Updated: May 23, 2020
It’s not as easy as it sounds. While tropes, clichés and stereotypes might be easy to spot in others work, they can become embedded in our psyches and spill out into the stories we tell.
While preparing for a panel discussion on the subject I realised how many tropes I’d inadvertently included in my own work, including the dreaded demonic pregnancy trope.
Clichés and tropes are common in all sorts of genres. They are familiar signposts in a story due to our shared cultural exposure to them, but at the same time they are frustrating and limiting. I love it when tropes are inverted, and you get that aha moment. There are so many gender stereotypes, particularly in horror – the aforementioned demonic pregnancy, the violent psychopathic male with mommy issues, the possessive mother, the jealous stepmother, the abusive father and/or stepfather. The femme fatale cliché, oh but those women can be so damn sexy. Clichés don’t appear out of thin air. They are overused themes and characters and can make writing predictable. I suspect their frequent use is in part why genres like horror rarely get serious recognition within literary circles.
Clichés tell us what to expect.
Like the one about the heroine finding her strength after being violently raped. I hate that one. The pornification of torture worries me, both in and outside the horror genre. It can cross into erotica and that is pretty dangerous when you consider the real world’s penchant for violence against women. There are other types of women in horror too: the princess in the tower, the trophy to be won, and they are all tropes that bleed out into the real world, both in male and female imaginations, fetishising feminine weakness and making it seem somehow precious. However, women were being tortured and killed for kicks before the horror genre, so an argument can be made that it’s simply reflecting society. Either way I don’t like it. It turns me off stories quicker than anything else.
Clichés help writers by providing template characters.
I’m a member of a number of writers groups on social media and it is surprising how many male writers are afraid of writing female characters. I like Gustave Flaubert’s argument that when he wrote Madame Bovary he was simply writing himself. We are far more similar, men and women, than we are different in our essential beings. It is only our outside experience of the world that seems at odds. It might seem strange that men feel this fear of writing women, when female writers frequently write men. However a quick look at the stories we all grow up reading and watching shows that male is the default, as is white, in almost all our entertainment and certainly in books. Darren Chetty wrote a piece that was included in “The Good Immigrant”i called ‘You can’t say that! Stories have to be about white people’, about his experience teaching ethnically diverse students in East London. In summary when these children wrote stories they always had white characters with English names, because that was what they had read.
Gender as plot.
There are so many horror tropes surrounding female characters that it is hard to navigate at times. Your typical horror villain is a white man with mommy issues, and your typical victims are attractive young women, frequently used as sexualised fodder or there to be saved by the male hero. This isn’t all horror is, of course, but it is what many of us think of, especially when we aren’t working in supernatural horror where we do find more super-powered women.
When we are dealing with a slasher or serial killer story the last victim standing is termed the Final Girl. These women are rarely characterised beyond their ability to survive, meaning that they fall neatly into the stereotype of victim. Even a victim who survives is still a victim. They can also stand as a warning to would-be male aggressors that some kittens have claws, but even in that role they are often sexualised because of their aggression in a sub/dom kickass survivor way. There’s a racial element to the Final Girl as well. I can’t think of a Final Girl who’s a woman of colour. And lest we forget the moral, Final Girls are pure, virginal and good, even if they aren’t technically virgins their innocence is part of the drama. When the final girl is well drawn she can be empowering, but, as happens more often than not, when she is simply a plot device it is frustrating.
How do we avoid clichés?
As I said at the start it is easier said than done, but if we draw our characters fully rather than rely on stereotypes we’re at least part way there. For the panel discussions we looked at some of our own characters and to what extent they fell into or avoided gender stereotypes. I chose four characters from The Starblood Trilogy.
Star, my female protagonist, is hero and victim simultaneously. She is victimised because she has lost her sense of self – something that was happening to me at the time. She is easily manipulated, but her inner strength does win out. I guess you could classify her as a Final Girl (although she isn’t the last one standing). She seems annoyingly passive at times, drifting through the story, but when she realises her own strength, ironically through torture, she does become powerful and eventually can save herself.
Satori, my male protagonist, is in part hapless hero and in part anti-hero. Like Star, he develops throughout the book and becomes gradually less self-involved. He is the reason bad things happen to him and his friends, even if he is the one that fights against evil and tries to save Star. I wrote him this way because he is unaware of his impact on the world. He comes from a position of privilege, although he isn’t what you’d call an alpha male, and in fact is the victim of male violence in the books. He’s my self-defined good guy. He sees Star as a human being, but at the same time resents her for leaving him.
Lilith, my female antagonist, is definitely a villain, although some readers have claimed she’s a feminist hero. She is a survivor of assault, there we go again, but her extreme strength and power have warped her perspective of fairness and cruelty. While her end goal is not evil, her acts certainly are. Lilith frequently inverts the sexual stereotypes, but can do so because she is a supernatural creature.
Freya, is a vital support character. She is a villain, but often sympathetic. Without Freya none of the strands of the story would come together. She works against Satori and with Lilith. She too is a victim of the terrible events of her childhood, but it does not excuse her actions. She is the most messed up and powerful character in the trilogy, and I love her for it. Unlike Star, she is the Final Girl, and I’m tempted to continue her story beyond the trilogy. She provides a strong, human, female character who works behind the scenes and is all the more effective for sticking to the shadows. There is nothing that can be taken from her that will cause her to fall apart. She’s like a force of nature. She’s what happens when we’ve already hit rock bottom and there’s no where left to fall. I think if anything, Freya is the one who manages to avoid the gender stereotypes.
i The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla, published by Unbound, London, 2016