Female Character Tropes
Good news: female character tropes are finally becoming more varied as standard! Not so long ago, female characters were sidelined or defined by the men in their lives … but these days, we’re much more likely to see holistic and layered female characters in movies, TV or novels.
However, when B2W talks about tropes, many writers say: ‘Aren’t tropes a bad thing??’
It’s not difficult to see why writers might think this. Many online commentators – including actual critics! – often conflate tropes with clichés. Whilst tropes can indeed become clichés when they’re overused, tropes are actually NECESSARY for storytelling. Just like musicians needs chords, writers need tropes. Tropes may refer to characters, plots or genres.
In the context of this article, tropes refer to a recurrent idea we see within storytelling about particular characters. Audiences and readers LOVE tropes when they feel fresh and new … but hate them when they become stale, overused or toxic.
This means tropes often become a case of ‘supply and demand’. Writers can please their audiences by avoiding the stale ones and including the ones they love.
Here’s three female character tropes audiences can’t get enough of right now. Can you add any more female character tropes that are worth including to the list? Let’s go …
1) Sweary Granny
We all know the stereotype of the angry old man who yells at kids to get off his lawn. But what if that old person was gender-flipped AND that granny was also a potty-mouthed badass? Boom!
This trope is often used as a way to add some much-needed levity to a story. After all, who doesn’t love seeing a sweet little old lady cursing up a storm? But it can also be used to make a powerful statement about ageism and sexism.
Sweary grannies are the kind of characters who don’t take any crap from anyone. They’re feisty, funny, and they’re always ready to put someone in their place. If you’re looking for a female character who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, this is the trope for you.
Unsurprisingly, Sweary Granny turns up as a comedy character most often. Bunny in Only Murders In The Building is an antagonist, but also a comedy sweary granny (though there’s more than one in this fun series!).
Sometimes the Granny doesn’t swear that much, but she IS evil. Guest character Dottie in Brooklyn 99 might look like a sweet old lady, but she’s a raging misogynist who also thinks she’s Dirty Harry!
However, that doesn’t mean Sweary Granny cannot appear in more serious stories. In crime series Three Pines on Amazon Prime, Ruth aka ‘Duck Lady’ is this type of character. She’s reclusive, antisocial and totally unreasonable — and we’re here for it!
2) Scary Girl
Sweary Granny is a fairly new phenomenon that’s gained in popularity in the past few years, but Scary Girl has been around for much, much longer. Turning up originally in the horror genre, this tween or teen girl has become iconic. A friend of mine who is a film director summed it up:
‘Need an antagonist for your low-budget movie? No problem! Grab your twelve-year-old daughter, put her in a Victorian-style nightgown and backcomb her hair over her face. Sorted.’
I think this image captured the public’s imagination because young girls are constantly underestimated. Frequently they will be infantilised by authority figures too. However, if you’ve spent ANY time around young girls, you know this is a big mistake!
A great Scary Girl is of course Wednesday Addams. Whilst my favourite version of this iconic character is Christina Ricci’s from the 90s, Netflix’s Wednesday proves what an enduringly popular female character she is.
One of my favourites of the Scary Girl trope outside of horror has to be Lily in Modern Family. It’s common for East Asian female characters to be submissive in TV and movies, but Lily is anything but! She’s smart, savvy and – from time to time – a little unsettling. She has a vindictive streak and loves to get rowdy. She also seems to present very differently to her family than she does at school. As a result, the rest of her family is never entirely sure what she is going to do and neither are we!
Lastly, sometimes Scary Girl epitomises something associated with female lived experiences. The recent robot horror movie M3gan draws attention to the dark side of female friendship. But whether they’re using their powers for good or evil, these Scary Girls always manage to grab audiences’ attention.
3) Bad Mom
In the first instance, this seems a response to the Perfect Mom trope in countless TV shows and movies. She’s always put together, has a spotless house, and always has a home-cooked meal on the table. Ugh!
The Perfect Mom has now given rise to the (supposedly) Bad Mom, which is often just a more REALISTIC portrayal of motherhood. After all, many modern moms in real life are run ragged right now.
Many of us are single parents, work full-time, plus we may have financial issues or other caring commitments such as looking after elderly parents. Comedy movies such as a Bad Moms or comedy-drama series like Workin’ Moms or Good Girls will highlight this.
As little as a decade ago, Bad Dads seemed to be everywhere: they could be aloof and neglectful, or frightening and abusive. They would turn up in all genres, though typically drama, thriller or horror.
These days, Bad Moms seem to have replaced this function. It’s surprising that it’s taken this long for the female care-giver to take such a dark turn, but Bad Moms turn up frequently in dramas, thrillers and horrors too nowadays.
In novels, the Bad Mom is SUPER popular right now. She is frequently an exceptionally toxic human being, destroying her kids’ lives with her narcissistic obsessions or selfishness. I’ve written several books where this female character trope appears, most recently in the (ironically-titled) The Good Mother.
Movies such as Goodnight Mommy and Evil Dead Rise present the Bad Mom as an impostor or even an actual monster. In TV series like Happy Valley, Catherine is Ryan’s grandmother but as his care-giver, she is a bad parent who has lost all perspective.
So if you’re looking for a fresh take on the motherhood trope for your novel or screenplay, look no further than the Bad Mom. MORE: Bad Moms: 5 Novels That Will Make You Question Motherhood
How long will these female character tropes be popular?
That’s anyone’s guess … sometimes certain tropes are popular for a long time, others they’re just a flash in the pan. These three seem to have embedded themselves in popular culture though, so I don’t see them disappearing any time soon.
To stay up-to-date about tropes, make sure you …
- Understand what tropes are (bookmark and check out Tropedia to get started)
- How tropes work
- What audiences like about them
- Watch modern TV series or movies, or read recent books
- Identify how tropes change over time
This way, you can bring your own twist to tried-and-tested tropes without falling into cliché.