Open Thread: Conventions in Fiction that Need to Stop

(by chris the cynic)

After having the character Elsa in the movie Frozen say “You can’t marry a man you just met,” there was a general response of, “About time, Disney,” and also this:


Other princesses respond.

Other princesses respond.

The movie has multiple characters expound on the idea of getting to know someone first, and (mild spoiler I guess) it doesn’t end with a single wedding.  The, “We’ve just met, it’s clearly true love, let’s get married right NOW,” that is so traditional to Disney movies does not appear.  Instead it gets taken down.

What are some other common things in fiction that you think need someone, say an Elsa, to stand up to them and say, “No.  Bad idea,” or at the very least have opposition shown to them?


28 thoughts on “Open Thread: Conventions in Fiction that Need to Stop

  1. Ana Mardoll (@AnaMardoll) January 25, 2014 at 8:44 am

    I just finished Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. And I liked it fine and generally recommend it.

    But there were several plot arcs where someone would come up with a Plan B (“if I don’t make it, I need you to…”) and people would outright refuse to listen because the mere presence of a Plan B meant that they’d given up and wouldn’t try hard enough and would fail.

    I HATE THAT TROPE. Not least because I’ve had had Plans B through Z since I was a little kid.

  2. christhecynic January 25, 2014 at 9:27 am

    First episode of Leverage:

    Nate: Now get to the elevator and head down. We’re going to the burn scam.
    Hardison: Going to Plan B?
    Nate: Technically, that would be Plan G.
    Hardison: How many plans do we have? Is there, like, a Plan M?
    Nate: Yeah. Hardison dies in Plan M.
    Eliot: I like Plan M.

  3. christhecynic January 25, 2014 at 9:51 am

    Also, of course, does no one ever think, “If we don’t have a backup plan then I’ll be so stressed out about what will happen if I fail that I won’t be able to stay focused and thus end up dead. ARE YOU TRYING TO GET ME KILLED!?”

  4. Lonespark January 25, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    Argh, yes, so right. There are options between “Everything goes according to Plan A,” and “Just frakking wing it.”

  5. Shannon C. January 25, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    To no one’s surprise, I would love to see the inspirational cripple trope vanish into iniquity where it belongs. In fiction, if the able bodied characters spend all their time marveling at a PWD’s capability to function normally, it doesn’t give that person with a disability the chance to be awesome.

    In fact, most disability narratives piss me off. We’re either portrayed as just moping around until the manic pixie dream person we didn’t know we needed enters our lives in order to give them meaning, or we’re being proactive and doing what we want but that’s so amaaaaaaaaazing and doesn’t really benefit us because doing so merely serves to inspire the able bodied friends of the people with disabilities to go out and reach for their dreams, too. (Also it inspires people in real life to come up to me and tell me how amazing it is that I do normal things like commuting to work or going to Starbucks or whatever it is I’m doing that those people do as a matter of course, which is an expression of pity masked as a compliment and… just… argh!)

    In my own writing, I have resisted trying to write about people with disabilities because I don’t want to tell either of those stories. But it would help if I saw more fiction where the disabled characters just do their thing and occasionally are awesome for some reason that has nothing to do with their disability superpowers. That’s the kind of stories that would inspire *me*, and I’ve given up believing that they exist.

  6. christhecynic January 25, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    For all of its many problems I don’t remember either of those narratives showing up in Alien Resurrection. The guy paralyzed from the waist down was just a guy, who happened to be paralyzed from the waist down.

    The asshole was an asshole to him, the nice people were nice to him, the indifferent people were indifferent to him, and he was a mechanic.

  7. christhecynic January 25, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    I’m not a big fan of, “There are two to four dirty cops who are only able to do their evil because of the willingness of the other cops to violate procedure,” movies that end with, “We caught the two to four dirty cops, everything is good now.”

    What about all of the other cops whose job it was to stand up and say, “No, that’s fucking illegal. We’re cops for fuck’s sake, let’s not break the law,” but instead went, “Law breaking, all for it! So long as I don’t think you’re [in on whatever the criminal action is this movie], of course.” Why are their flagrant violations of everything they’re supposed to stand for, uphold, and protect just brushed aside because they weren’t [being bribed, stealing, dealing drugs, whatever]?

    Doesn’t the fact that they were willing to violate every oath they ever took when they weren’t getting anything out of it mean they’re even more morally suspect than the ones who only did it because there was some ill gotten gain to be had. The “dirty cops” broke the laws and procedures and such for a reason. The allegedly clean ones apparently did it for shits and giggles.

    Just once I’d like to see one of those movies where all of the cops who broke the law got hauled off to jail at the end.

