Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

Recently, I’ve become more interested in character development and how certain themes recur across multiple works. In my fiction writings, I’ve tried to incorporate new means of storytelling to give more depth to my characters and plots. This led me to start researching popular story devices and character tropes. Tropes are common, recognizable themes, plot devices, or archetypes in various media. For example, the concept of a five-man band, where a group of characters embodies archetypes that produce multiple dynamics (think “Sailor Moon” or “Avatar: The Last Airbender”). Or the archetypal story structure of the hero’s journey. Although tropes are extremely useful and entertaining when done well, many walk the line between iconic and cliche. For this article, I’ll focus on plot devices and character tropes that we tend to see in books, TV shows, and movies. In no particular order, here are some tropes that I think should have been left in the past. 

  1. Death by Flashback 

Let’s start with the trope that sent me into just enough rage to write this article, Death by Flashback. This occurs when a character receives a flashback sequence that explains elements of their backstory just before being killed off. It’s typically used to create empathy for a character so their death will hit the audience harder. However, it usually just comes across as lazy, especially if it’s a side character that didn’t really impact the story (which explains why they weren’t developed by the time they died). 

Death GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
  1. Women in Refrigerators 

Typically associated with a 1994 issue of “Green Lantern,” Women in Refrigerators (or “Fridging”) is a term for when a male character’s loved one, typically a woman, is hurt in some way to motivate him. Aside from the misogynistic nature of this trope, one of the main problems I have with it is that someone has to be harmed in order to motivate a character. It seems to skip over other means of motivating a character — money, status, self-improvement, literally anything else — and goes straight to “harm the women closest to them” way too fast for my liking. 

Classic Film Summer GIF by Warner Archive - Find & Share on GIPHY
  1. The Makeover

This classic trope of giving an “ugly” character a makeover has really begun to bother me in the last few years. There’s just something about giving a character a makeover, typically against their will, to appease some third party that grinds my gears. Whether it’s for a crush or societal expectations, changing someone’s physical appearance so they’ll be better perceived feels like hollow storytelling above all else. 

Glow Up Anne Hathaway GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
  1. Easy Amnesia

Despite amnesia being incredibly rare in real life, fiction utilizes it quite frequently as a plot device. In many cases on TV, the character’s amnesia will be magically cured by the end of the episode, which does absolutely nothing for the overall plot. Also, the type of amnesia that gets used is almost always retrograde amnesia (where someone can’t remember past events or information) and makes the character conveniently only forget the time frame the creator needs them to. While characters having amnesia isn’t necessarily bad on its own, the way it’s currently utilized in media could definitely use some work. 

I Dont Know No Idea GIF by BBC - Find & Share on GIPHY
  1. MacGuffins

MacGuffins are objects, people, or events which motivate characters in a story but don’t hold any plot significance of their own. Some examples include the Holy Grail, the plans for the Death Star, and many others. This trope is the embodiment of “it’s about the journey, not the destination,” and I still have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, MacGuffins serve as constant character motivation in a story and keep the audience engaged. But on the other hand, finally reaching the destination can easily become lackluster if it’s not pulled off in a satisfying way. 

Pulp Fiction GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
  1. It Was All Just a Dream

As the name suggests, this is a trope that reveals that the events of a story were actually taking place in a character’s dream the whole time. Classic examples of this are stories like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” While creators can do this trope well, most of the time, it cheapens the events in the story in favor of having a twist ending. 

Alice In Wonderland Disney GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
  1. Damsels in Distress

The main issue I have with this trope is the fact that the damsel typically never tries to free themselves and essentially gets turned into a temporary MacGuffin in the process. Not to mention, making a character a damsel usually puts them out of commission for a large part of the story. This results in a sidelined, typically female character with little to no agency. Like many tropes on this list, this can be done well, but that’s unfortunately infrequent. 

Scared Silent Film GIF by Buyout Footage - Find & Share on GIPHY
  1. The Token Minority

This is a pretty recognizable trope, but a standard definition is when a character belonging to a minority is included in a piece of media just so the media is more marketable to minority groups. The token minority’s only personality trait is usually the part of their identity that makes them a minority in the first place. For example, a token Black character’s only true characterization is that they’re Black. They don’t really exist outside of that and don’t contribute much to the story. In fact, they’re often used as comic relief. If creators start adding diverse characters with fully fleshed-out stories and personalities, this trope could easily be laid to rest. 

Speaking Token Black GIF by South Park  - Find & Share on GIPHY
  1. Bury Your Gays

This trope is pretty much what it says on the box: killing off queer characters at a higher rate than non-queer ones. This trope stems from a history of homophobia in media and the Hays Code, which enforced censorship. Despite being relatively underrepresented in media, when queer (or queer-coded) characters are introduced, they tend to be among the first to be killed off or otherwise indisposed. Not to mention, these characters’ deaths seem to be completely unnecessary or avoidable. Based on this, I feel like this trope should and can easily be put to an end. 

Fox Broadcasting GIF by Gotham - Find & Share on GIPHY
  1. Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Despite being turned into a joke lately, the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is one that 100% deserves to be on this list. Although I used to love this trope, I just find these characters annoying in my adulthood. The MPDG is an eccentric woman whose personality serves to brighten the male protagonist’s life. She’ll often dress in a less traditional style, listen to obscure music, and just overall serve to bring color to the otherwise dull outlook of the protagonist. The real problem with this trope is that the woman is weird and high on life as a means of benefitting other characters, not herself. It’s perfectly fine to find this character trope enjoyable, but it’s just not for me. 

Natalie Portman Dancing GIF by Searchlight Pictures - Find & Share on GIPHY

A lot of the tropes on this list are very popular and can be done well, but I personally believe we’ve evolved beyond needing them. If you want to know more about tropes in media, I highly recommend watching Trope Talk and checking out the TV Tropes website!

Samantha is an Editorial Assistant and Contributing Writer for CU Boulder's chapter of Her Campus. In her editorial position, she edits articles for clarity and provides guidance to other writers so they can improve their skills. As a contributing writer, she submits two articles per month, often writing in depth about social phenomena. Aside from Her Campus, Samantha is a senior at CU Boulder, double majoring in philosophy and sociology. She's currently working on an Honors Thesis in philosophy and hopes to go to law school after graduating in May 2024. She is involved in campus organizations like the Miramontes Arts and Sciences Program, the CU LA Program, and the Honors Program. This semester, she’s a mentor for learning assistants as an LA Mentor. Outside of a school setting, Samantha enjoys crocheting, reading, and writing. Overall, she’s very quiet, and her hobbies reflect that. She can usually be found with heaps of yarn or her nose buried in a book, silently enjoying her time alone. In addition to writing as a member of Her Campus, she enjoys writing short stories and pieces about her life. One of her biggest goals is to publish a book of stories and pieces that almost act as a memoir.