Pointlessly Edgy Tropes To Reconsider Using

Too much pointless edge in your work can make it look tryhard and silly, so here are some notable tropes along these lines to watch out for and avoid - and some potential alternatives and fixes for them!

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An easily-faced risk of death (or something about as nasty) for a main character.

Main character Tanya needs to get an Important Item, but to do that, she must pass the Test. But the Test is dangerous - if Tanya is unworthy or weak, the Test will be fatal! But she ponies right up to the challenge after no more than a few seconds of hesitation - and although is perhaps a little afraid, she marches right in and passes the Test and gets the Important Item!

Here's the thing: We all know that Tanya isn't going to die, because if that happened, would be no story. This means that making the Test super-dangerous isn't going to actually add any dramatic tension to the plot because there's no element of uncertainty - which means there's no real point in making the Test so dangerous.

Does this mean that a risk of death is always bad? Of course not! If the stakes make it genuinely hard for the character to take the risk in the first place, or if we see the character experience the terror of facing death, or if "the Test" (or whatever you call it in your story) is actually quite long and requires making dramatic choices (IE, one with lasting consequences for people and places the character cares about), it can be very interesting as well as a catalyst for character development.

So any time you're thinking about making something highly risky, ask yourself: does it actually add any uncertainty to the scenario, or is it one of those things where the outcome is obvious from the outset? If the latter, consider either toning it down or figure out a way to add in some genuine uncertainty.

Fantastic trade-offs/side effects/drawbacks that impact neither the plot nor anyone's character arc.

For example, a character gets cool powers - but these powers come along with chronic pain, which the character stalwartly shoulders throughout the entire story. The pain never hinders the character at any critical moment and never results in the character failing at something important or suffering a serious setback. In other words, you could remove this drawback entirely without the story changing in any appreciable way - aside, perhaps, from the loss of a few angsty scenes or scenes where another character stands in awe or pity of the character's situation.

Consider this: a character with an average tolerance to pain having to push through levels of pain that would be miserable to an average human is more impressive as a character who shrugs off levels of pain that would make the average human pass out - if not moreso. Why? Because the audience sees a character facing an actual struggle. It's not just the accomplishment itself that's impressive, but also the effort that goes into it. So when you write, remember: the mightiest feats in the world are not impressive if there's no effort or struggle behind them. The struggle/effort can be physical, emotional, or both - but it needs to be there and visible to make your character's accomplishments mean something to the audience.

Or for another example, Bob imbibes a potion of permanent extra strength that also gives him monstrous eyeballs on his back. Bob frets and angsts over how having the eyeballs is so horrible and how it makes him a monster. But nobody who matters to the plot ever actually sees Bob without a shirt, nor do his eyeballs ever complicate things or create problems for him, nor do they help engage or further the plot in any other way, and by the end of the story his opinion about his monster eyeballs remains unchanged. In other words, nothing important would have changed if the eyeballs were never there in the first place.

The same principle applies to any fantastic trade-off, side effect, or drawback you might be considering. Is it going to make things genuinely harder for your protagonist in a way that will affect the story? Is it going to create a curveball for your character somewhere along the way? Will it help move the plot forward? Will it lead to character development somehow? If it will do none of these, then you probably don't need it.

Anything that would be needlessly difficult, dangerous, or counterproductive.

Many creators have their characters or factions up to shenanigans that are much like their grandparents' tall tales of wrapping barbed wire around their bare feet for traction in the winter: they may sound tough and gritty at first pass, but when you stop and think about it, they really make no sense.

For (a somewhat gruesome) example, let's say there's a faction whose soldiers cut off their own left arms so they can graft on biomechanical swords. They have two main reasons for this: one being that they'll always have a weapon at their side; the other being that it's a symbol of a "once a soldier, always a soldier" mindset. And they do this with no anaesthetic because they're JUST THAT TOUGH.

In reality, this would be a horrible idea. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. It would most likely put the soldiers at risk of severe infection. (Even with fairly good sanitation, there's always at least a small risk.)
  2. Having only one hand makes it a lot harder to do any number of tasks soldiers often have to do - EG, grooming and dressing themselves, carrying stuff around, and all sorts of fiddly work (fixing or building things, taking things apart, putting things together, etc.) in general.
  3. If their swords got stuck somewhere, they'd have no way to turn loose of them. They'd be stuck... unless they got someone to cut their sword-arms off, which would put them at risk of infection or death by blood loss.

For a non-gruesome example, any so-called training program that starts students out in a scenario that simulates real-life difficulty is this. The point of training is to build up one's skill, and it's impossible to do that when you're too overwhelmed to do anything at all. A "training" program like this wouldn't produce elite students or leave them with the "best of the best" - it would just leave them with the ones who probably didn't actually need training, thus defeating the purpose of having a training program in the first place.