    “What are you doing? I wasn’t in on it.”
    “No, but you followed clearly illegal orders (often putting innocents at risk) and that’s kind of, sort of, illegal.”

  8. Coleslaw January 25, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    I wish the “couple meets, fight all the time about everything there is to fight about, so it turns out they fall in love” convention would die. Die a peaceful death, maybe, but die nonetheless.

    I’m also not a fan of precocious children in fiction. I realize that they are far easier to write about and portray than average children, not to mention far more coherent, but they don’t represent the real problems and concerns of children, only of adults, just in a cuter package. I wouldn’t mind the precocious movie tykes so much if they existed only as a very small subset of children in movies, the way they do in real life.

  9. Shannon C. January 25, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    Chris: You could take it a step further. I hate it when the author uses the premise that everyone is basically sheep and it is “human nature” not to stand up for what’s right if charismatic people make it so doing so would be inconvenient. Especially if that trope is used to justify the awesomeness of your lead characters. I always want to know why people are just going along, even when it’s demonstrably obvious that to do so is wrong. You can’t just leave it at, “They were sheep and too scared to change the status quo” without explaining why that should be and what they got out of not doing so.

  10. Lonespark January 25, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    I can’t think of that many characters with disabilities in stuff I’ve seen and read…

    The first person I thought of was the wheelchair-using jerk ex-boyfriend in…some movie. I think it’s There’s Something About Mary, but I think I’ve tried to to forget that movie, so I don’t remember much about him.

    Then there’s a trio of blind characters who can “see” using another sense or sensing ability:
    (CN: disability resulting from purposeful mutilation)

    Toph Beifong in Avatar, the Last Airbender (and Legend of Korra flashbacks) is very awesome, funny and a badass with a pretty complex background and personality for an animated kids show.

    Tulo in The Burning City (Book 2 of the Spirit Binders series by the incomparable Alaya Dawn Johnson) is blind and can see spirits. She is a princess who was blinded by her people for that purpose, and her background is a complex mixture of pain and privilege and oppression and xenophobia and sex and love and magic and…stuff.

    (Both in that book and The Summer King ADJ rocks the OT3, with love and lust and loss and sacrifice in m/m, f/f, m/f, m/m/f, and f/f/m varieties… The only other pro author I’ve read who did something similar was N. K. Jemisin, in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods. Those relationships are a bit different because they involve gods, but similarly awesome…)

    Oree Shoth in The Broken Cities is a blind artist who can see magic, whose old flame is a godling, who comes from a diasporic culture and struggles economically, and uses a special power she discovers to help save a big chunk of her world. (She also has an incredibly awesome kid who features in the next book…)

  11. Shannon C. January 25, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    @Lonespark: You are an evil book enabler! That’s twice today you’ve made me really want to read something RIGHT NOW! 😀

    That being said, I find the “blind person who can see what others can’t” meme to be problematic, too. I know it’s kindly meant, which is the problem with lots of disability tropes, really, which is why they are hard to get rid of. The problem is that it’s erasing. It comes from a place where the creators are like, “So I have this blind character. It would be awful to be blind, and without sight, there is no way this person could find something useful to contribute. I know, voila, now she sees auras/energy/dead people/whathaveyou. Because she sees something, now she can be a contributing member of society, plus her disability grants her a superpower!”

    This portrayal doesn’t make me see myself represented in the works. I don’t have superpowers. I wouldn’t even say that my other senses are much stronger to compensate for the lack of vision, though that is a common cultural meme in and of itself. And there are days I am not smilingly cheerful about the fact that it’s damned inconvenient not to be able to see, but all the discourse we have around disability seems to indicate that I should be. (As an aside, I’ve always been blind, so I do not particularly regret never having seen a sunset, or painting with all the colors of the wind or whatever.)

    I would love to read a story in which the blind character really can’t see anything. Not ghosts or auras or anything, and if she had to have a superpower, couldn’t the author have it related to other senses? Maybe she’s an extremely good listener and has been able to develop something of an eidetic memory for conversations. Maybe she’s good at herb lore, being able to tell plants by their touch and smell and taste. Maybe she could be the power behind the throne because she is often overlooked and so has occasion to pay attention more and more subtly manipulate people because they don’t expect her to.

    LOL I should clearly try to write this story myself rather than complain about things I haven’t read on the Internet, shouldn’t I?

