Bad Tropes – Characters Not Making Their Own Decisions

I don’t know if that’s even the right title for this, so I’ll just jump right into it. Watching last night’s episode of Chuck (spoiler alert) filled me with a bit of rage at some lazy writing. Here’s what happened.
Chuck’s feelings about a girl (4-episode guest star Kristin Kreuk) were called into question when he realized that Shaw and Sarah were going to hook up. He was lost and confused, so he went to his sister for help. She TOLD HIM that he felt like he was moving too fast with the girl and that he still had feelings for Sarah. Then he breaks up with the girl.
The writers did insert an 11th hour save and showed Chuck questioning things about his new relationship (though in my opinion the shift from super lovey dovey early on was not properly negated by this). But here’s the real problem… They didn’t let Chuck make his own decision. He didn’t get his aha! moment where he realizes, “I’m still in love with someone else.” It was stolen from him by a supporting character and he accepts it without question. She made his decision for him. As the scenes earlier played out, I didn’t buy this. I would have been more on board if Kreuk had to leave town inexplicably or didn’t like that Chuck was always keeping secrets (which presents its own set of problems). But in this case, we just getting a slightly castrated (not literally) hero.
I’ve edited and experienced enough stories to see this missing decisive moment is a common problem. Too often the same thing happens when the protagonist of a story is a lay person called upon to do something extraordinary. They just jump right into hero role because it’s quicker to just get them acting heroic rather than taking the time to let them make a decision. But decisions are the heart of character, and when your rob someone of decision, you also rob them of character. Mentor figures (the ultimate supporting character archetype) often spur young heroes to take up their quest, but here’s where I want to make my point very clear… They do NOT simply tell the hero to become a hero and then he says, “I’m in!” They plant a seed and the thought, the decision, is the hero’s to make. At least in terms of good stories. I’m sure there are some exceptions, but the Hero’s Journey works for a reason.
I also read a comic recently that irked me to no end. One character told another what was happening to him. The easy fix was to say, “It feels like X” or “I can’t remember X,” but the moment was ruined by exposition passed off as storytelling. It was the Mini-Me version of this greater bad trope.
Action is character, and vice versa. I’ve probably written that a dozen times on this blog. If you don’t let your characters act, react and make decisions for themselves, you’re just realizing an outline. And an outline is just the basis for a story, not the story itself. Not to mention the fact that when characters come alive in your head, they can take the story all sorts of interesting and unexpected directions.
Another Bad Trope exposed. Time to eat the hummus.
P.S. If anyone can come up with a better label for this trope, I’ll update the title and give you some credit here on the blog. I am literally at a loss for a better description.
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One thought on “Bad Tropes – Characters Not Making Their Own Decisions

  1. Interesting observation! And, on the whole, I agree. There is one thing that occurs to me, though… and, I don't watch Chuck, so this hypothetical I'm about to throw at you may not apply, BUT…What if this issue with letting other people make his decisions for him is actually a part of who he is as a character? He can save the world twice before lunchtime, but when it comes to emotional issues or relationship problems, he can't even come close to making a decision, so he seeks answers from the people who know him best.Would you still view it as an unacceptable flaw in the storytelling?I tend to shy away from making staunch rulings about how a hero "can" or "can't" do or be something just because it doesn't fit within an archetype — as I see it, characters are people, and people are unpredictable. So, how would a character flawed in such a way avoid being slapped with the "Bad Trope" label?As for renaming the trope… umm…"Developmental Blue Balls?"

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