What is a character trope? In screenwriting, a trope is a common element of a story. In other words, a trope is something we see a lot. In a character sense, it’s a type of character we see a lot. The term trope is derived from the Greek (tropos) for “turn, direction, or way” and it’s meant to explain moments where the story figuratively shifts from one direction to another. However, tropes have come to be misnomered as cliches — and the term character trope often has more to do with the overuse of certain characteristics than it does with anything else. We’re going to explore different types of character tropes — what defines them, when to use them, and how to subvert them. By the end, we’ll know a bunch of different types of archetypal characters.

Watch: What is a Trope — And How to Subvert Them

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TV Tropes List

15. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Character Tropes TV Tropes  •  The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope, Explained by The Take

Quirky, strange, impulsive, expressive — these are all things we say about manic pixie dream girls. The manic pixie dream girl is a character trope we often see in independent/low-budget romantic dramas.

Here are a couple examples:

Manic pixie dream girls usually express themselves through physical characteristics; whether that’s dyed hair, off-kilter outfits, or a specific prop. 

Learn more about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope →

TV Character Tropes

14. The Chosen One

Character Tropes List  •  Chosen Ones Examples by Terrible Writing Advice

Ah yes, we’ve arrived at one of the most contrived character tropes of all-time: the chosen one. The chosen one is a child of prophecy who is the only person capable of saving the world from impending doom.

Here are a few examples:

The chosen one character trope can be subverted to expert effect, like it was in Blade Runner: 2049 and The Lego Movie

Learn more about the chosen one trope in our breakdown of the Blade Runner 2049 Screenplay →

Common Tropes

13. The Antihero

The Eyes of an Antihero  •  Subscribe on YouTube

In simplest terms, the antihero is the antithesis to the traditional hero. Instead of being brave, they’re cowardly. They may be the protagonist of the story but they lack the essential qualities of a traditional hero. Instead of restorative, they’re destructive, etc. 

Here a couple examples of anti heroes:

Despite their antithetical tendencies, anti heroes are still the protagonists of their stories — and they’re somebody we’re meant to root for. They may not be as ideologically righteous as heroes like Hercules or Batman, but they’re redeeming enough for us to care about them.

Learn more about Antiheroes →

Character Tropes in Literature & More

12. The Dumb Jock

Common Character Cliches  •  The Dumb Jock Trope, Explained by The Take

The dumb jock is one of the simplest types of character tropes because at its core, it’s only two things: stupid and good at sports. But the dumb jock often serves an antagonistic role as well.

Here are a few examples:

  • Alan Ritchson (Thad Castle) in Blue Mountain State
  • Justin Grant Wade (Steve Holt) in Arrested Development
  • S. Scott Bullock (Dash Baxter) in Danny Phantom

One way to subvert the dumb jock trope is by making them try to be better. Well-rounded jock characters have sensitive sides, and attempt to become more intelligent.

List of Character Types

11. The Mean Girl

Movie Character Tropes  •  The Mean Girl Trope, Explained by The Take

The mean girl is a girl — usually young and affluent — who takes their feelings of insecurity out on the world. Mean girls will usually serve as the antagonists in female-led stories.

Here are some famous examples:

  • Rachel McAdams (Regina George) in Mean Girls
  • Emma Roberts (Chanel Oberlin) in Scream Queens
  • Ashley Tisdale (Sharpay Evans) in High School Musical

Sometimes, mean girls are mean just for the sake of being mean. But most of the time it's because they’re afraid of losing control. 

Learn more about this trope in our Mean Girls Script Breakdown →

TV Tropes List

10. The Femme Fatale

Character Tropes TV Tropes  •  The Femme Fatale Trope, Explained by The Take

The femme fatale loves nothing more than domineering men and taking everything from them. Femme fatales figuratively get off on seducing, confusing, and tricking men into feeding their every desire.

Here are some examples:

Femme fatales are common character tropes in detective fiction and film noir – they act as spiders spinning webs of lies and deceit for hard boiled detectives to get trapped in.

Learn more about the Femme Fatale →

TV Character Tropes

9. The Sidekick

Character Tropes List  •  The Sidekick Trope by Comic Drake

The sidekick/best friend/ride-or-die wingman trope is a supporting character who supports a main character. And that’s pretty much it! Usually, the sidekick is a one-dimensional character. They go along with the main character and rarely question why.

Here are some examples:

When sidekicks stand up for themselves and question the nature of the main character they’re supporting, they play the role of a foil character.

Common Tropes

8. The Wise Elder

List of Character Tropes  •  The Mentor Trope by Overly Sarcastic Productions

The wise elder is a subtype of the mentor trope – or a character who serves to teach the protagonist important lessons. The Star Wars movies have a bunch of “wise elder” trope characters, including Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda. Here are some wise elder mentors from other stories:

The wise elder is rooted in Carl Jung’s description of the “wise old man” character archetype, who was meant to serve as a guardian or mystical spirit in classical literature.

Character Tropes in Literature & More

7. The Damsel in Distress

Common Character Cliches  •  Damsel in Distress Trope Examples by WatchMojo

Oh no, your princess is in another castle! The damsel in distress is one of the oldest character tropes in the world — and it’s frequently used in mediums ranging from literature to film to games.

