WRITING EXERCISE: Let’s get subversive

characterisation tropes

Okay, let’s be honest. We’ve all started writing a character only to realise that we’ve inadvertently borrowed traits from well-known, well-worn stereotypes or tropes.

In most cases, it’s down to not quite knowing your character well enough, and so we rely on tried and tested characteristics and quirks in an attempt to bring them to life or make them feel ‘real’. But often that ‘realness’ is actually just familiarity – the same character elements we’ve seen a zillion times before, which can make your character end up feeling two-dimensional and boring.

Gif of Obi Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith, surrounded by fire and lava, yelling "You were the chosen one!"

But it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start from scratch. In most cases a little tweakage and character analysis can help you elevate that trope-ish little critter into someone beautifully unique and fascinatingly original. Challenge yourself to break out of the safety zone of cookie cutter characters and make your fictional peeps a bit different. Mutate them into something unfamiliar. Humans are complex, unpredictable, weird, wonderful, immeasurably diverse entities. Look around you at your friends, family, enemies, coworkers, neighbours. Are any of them even remotely similar? Or do they each have their own set of traits, habits, tics, flaws and foibles that make them unique?

Chances are, no one you know in real life could be pigeonholed into one specific trope. To make a real person, we have to get a little bit more complicated than that. And it’s fine if your characters are born of a particular stereotype so long as you’re not relying entirely on overdone traits. It’s all too easy to unwittingly perpetuate damaging stereotypes and assumptions because your brain goes on autopilot and it’s so much easier to just grab ready-made character moulds off the shelf rather than come up with your own.

You know the type we’re talking about: the sassy gay best friend; the brooding loner; the socially-awkward genius; the wise elder; the nerdy girl who suddenly becomes drop dead gorgeous simply because she takes off her glasses. <sigh> Yeah. THOSE ones.

Gif of Rachel Leigh Cook in She's All That, wearing a tight red dress and heels, walking slowly down the stairs to meet a shocked Freddie Prinze Junior.

We’ve had enough of those. Not only are they boring, unimaginative, and repetitive, they’re often pretty offensive, and there is absolutely no need to be reusing these kinds of stock characters when your writerly mind contains a vast and varied array of ideas.

So here’s what you’re gonna do…

Pick a trope, any trope. The popular mean girl. The over-protective father. The nosy neighbour. The femme fatale. The hard-nosed boss. The eccentric scientist. The manic pixie dream girl. UGH.

(If you need a nudge, do yourself a google of ‘character tropes’ or check out this list or this one or this one.)

Take a minute to think of a few notable examples, or do some research on this particular stock character.

Then, take your trope and subvert the living heck out of it.

Spend 20 minutes brainstorming or free-writing around your chosen stereotype, finding ways to break away from the usual pattern and create a whole new character who is believable and distinctive, with their own idiosyncrasies and motivations and desires and all those juicy human things that make people UNIQUE.

Gif of Zoolander staring into his reflection in a puddle and asking, "Who am I?" The reflection replies, "I don't know."

Start with one aspect of the trope and twist it or flip it. What could your character do that would be totally unexpected of their stereotype? What expectations might other people have of this character, and why, and how can you surprise them? Can you throw your stereotype into a completely unrelated or conflicting situation and see what happens? 

Gradually move away from the 2D version of your stereotype and start to give your character LAYERS. What are their bad habits, their hobbies, their faults, their most joyful memories? How might your character’s life experiences have affected their personality? What motivates your character? What do they want? What do they need? What are they running from? What are they hiding…?

Take 20 minutes to build up your brand new – totally not stereotypical – character, then launch them into your fictional world and see what they do.


Snarf your way through this excellent list of ‘literary would-you-rathers‘ and see how many tropes you can spot. ENJOY!

Jo Gatford

Jo Gatford

Jo is a writer who procrastinates about writing by writing about writing. She looks exactly like her avatar.
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