  12. depizan January 25, 2014 at 11:58 pm

    I’m tired of the plot in which a secret group manipulates two other groups/powers into conflict. It can be well done, but nine times out of ten, it just makes the two manipulated groups look willfully stupid. If Side A knows they haven’t done the things Side B is accusing them of, and Side B knows they haven’t done the things Side A is accusing them of…why doesn’t occur to them that maybe, just maybe someone else (even a splinter faction of one side or the other) is doing both sets of things. Worse, most of the time, even when someone else (like the hero) points out that this could be true, both sides still deny the possibility.

    The problem is, there’s usually no reason at all for the two sides to not even consider that they’re being manipulated. And that might be realistic – people and groups sometimes are that willfully stupid – but it’s one of those instances where, at least for me, what’s realistic and what actually seems plausible are not the same.

  13. christhecynic January 26, 2014 at 6:11 am

    Daredevil tries to have the title superhero’s powers based on his other senses but I kind of feel like they just gave him his sight back via making him a human echolocator (depending on the version this may or may not be at a superpower level). Human echolocation is totally a real thing, and it would be very wrong to claim that there are not blind people who use it to great effect, but it feels to me like it’s just being, “We want a blind superhero. Ok, how can we have him see?”

    I am pretty sure there are things, things that I cannot currently think of, where a blind character was able to use the fact that ze was used to not seeing to zir advantage. (Turn out the lights or some such.)

    I have in mind a story that does something like that when a supernatural fog rolls into town that simply cannot be seen through at all. The story starts with two characters completely stranded because as sighted individuals they have no idea how to get to their homes without seeing. Then one of them calls a blind friend and asks to be led home. Before they make it all the way the monsters come out and the plot is on.

    The problem is that I haven’t really worked out much of the plot. Basically all I’ve got is that for a change the fog is good. The monsters are all sighted, the fog is severely hampering their ability to eat people.

    Sneakers had a blind person, inspired by (but not a fictional version of) an actual blind person, whose hearing was incredibly useful for dealing with electronics.

  14. Shannon C. January 26, 2014 at 11:09 am

    Oh, yes. I’m sure echolocation in Daredevil isn’t used the way the blind people I know use it. (I mostly use it to figure out where buildings are when I’m outside, which will probably never come in handy if I’m called on to fight crime.

    Oh yes. That story idea is awesome. I would love to read it!

  15. Lonespark January 26, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    Ooops, in my last paragraph above it’s supposed to be The Broken Kingdoms.

    Yeah, I wanted to say something about blind characters who see magic and stuff, but I figured I didn’t really have any particular insight beyond, “That is problematic, yo!”

    Toph lives in a world where she’s disabled due to blindness and a has a superpower because she’s an earthbender. And is, in fact one of the greatest earthbenders ever. But she still lives in a world where writing is calligraphy in ink on paper, and it’s never really addressed whether someone has come up with characters for the blind or anything. There are lots of other benders, some of whom are also prodigies… Azula is tricky because she’s clearly a prodigy and clearly disabled by the end, but her mental illness is interwoven with the abuse she survives and perpetrates… There’s also Teo, who is physically disabled and lacks superpowers and is an all-around good guy, but he’s a minor character, and mostly none of them get developed enough to fully express their awesome.

    Tulo I would say is absolutely a many-faceted character, even though we never get to hear her point of view because she’s the friend and lover of one of the series’ narrators. There’s a lot of physical variation in the books. A major character who sets many of the events of the story in motion is a young girl who is deaf and struggles to build a fulfilling life while her brother tries to shelter her. There are people who are magical, such as the protagonist’s lover who is a water-being, who therefore have different strengths and weaknesses than humans. The protagonist grows wings as a result of a deal with a spirit, which is painful, and in cultures where shirts are worn (not all the ones in the book) she’s yet more of an Other… There two other major characters who sacrifice parts of limbs and go on living their complex lives… And there is a family of congenitally deaf people who are important but not much developed in the books that actually got published… I recommend the books especially due to the many awesome female characters, including protagonists and antagonists and political and religious leaders.

    Oree Shoth… I had a hard time connecting, not with her as a characters, but with that book’s plot and her part in it, and Jemisin had a blog post discussing her authorial choices here: and it includes the following quote: “I wanted her blindness to be part of her identity, as unremarkable as her gender or race… but by constructing her blindness as the result of her magic, I not only made it remarkable, I emphasized its abnormality… Doh.”

  16. Lonespark January 26, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    LOL I should clearly try to write this story myself rather than complain about things I haven’t read on the Internet, shouldn’t I?

    You should absolutely do both of these things.

  17. Lonespark January 26, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Also, Whistler is Sneakers is a fun all-around character. I do wish they’d got a blind actor to play him, despite how awesome David Strathairn is… I did think they did a great job of showing how his many talents, some of which were directly related to navigating as a blind person in a sighted world, were used to great effect by a team that valued each one of its members.

