Top Five Tuesday is a weekly meme started by the Bionic Book Worm, this week’s theme is five most hated tropes. But because I realise that criticism is more productive when it’s explained and when it comes with suggestions, I decided to go with that. All of these can actually work in the right context, so I have a few examples of books (and a TV show) that got it right. These are in no particular order, and I dislike them all equally.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl
This is all John Green, I know, and I haven’t actually read an Abundance of Katherines, but I’ve heard it’s par for the course with Green’s usual female protagonists. Which are all quirky, unique, “not like other girls”, and will make some bland boy’s life finally exciting. I know, technically, John Green “deconstructs” this trope, by having the female protagonist tell whatever guy has spent an entire book waxing pretentious and overly verbose poetic about her, that she is her own person and doesn’t exist for his own enjoyment. Which is all very good and dandy, except it happens in the last twenty pages of all of his books, which means that I spent an entire book reading about a boy chasing his manic pixie dream girl. And honestly how many times can you “deconstruct” a trope before you just admit that you like writing about manic pixie dream girls?
Now, for a book that actually deconstructs not only this trope, but every trope where a man projects his own wish-fulfilment ideals onto a woman, we have Gone Girl. That is what a good trope deconstruction looks like, that’s a female character with agency, and whose vengeance is almost cosmic. I don’t think all “bad trope” deconstructions need to be done in this way, but notice how Amy didn’t spend the entire book acting like Nick’s perfect little wife and dream woman, only to reveal her true nature in the last twenty pages.
This could be all John Green again. I think I have some type of knee-jerk response associated with him, because at the height of his popularity I couldn’t tell anyone I liked reading, without being recommended one of his books, and that must have left some type of psychological scar. Anyway, back to this trope; it just fills me with second-hand embarrassment, something about it is so try-hard, I can’t help thinking of that “How do you do fellow kids” gif. It makes my skin crawl, and there’s the chance the references will be used in the wrong way or be nonsensical. It also dates the book, and I don’t think every book should be timeless, but if a book relies too much on referencing popular slang, and cultural phenomenons typical of the year it was written (imagine reading a book today with a character that won’t shut up about Harambe), it will be virtually unreadable in the next five years or so. It will become an interesting linguistic relic, and an object of sociological study 30 years in the future, though! It’s also lazy, there are plenty of ways to evoke the pop culture movements prevalent in a year or time period without naming every single one of them — the aesthetic and social mores inherent to them are more exciting than the thing itself.
If used sparsely, they can actually be very evocative, if used in an unexpected way they can be downright great. The best example I can come up with is one scene where Elliot, the protagonist of the fantastic show Mr. Robot, is lamenting not having spent more time with his quasi-girlfriend. As Elliot narrates all the things he wishes he had done we see a montage of him and Sheila actually doing these things. At one point he says “I wish we had gone to see those Marvel movies she liked so much”. That was like a punch in the gut to me, because it tells you something about Elliot’s feelings for Sheila. He is extremely depressed, and a staunch anti-capitalist who will never find any enjoyment in watching a Marvel movie, but he wishes he had done it, for Sheila, because her happiness is important to him, because whether he realises it or not, he was in love with her. That’s an amazing use of a pop culture reference — when it tells you something about the character.
I have yet to meet the person who likes love triangles, I know people who don’t mind them, but hardly anyone who actively seeks them out. They are just so overplayed and overdone, there’s nothing exciting about the dynamic. But credit where credit is due, I have been seeing them less and less, so yay. These also only really happen in YA, they are a very rare sight in Adult fiction regardless of genre, but would probably be even more annoying there.
One way to make the love triangle more exciting, or at least less mind-numbingly boring, is to have the two “competitors” realise their love interest is stringing them along, bond over how hurtful that is, and then fall in love with each other. Another way to do it is to have all the people enter into a mutually loving polyamorous relationship where they’re all in love with each other. I have yet to see a love triangle where everyone is the same gender, so that would be novel at first, but I think it would end up annoying me anyway, unless it ended in one of the scenarios I mentioned.
Bury your Gays
There is obviously nothing to like about this trope. There’s always some sort of intent surrounding the death of these gay characters: either their death is a punishment for their queerness, or a “brave sacrifice” to save the heterosexual characters the author actually cares about. Stephen King just has a particular way of writing gay characters that makes my stomach turn, and I know it’s partly due to the time period the books were written in, but I hate his tone, I hate it. I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters of IT because two gay men are immediately victims of a hate crime, and more egregious, they aren’t even portrayed that sympathetically. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In Insurgent if I’m not mistaken, a character announces she is gay while in her death throes…which is….really something.
There’s also a lot of confusion surrounding this trope: obviously gay characters shouldn’t have some type of plot-armour by virtue of being gay, the stakes should apply to them the same as to any straight character. But if gay characters die at a disproportionate rate compared to straight ones, then it’s a case of this trope being in play. If you introduce gay characters only with the purpose of killing them not long after, then it’s bury your gays. If your gay characters have achieved happiness only to die right after, it’s also bury your gays. This excludes books like The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, where the point of the book is to highlight how cruel and unfair the things happening to gay characters (and everyone else dehumanised by the system) are, and obviously plenty of awful stuff also happens to straight people, and the heroes try to overcome and face their oppressors which helps it not feel like some sort of misery-porn, and like the cautionary tale it is supposed to be. Ownvoices authors are also exempt from this trope, because they are often trying to convey their own reality, or a reality they fear. Which is why someone should tell Stephen King he is not Chuck Palahniuk.
Happily Married Parents Finale
This one I can actually see a lot of people enjoying, and I understand why. I just personally find it very aggravating, there’s something unpleasantly heteronormative about it. And my distaste for this kind of ending can all be blamed on Harry Potter, which has probably the worst ending of anything I’ve ever read, let alone something I loved so loyally for so many years (turns out it was foreshadowing things to come from J.K. Rowling). Not everyone needs to be paired off, that doesn’t make any sense. This is especially common in large series, where the author feels like “oh there’s that one character people like, better give them a love interest to show their fans they found happiness”, really? How about they become a cabbage farmer in Iceland, instead? That sounds equally fulfilling to me. Iceland is beautiful I’m sure they’ll be very happy there, good job author. My problem with The Hunger Games is more that I think the ending was tonally wrong, overall this an example of a trilogy I actually enjoyed having tropes I hated.
I don’t have any specific good example, because there are various. Any ending where the entire cast doesn’t end up married to each other and with kids is good in my book. Also, not everyone will be happy, that’s impossible, and also okay from a narrative standpoint. I don’t mind if things are tied-up in a bow at the end of a series. If all the existent romantic relationships are still together and the evil is defeated, but if new ones are invented just to drive home the point of how happy everyone is, then we have a problem.
And those are some of the tropes I hate with a passion. What about you? Do you dislike any of these? Actually enjoy some? Let me know, because I love talking tropes.