and mild-mannered Columbo who slowly ebbs away at his targets until they can't take the heat and eventually fess up is an example of a maverick cop or lone hero that subverts our expectations.

It's also better to show a hero who acts alone and is detached as not achieving their goals - this should be their downfall rather than seeing the "lone hero" trope succeeding.

Your viewers also need to understand why your hero is so aloof clearly. People are not cold and alone without good reason. Hinting at reasons without revealing valid reasons can make your character seem mysterious and exciting.    

3. The damsel in distress

In a classic romance plot line, a woman waits to be rescued from certain death by a dashing young hero, and the two end up falling in love. However, this plot doesn't live up to expectations because the woman is often not fleshed out and doesn't have her characteristics. Instead, she is merely there to beef up the reputation and image of the hero.

Classic examples include Princess Fiona in Shrek, Mary Jane in Spiderman, and Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy. However, Carrie Fisher, who played Leia, disagrees with this criticism of the character. Generally, this character trope has gone out of fashion since it's no longer seen as politically correct.

In Spiderman, Mary Jane stands next to Peter Parker in a still from the film.
Mary Jane, from Spiderman, is an example of the "damsel in distress" trope.

Think about how you can subvert the classic damsel in distress to have a female save your hero. We see great scenes, for example, in Casino Royale, in which Vesper initially rebuffs any chemistry between the two of them. Vesper rescues Bond and pointedly remarks: "You think of women as disposable pleasures, rather than meaningful pursuits."

Vesper is her character and not just a damsel in distress. Think about ways to invert the traditional damsel in distress fantasy character trope but still maintain the sexual chemistry between your hero and the lover.

4. The love interest or eye candy

You might think that every film or series needs one or a few attractive people to get the audience's attention. After all, who doesn't like watching sexy people on screen? However, this is lazy writing and an outdated view of why people watch TV shows or films. With the advent of streaming services, viewers have more choice than ever and are increasingly looking for sophisticated, plot-driven dramas.

A character should never be introduced just for eye candy or as a casual love interest. This will make for a flat character. As viewers, we have to consider each character's role, including the love interest.

No relationship is straightforward. There must be a reason behind the love interest. Is the lover dating your hero just for their wealth and status? If so, how does this affect your hero? Or is their relationship one that is stable and strong?

Well-rounded characters often come from characters that the writer understands well: it's worth writing out a detailed background plan and biography for all your characters and seeing if that helps you understand their motivations more clearly.

Consider your past and present relationships. What was the dynamic? What caused the end of a particular relationship?

Get rid of those bad character tropes

As much as you can, avoid character tropes. They can make your scripts feel cliched and flat. Be aware of classic character tropes and ask yourself if you fall into them and whether you can invert them.

Also, focus on what makes the character natural and rounded. Well-rounded characters have motivations, and their relationships are complicated and multi-dimensional.

Consider genuine relationships you have had in the past, romantic relationships, friendships, and even work colleagues. How did they evolve? What was the catalyst for the relationship getting stronger or falling apart? This is how you create the best character tropes.


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4 Character Tropes To Avoid in Your Screenplay
Harry Cunningham

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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