Moving On with “The Breakfast Club”

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.

“You see us as you want to see us—in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…and an athlete…and a basket case…a princess…and a criminal.”

~The Breakfast Club (1985)

1. Tropes

If you ask “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?

3. Clichés

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.”
Salt Bae Meme

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.

Salt Bae: That Time I Reincarnated as a Slime Version

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.

Yours always,

~Aviva Godfrey

A Good Look Back

NaNoWriMo’s website is doing a running activity to help all their users cope as we weather through COVID-19’s storm. There is usually a daily activity for the individual categories of mental, physical, social, and creative health; though I haven’t been participating in this (I am never at a loss for projects), today’s checklist for creative health was to “explore a new creative outlet” and let yourself experience being a beginner again.

Normally I would take that as permission to finally sit down and start trying that doll-refurbishing hobby I’ve been trying to get into, but alas, just don’t have the time to add another new thing to my overflowed plate. 😅

Instead, I want to share with you some of the development history of my thesis project, The Flower Key Rebellion.

In late 2004 or early 2005, when I was but a wee 13-year-old bab, I was in the midst of a prolonged move with my family. My father was hired by a company that had us move from Arizona back to Texas, but then left him cold and job-searching. We lived in a 40′ fifth-wheel camper for several months, three of us plus three dogs, a cat, and a parakeet. It was in this arc of my life — a permanent transition phase with nowhere to go for peace and alone time — that I retreated to writing. It was a way to be alone in my head, even if I couldn’t be alone in real life. What started out as a Beyblade fanfiction called Sokaiuan Stars eventually tickled my imagination so much it became an original story; and it was in that noisy, chaotic environment, just like a big bang, this story for the stars was born.

I was very “Greek mythology”-inspired. Beginning-writer Me thought “everyone’s wearing Greek clothes!” was a good idea. And picking “fantasy-like names!” + “difficult spelling makes it more fantasy, right?”

Are you cringing as hard as I am, yet? 😂

It seems the old documents have been lost to time, but I specifically recall how my character profiles could be measured on the page at about three inches (or 7 cm) square. Name, age, title, likes and dislikes… and somehow, I thought that was plenty.

I was happy with my “Planet of Hats”-like approach, and creating new names was fun, and my mother seemed so impressed with the first few chapters I spun out for her. She encouraged me over and over to keep going, to write more… and yet the process stagnated. I wrote more fanfiction. I wrote a wider range of fanfiction, moving on to series like Naruto and Inuyasha. I wrote romances until reality and age caught up with me, and then the focus gradually shifted to adventure and intrigue.

In 2009 the story got its first major overhaul, and started looking quite a bit more like it does today. This was around the time I picked up art; the goal was simply, “Learn to draw my characters legibly enough to create references for actually skilled artists.”

Whenever I drew something with more than one character, I felt like I’d turned out a new masterpiece… ngl, I still feel that way. Eventually, I drew more than I wrote… and so, once again, the story fell by the wayside.

I finished Phantom at 75k words, making it my first book ever, just before leaving for college in summer of 2010. I finished Quill at 40k words, making it my first novella, before that year was out. I wrote fanfiction casually, wrote occasionally on commission, but art became a bigger part of my life. In just a few years, my skills as an artist grew to a point where I could get commissions, and so I drew even more — this time as my job. But sometimes, I would start thinking about this story again… and so more development would happen at random. Just a small spattering; concepts for villains, art for my characters, an attempt at a comic that ended because my attention just couldn’t stay on it long enough.

Further development was inspired by my World Literature course in college, where the teacher had us read the Sonjara — a transcribed African oratory epic. Fascinated, I soon found myself in the third major overhaul for the Kitheriyan Chronicles universe, restructuring each of the realms to cover as much of the world’s major ethnicities as possible — including Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

From a “Galaxy of Hats” (because pfft, why should I limit myself to just one planet?) to a highly diverse system of cultures, and from mini-profiles to three-pages-and-counting… Fifteen years of development, and yet, I still look at the pages and wonder if I’m good enough to write this story yet. I still wonder if I’ll be able to do these characters justice, knowing them as well as I do. I’ve had a longer acquaintance with these kids than with most of the actual people in my life! 😂 Even when I’ve been doing this for years, I still feel like an amateur… a silly beginner, prattling off about her original characters.

