Characterization Basics with Tropes, Cotes, and Clichés
A film student once scolded me because I hadn’t seen “The Breakfast Club.” Then, they explained how it was revolutionary.
A lot of authors choose a “category” of person to make their character. However, for as long as that character is defined by their category, the audience will not be able to identify with them. This is true of personality, of skin color, and any other “defining feature” that replaces “characterization.”
The Breakfast Club was revolutionary as one of the first movies to address and move beyond categorical characters. So following their lead, I’d like to give you three stages to building from one-note caricature to a layered person in your storytelling ventures.
If you ask TVTropes.com “What exactly is a trope?” They have this to say:
“… a trope is a convention. It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom… you know it when you see it.” (TVTropes)
In The Breakfast Club, they addressed five core high school tropes — listed on TVTropes as Nerd, Jerk Jock, Alpha Bitch, Delinquents, and Loners are Freaks. These “tropes” are a type of person or character that we see often enough to recognize. We understand, on some level, what traits each of these tropes entails.
You show us a Jerk Jock, we know he’s going to be a cocky manchild that is still inexplicably and illogically popular. A nerd will be book smart and get bullied. The Alpha Bitch will roll her eyes and walk around in name brands.
How about your character? Out of all the “high school tropes,” who are they in the hallways?
Are they only one of them?
If I were in school, I would have kept playing sports. That would make me a jock, but I always loved reading and writing too — so a nerd/jock?
What about the artists? The skinheads? Your “good, Christian boys” and your “ditzy hippie chicks”?
Tropes exist because they happen often. You can improve characterization by layering these tropes together to create a more faceted person. An artistic hippie nerd that champions track-and field? Yes, please!
Layering tropes wisely is step one to helping your characters stand out in a one-note crowd.
2. Cotes (see: pigeonholes)
What we believe about tropes — the traits we assign to particular roles — can be binding.
Jocks are proud, with a swagger and a million-dollar smile with dimples, right?
Cheerleaders are sexy and popular.
Nerds wear glasses and button-downs.
Pigeonholing is when we assign things or people to a tiny number of mutually exclusive categories. A jock must always be a jock — he must swagger, and he only cries the manliest of tears. He does not do art or watch cheesy rom coms, no siree.
The Breakfast Club was unique in its time as it took the pigeonholed tropes, and proceeded to make us see why humans can’t fit in only one category at a time.
Continuing with the jock as the example — handsome, all-American, sportsball player, swagger. Checks all the boxes.
Pigeonhole says he’s a genuine jerk who only cares about himself; his needs, his ego, his reputation…and maybe his ride, if he has one.
Jerk Jock-trope Andrew Clark doesn’t fit that description.
He grieves the things he does for approval, including bullying the resident nerd. Peer-pressure is breaking him, and he hates the person he becomes beneath that pressure. Dimples and swagger cover up depression, anxiety, and starvation for acceptance.
If you’re the Alpha Bitch, why are you so cruel? If you’re the Nerd, why are you studying so hard?
I am the artist, writer, and translator who humble-brags, and then tears down my own work because a moment of approval is better than being ignored.
What pigeonhole would people put your character in?
What problems make them break that mold?
Let’s swing back around to TVTropes, shall we?
“Tropes are not inherently disruptive to a story; however, when the trope itself becomes intrusive, distracting the viewer rather than serving as shorthand, it has become a cliché.” (TVTropes)
If The Breakfast Club has one place where it stands up in proudest defiance, it is the delicious destruction of core character clichés. Tropes exist because they happen often enough for people to take note of — clichés exist when we beat tropes into a well-worn path. TVTropes defines it this way:
“A cliché is a phrase, motif, trope, or other element within an artistic work that has become common enough to be seen as an expected part of a work.”
I would like to argue that the Salt Bae meme is on the verge of becoming a cliché. I don’t think I’ve picked up a new series in the last two years that didn’t have it somewhere, thanks to Japan’s obsession with food porn.
The Breakfast Club could very well have applied clichés in their character development process. If Delinquent-trope John Bender were really just a poor, misunderstood youth, well… yeah. We would expect that.
Instead, John Bender is proud. He’s arrogant. He’s got his problems, but he’s comfortable in his own skin. He has the swagger and charm we expect from a jock, instead of being particularly sullen and defiant.
Compare that to Jerk Jock-trope Andrew Clark, with his anxious pandering and weak bravado — classic nerd symptoms.
Clichés are classics without being timeless; they give no new information, and build nothing. When you see one popping up in your character, unless you absolutely need it for story reasons, subvert like your character’s life and liveliness depends on it.
One way to go about subverting clichés is to look for opposites. A more comedic example can be seen in the tsundere stereotype — a person who acts mean or callous, even violent, on the outside, but on the inside is a total doting marshmallow who wants to shower the people they love with gifts and affection. Tsundere characters usually get embarrassed easily, have a lot of pride, or over-inflated egos that make it difficult for them to act the way they want to without contradicting their self-image.
Remember that people are complex. Sometimes they might follow a cliché; but if they do, they have a reason.
Results May Vary (but that’s the best part)
In a school setting like The Breakfast Club, normally there would be multiples of each personality type. Jocks have their teams, cheerleaders have their squads, etc.
If the only thing notable about each jock or cheerleader was their hairstyle or color, maybe a sweater? Boy, that would get boring in a hurry.
Authors, like artists, are prone to same-face syndrome. We can write a lot of characters that end up looking, acting, and sounding alike if we aren’t careful. It’s easy to rely on clichés or well-known tropes to do our writing for us.
Not every cheerleader is a dumb blonde or a stuck-up rich girl. Not every nerd goes out for Star Wars and Math Olympics. Not every jock is a jerk with a million-dollar smile and swagger.
Next time you go to build a character, think well about your choices in Tropes, Cotes, and Clichés, and see what sort of person emerges from the other side.
Keep on going. Keep on hoping.