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Character sterotypes and expected behaviour

Pre-warning: this is not going to be some deep insightful post, just some things I have been thinking about.

I have been reading a lot of books lately, both published and unpublished, and have found myself responding in ways I did not expect. Firstly to a book I got out of the library – there were two characters having that stereotypical ‘get-off-on-the-wrong-foot-clash-lots-but-develop-feelings-for-one-another’ type thing. This is a fantasy novel, and the characters are behaving in ways I have read before, so when I finish the book, and they’ve been taken out of each others worlds for the time being, I wonder what is going to happen next. So I looked to see if the next book was available at the library, it’s out, but the blurb mentions that she starts a relationship with someone she meets.

This frustrated me. I felt a little ripped off that after building all this tension and potential between two characters for pretty much the whole first book, she just goes out and starts sleeping with someone else. And yet part of me is going ‘but that’s not what you expected, so it should be good, right?’

But it doesn’t feel good.

Which made me think about cliches in fantasy and how even though they can be overused, when you set one up and then don’t follow it through, it’s disappointing. I don’t know whether these two get together in the end or not, and it may not matter if I do decide to read on.

In a different series, one of my favourites, there are two characters who have a similar relationship – and they don’t get together in any of the books I’ve read yet, but the promise is there, it’s been stated by them on a few occasions. When her husband is dead, when everything else has disappeared, these two will still be living and they will be together, and he can wait for her, knowing that’s the case. And I’m satisfied by that.

Then just this last week I was reading a horror novel where I was sure that a young boy was going to turn around and mutilate the woman who was ‘saving’ him. He didn’t. I was disappointed.

And again I had to think – ‘I was expecting that, and was given the unexpected, so how come I’m disappointed?’

I would have felt much more satisfied had he done so, despite the fact that it would then have been a sideline story tidying up what happened to the girl character and the ending would have had to be totally different. Reading horror, I come to expect a few things, and I guess this was one of them. There was a threat there, one that didn’t pay off.

So what is my point? I guess for me, I have to say that cliches and stereotypes become that for a reason, they can be used effectively. I’m totally not saying that we should all resort to using them, but if you’re going to, give that pay off! In fact, that goes for any story really. Don’t lead me to expect something and then switch it up, unless you’re going to do so in a way that would be more satifsying than the expected payoff. It’s frustrating and ultimately leaves the reader wanting.

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6 thoughts on “Character sterotypes and expected behaviour”

  1. That comes right back to the rule of Chekov’s Gun, and reader expectation. If you pull out a gun, the reader expects it to be used. If it’s not used, you have not lived up to reader expectation.

    There are certain story tropes that come up again and again, and we expect them. Why do all romance stories start with boy meets girl and end with boy + girl = happy? Because that’s what you expect. Fail to deliver, and you fail.

    Even following a standard rule, you can still write a good story. The freshness, the ‘new and different’ comes from the characters and the plot and the setting and the prose.

    It’s what surrounds the story that makes it good or bad, not the basic story.

    Wow, that was an essay 🙂 Great topic!

  2. Ah, good old tropes.

    I can highly recommend, if you have, oh lets say a year to waste, tvtropes.org – its filled with this kind of things.

    Its not just t shows it covers, but movies, books, comics etc, and heavily weighed towards the geek side of things.

    Its very easy to get lost in there for hours 🙂

  3. It seems to me, though, that in the real world, boy doesn’t not always win girl and sometimes doesn’t even meet girl (or vice versa). If a piece of fiction is supposed to tell us something about life, then relying on a trope or expectation is a bit phoney.

    1. Is fiction meant to tell us about real life?

      This is a fantasy novel I was reading, not a real world novel, and I am inclined to think that fantasy is more about escaping the real world than reflecting it.

      If a writer makes a promise to the reader, they should fulfill it, or have a very good reason not to – I’m not sure if the reason is good in this particular series because I haven’t read the next book yet.

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