I’ll tell all of you what I have to tell myself on a daily basis — it’s ok, just do it. It can be a mess, and you may have to do it over again a dozen times. It’s okay if you lay something on the page and all you see is flaws. Refine it over time, just as you, as a person, are being refined over time. Wine isn’t made just by putting it in a bottle. Houses aren’t built just by raising a frame. Stories aren’t written by just slapping words on a page, and humans don’t mature just by breathing.

Allow yourself the time, and use your persistence. Effort and progress are something seen after your mistakes are made, so go be a beginner.

Keep on going. Keep on hoping.

~Aviva Godfrey

The Flower Key Rebellion — The First 30 Days

Yesterday marked 30 consecutive days of writing on The Flower Key Rebellion! I’m celebrating!

It’s been years since I was able to face my writing so seriously and consistently. Being able to track my progress with the tools on the NaNoWrimo website has made a huge difference, honestly. 💕

At 30 Days, I’m about two days’ worth of writing ahead — which is practically a miracle, considering how many days behind I was for a while there. After several days spent writing to the exclusion of most else, I finally caught up and surpassed the trajectory goal, and now I am 22,000 words deep. It’s only a quarter of the way through the first book, but the sense of accomplishment at having been consistent for so long now is amazing!

A lot of changes have happened, even as I worked on this draft. I even started out labelling the volumes I and II Chronicle. They have individual names now — The Gathering and The Scattering.

The first chapter has been an interesting trip all this time, but I’ve added more scenes, more information, and even dared to mention characters that won’t make an appearance yet — *le gasp*! But it’s amazing how freeing and telling it’s been, how informative, how much connection has been built, just by going ahead and bringing in those characters.

As an example, imagine that you have a main character that’s been written as a loner the whole book, and then 3/4ths of the way through… GASP, their best friend that was off attending basic training for the military returns home! But… author, dear author, your character apparently hasn’t thought about them or had their actions influenced by them even once this whole time…?

Amplify that by (at least) four times and you have what I’m doing here. 😂

It’s great to see the connections our main characters have with other people affecting them organically. A natural connection, a quiet, familiar connection… people aren’t built in a plastic bubble, and seeing how others have made their mark on you(r character) is a beautiful thing indeed.

There have also been redesigns! Again! But I think I’m finally throwing off the last vestiges of under-thinking from this story’s earlier incarnations, thank God. 😅 Here’s hoping you’ll love them as much as I do once I get them drawn. 💖

Keep on going. Keep on hoping.

~Aviva Godfrey

The Flower Key Rebellion: I Chronicle, Underway!

New year, and at last I enter the classes connected to my thesis project!

Kitheriyan Chronicles series, The Flower Key Rebellion: I Chronicle, is up to just over 2k words on it’s current draft. I don’t think I can even count how many times I’ve started and restarted — a good half-dozen, at least — but I’m quite pleased with the direction it’s headed this time. I actually went back to my very oldest draft (in my memory, because I don’t think the document even exists anymore) and used the opening frame I employed there. So much better!

If you would like to follow along on the progress, I’m currently tracking my efforts on NaNoWrimo’s website, as it has ways for you to record time and word count, etc. on projects. 💖

Chapter 1 has just come to a close, and today begins Chapter 2. It sounds so early! It’s hard to think of all the drafts, research, and background work put into the story when the word count currently related to it is so small, but I hope you will all keep an eye out for it. 💕

Keep on Going. Keep on Hoping.

~Aviva G.

Storytelling Class + Choosing a Tale

I kind of plaster it everywhere (I’m a little proud of myself; just a little), but I’m attending Southern New Hampshire University online, working on my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Well, I upped my class load to two this semester and it’s a little hairy getting started… but I think I’ll manage. Hopefully.

*cue internal screaming*

But well, in my Storytelling class it’s time to start pitching the idea that’s going to evolve into our thesis project — a full-on novel! I’m sure it’s super scary for a lot of my classmates if it’s their first time. If it were my first time, I’d be like, “OMG WHAT DO I DO.”

I still kind of was feeling like “OMG What do I do?” but thankfully I overthink everything.

So while I have pages up and labeled Coming Soon for All-Purpose Junkie and Happy Angel!, I’ve decided to work on the epic fantasy that’s been stalking me for 15 years.

Kitheriyan Chronicles: The Flower Key Rebellion

Kitheriyan Chronicles is, properly, the series name. The Flower Key Rebellion is the centerpiece, the original inspiration for this universe; and from it blooms a myriad of stories that I can’t wait to write for you. I may not have a book to hand you right off, but small mercies, I’ve been hoarding art for the characters for ages. Take a look around the gallery and look forward.

Keep on Going. Keep on Hoping.

~Aviva G.