Here are a few examples of damsels in distress:

Notice anything about these damsels in distress? Well, two out of three of them are princesses. The damsel in distress is typically a young, beautiful, rich woman (and often a princess) who is being held hostage by an antagonistic force. If you want to avoid the damsel in distress character trope, simply empower your female characters!

List of Character Types

6. The Neurotic Type

Movie Character Tropes  •  Neurotic Types on Display in “New Woody Allen Trailer” by Funny Or Die

We call characters neurotic if they’re nervous/look disheveled but are unafraid to speak their mind. Neurotic characters are usually more intelligent than the characters around them. Here are a few examples:

The neurotic man/woman character trope wants to be in control of every situation, and although their lust for rigidity may seem innocuous, other characters often take umbrage with them. This putdown feeds the neurotic trope’s cycle of self-loathing.

Read our list of The Best Woody Allen Movies→

TV Tropes List

5. The Mad Scientist

Character Tropes TV Tropes  •  Mad Scientist Trope Examples by WatchMojo

The mad scientist is a fun character trope because it’s always something expressive — like Steve Buscemi’s mad existential scientist in Spy Kids 2 who rattles off the quote: “Do you think God stays in Heaven because he too lives in fear of what he's created?”

Here are some other examples of mad scientists:

  • Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown) in Back to the Future
  • Gene Wilder (Dr. Frederick Frankenstein) in Young Frankenstein
  • Frederic March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Mad scientists may be brilliant, but their brilliance comes at a cost. In most cases, tragic accidents lead to the physical or metaphorical death of the mad scientist. My feeling on this character trope is that if you’re going to use it, you might as well go crazy; wild hair, crazy costume, expressive accent, etc.

Learn more about the Mad Scientist →

TV Character Tropes

4. The Smart Girl

Character Tropes List  •  The Smart Girl Trope, Explained by The Take

The smart girl is a character trope that’s defined by intelligence over beauty. However, smart girls in film are usually intelligent and beautiful. Wait what! That’s not fair?! But the smart girl tends to be deeply troubled, and will often sacrifice their morals for a chance at acceptance and popularity.

Here are a few examples of smart girl characters:

  • Alison Brie (Diane Nguyen) in Bojack Horseman
  • Linda Cardellini (Velma) in Scooby-Doo
  • Lindsay Lohan (Cady Heron) in Mean Girls

Smart girls in film and TV are typically costumed with glasses, prudish outfits, and old-school haircuts — but at some point they get a makeover. In the end, most smart girl tropes return to their original self when they discover that the other side wasn’t as great as they thought it would be.

Common Tropes

3. The Geek or Nerd

List of Character Tropes  •  The Geek Trope, Explained by The Take

Geeks and nerds are outcast characters who are defined by their interest in things considered unpopular — and intimidated by things that they covet. Physically, geeks are shorter, ganglier or wider than their traditionally beautiful counterparts. Geeks also tend to wear strange outfits in an effort to stand out.

Here are a few examples of geek characters:

  • Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) in Napoleon Dynamite
  • Jaleel White (Steve Urkel) in Family Matters
  • Jerry Lewis (Julius Kelp) in The Nutty Professor

A common misconception about geeks and nerds is that they’re always smart. Classically, geeks were clueless about things that would help them get ahead. Nowadays, geek trope characters are often rewarded with success, simply for being geeks! The geek or nerd is a character trope that’s pulled a complete 180 from inception to today.

Character Tropes in Literature & More

2. The Bad Boy

Common Character Cliches  •  The Bad Boy Trope, Explained by The Take

The bad boy trope is a male character who acts rude but is coveted by women who expect they’ll be treated differently. Bad boys are typically anti-authority, self-motivated strong silent types. Here are a few examples of bad boys in film:

  • Marlon Brando (Johnny Strabler) in The Wild One
  • James Dean (Jim Stark) in Rebel Without a Cause
  • Judd Nelson (John Bender) in The Breakfast Club

Bad boys are typically attractive men who are clean-shaven and precisely manicured but styled in a way that says “I’m not even trying.” Of course, bad boys do try; in fact, they try very hard because they’re usually incredibly sensitive characters.

List of Character Types

1. The Token Minority

Character Tropes  •  The Model Minority Trope, Explained by The Take

The token minority character trope is one of the most insidious character tropes because it exempts studios from casting people of color in leading roles. Token minority characters exist so that studio films can market their films to the broadest audience possible. But most of the time, token characters have very little characterization.

Here are some examples of token characters: 

  • Adrien Beard (Token Black) in South Park
  • Kelly Marie Tran (Rose) in Star Wars
  • Kenny Black (Calvin) in Freaks and Geeks

America Ferreira said “Tokenism is about inserting diverse characters because you feel you have to. True diversity means writing characters that aren’t just defined by the color of their skin, and casting the right actor for the role.” In response to tokenism, some screenwriters have empowered their minority characters with righteous morals and or impressive intellect, thus resulting in the model minority.

Learn more about this trope in our article on Stereotypes in Movies →

Up Next

Movie Tropes and Cliches to Avoid

Now that we’ve looked at a variety of character tropes, let’s break down movie tropes and cliches you’ll want to avoid in your next screenplay. In this next article, we analyze movie tropes and cliches like “cutting your hair to convey trauma” and the ever-so-dreaded “medicine cabinet reflection.” By the end, you’ll know a bunch of tropes and cliches that rub people the wrong way.

Up Next: Avoid These Tropes →
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