So if you're thinking about giving or having your characters do something that sounds TOUGH AND GRITTY, stop and ask yourself: does it actually give them better results than the "softer" alternatives? If the results are about the same, or if they'd actually be worse off, reconsider what you're having them do - unless the point is that whoever is responsible for it is just too incompetent or short-sighted to realize how counterproductive it actually is.

Solid black and/or leather/vinyl outfits everywhere.

Putting a few main characters in solid black and/or leather/vinyl outfits necessarily isn't bad, especially if it says something about the their jobs, lifestyles, or personalities. But when you put everyone in it (or almost everyone), it tends to deindividualize your characters. Plus, it tends to make for a very dull visual or mental image. So give them some variation and individuality to your main characters' wardrobes! Put them in all shades, colors, and hues! Let them wear different materials! And this goes for the villains, too - if they're supposed to be individuals, dress them as individuals!

Also, keep in mind that leather and vinyl actually aren't that great to wear into any scenario that demands heavy action or sneaking around. They're heavy, stiff, hot, and creak when you move in them - basically, the opposite of what you'd want!

If you're putting your characters in black because you want them to "blend in with the shadows" or something similar, know this: navy blue and dark gray are better for that. Because very few objects are actually black, people dressed in it will actually stand out because their silhouettes will be darker than everything else around them. And then if they're ever shown off-duty, you can put them in different clothes, too.

Creating a bunch of stuff that's specifically super-dangerous or deadly to humans, when humans aren't the focus characters.

For example, let's say we have a story that primarily focuses on a species of magical near-humans. They practice magic that would make humans explode if they tried it. Their sanctuaries are protected by spells that would mean instant death to any human who tried to step inside. They calmly fight monsters that would make humans go mad just to see them. They casually get drunk off things that would poison any human. And so on and so forth.

Throwing in constant reminders that one's fantastic race is so much better or tougher than humanity like this comes off as pretty shallow and pretentious - basically, it amounts to flaunting their superiority. This kind of thing can turn people off from your fantastic characters in a real hurry.

This isn't to say that you need to make your fantastic races susceptible to everything that humans are. But when you're considering making them tougher or insusceptible in some way, ask yourself, "Is this really relevant to the setting or plot, or am I just showing off?" For example, if our magical near-humans are immune to fire, and the story hinges on them doing something that can only be done because they're immune to fire, then it's relevant to the plot and it's probably good.

Otherwise, consider toning it down some way or another. Maybe the magic they practice isn't deadly for humans to try; maybe humans just lack the ability to work magic with that much finesse or power. Maybe rather than it killing them, it just doesn't work for them, period - or only works very weakly. As for their sanctuaries, consider that Hogwarts got along just fine with a glamour that made it look like an old ruin to muggle eyes. Maybe the monsters don't make people go mad - maybe they're just really strange and scary if you're not used to them (like many arthropods can be), but something that anyone can potentially get accustomed to. As for them quaffing toxic drinks? On its own, without being piled atop a bunch of other edgy elements, it could be fine - doubly so if there was something humans commonly consumed that wouldn't be good for them!

For any elements along these lines you do actually keep, don't make a big deal out of how your fantastic characters are so powerful and competent while humans are so weak and helpless. Don't have your fantastic characters sneer and smirk as they mention these things, unless you want them to be perceived as smug little snots.

Huge death tolls that don't actually impact the protagonists.

Sometimes it's a monster that kills people in the high double digits in a matter of days. Sometimes it's a disease that take out tens of thousands of people in a few weeks. Sometimes it's a villain or villainous faction who kills off millions, if not billions of faceless people. Whatever it is, it wipes out a whole bunch of people in a very short time.

This is often done to establish that the threat is super-dangerous, but here's the thing: something that kills off zillions of faceless people, yet still doesn't give the heroes much more trouble than anything else they take on than anything else they face just isn't going to leave that much of an impact on your audience. Threatening and/or hurting a few characters and places we actually care about instead of faceless masses and/or distant locations that only exist as abstract concepts and values in our minds is far, far more effective for this.

If you're considering any story event that will kill off a lot of people, ask yourself: will it make any noticeable difference in the lives of the protagonists? Will it drive or create profound changes in their world that affect them personally? Will it touch their daily lives in some way? Will it significantly affect what they can and can't do, or how they have to go about doing whatever it is they do? Will it affect their character arcs in any way beyond making them more determined to take on the bad guys? If it won't do any of these things, it's probably pointlessly high.

Likewise, ask yourself: if you killed off, say, fifteen people rather than five thousand, would everything still play out and end up the same? If so, consider reducing the death toll. Save the big numbers for the times and places where they'll really matter.

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