    And and and… the other thing I was going to mention was that I’ve seen the ASL film In The Can and… I don’t know what to say about it, although I enjoyed the experience. I have a friend who saw and loved it who speaks ASL, whereas I don’t at all, so I had to rely on subtitles.

  18. Lonespark January 26, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    A think that needs to stop or at least be called out is “heroic” sacrifices that are pointless, or could be rendered unnecessary through better planning.

  19. christhecynic January 26, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    “You’ve saved the world, let’s erase your memory.”

    Or for that matter, “Any fucking thing at all, let’s erase your memory.”

    Needs to end outside of darkest horror. (Which I avoid anyway so you can have whatever you want there.)

  20. christhecynic January 26, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    On heroic sacrifices, there is a convention for one person to stay behind to buy the others time and then have the others not use that time, often times going so far as to stand around gawking at their compatriot’s attempt to buy them time rather than actually using the time to do something useful (flee, save the world, whatever) and thus make the sacrifice meaningful.

    This bugs me. It made it into my guide to making bad movies for the sci-fi channel as one of the various things not to do.

    If person A is giving up their life to buy person B and friends time to [do thing] and person B decides they’d rather watch person A die than [do thing] at the absolute least someone needs to harshly point out to person B that they’re making person A’s sacrifice completely meaningless and also a general disgrace to humanity/[whatever species they happen to be] for being such an asshole as to treat person A’s oncoming death not as an opportunity to do good like person A wants but instead something to stand around and watch, possibly with popcorn.

  21. Shannon C. January 26, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    I hate how “someone just comes around and wipes out the memories of all the mundanes” is trope in urban fantasy. Just once, I want the memory police to not come in time and for humanity to realize the supernatural does live among them and freak the hell out.

  22. Firedrake January 27, 2014 at 3:24 am

    Shannon C (first post), that sounds just like the Magical Negro to me. Hollywood seems to attract people who can’t have original ideas any more.

    chris, Blind Fury (Rutger Hauer, 1989) is something of a Zatoichi ripoff, but plays fair: our hero is an echolocating swordsman, but the blindness does still limit what he can do in other respects. (And the climactic scene involves him suddenly turning out the lights just as all the bad guys are about to attack, which is what reminded me of this.)

    also chris, agreed on memory erasure being horror. It’s bad enough when the heroes have to stop living in the really exciting and interesting place and go back to being normal people for no readily explained reason (Narnia); it’s even worse when their memories are taken away too.

    also Shannon C (6.08pm): I’m going to expand on that and say “tropes that are there for narrative convenience”. In a typical urban fantasy, one of the important points is the contrast between mundane life and super special cool life; it’s that same “we are the special people and nobody knows” fantasy that RTC literature plays to. If people did know, that wouldn’t work any more, and the author would have to do a bunch of real-world worldbuilding. The less lazy way of doing this, I think, is to have the protagonists spending lots of time covering up what they do, but then it becomes a major plot element in itself.

  23. christhecynic January 28, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Ana has an entire post on one called, I Don’t Want To Be Apocalypse Eve.

    If someone, for some reason, doesn’t want to follow the link it’s this convention:

    “Most of the human race has died off, you must now surrender your bodily autonomy to become a baby making machine so we can repopulate.”

  24. froborr January 30, 2014 at 9:07 am

    On having multiple plans, from the most recent session of an RPG I’ve been in, where we’re trying to figure out how to enter a secure location:

    Me: How about we just walk up, get captured, then break out after they’ve brought us through their own security?
    Other player: …let’s call that plan B.
    Me: Cool, let’s go.
    Other player: Uh… shouldn’t we have a plan A first?
    Me: Pfft. I never bother with plan A. It never works anyway, so you may as well just come up with plan B and call it a day.

    And now back to reading this comment thread…

  25. Lonespark January 30, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Hehehe. Plans A-Q with subplans are good…maybe a flowchart? But yeah, getting captured should be up there, since it’s what happens when things go wrong (and you don’t die…)

  26. Firedrake January 30, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    In a Japanese fantasy RPG, Lee Gold (I believe it was) came up with Plan Z: “After we’re all killed, we meet up in the next incarnation and…”

  27. froborr January 30, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    The more I think about it, the more I realize “Why bother with Plan A?” pretty much sums up my life. I basically live one long Indy Ploy. Yay for learned helplessness.

  28. Lonespark January 31, 2014 at 5:28 am

    “After we’re all killed, we meet up in the next incarnation and…”


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