Tropes are the building blocks that make up many of our favourite series, and many literature types include them. They are not in and of themselves bad. However, some have been overused to the point where they are cliché. Others don’t live up to a modern standard; they promote harm against others or weak character development.
In this blog series, I’m exploring some of these worse-for-wear tropes and offer suggestions to revitalize them. Today’s trope is known as “Hard Work Hardly Works” or “No Practice Needed.”
It’s too Hard
How many times have we seen the following scene? The protagonist gains a new skill, either in magic or combat, and is immediately an expert without any training. This happens because they’re the Chosen One, or the powers were in their blood, or the skills were downloaded into their brain. Cue eye roll.
One of the reasons people were critical of The Force Awakens was because Rey exhibited this trope: she was able to repel Kylo Ren’s mind attack and later fight him off with a lightsaber, all without any formal training or even knowing about the Force. But, the audience was just supposed to accept it because of our background knowledge of the Force.
This feels unbelievable because it takes time to master a new skill, so it becomes harder to relate to that character.
A part of Rey’s quick ascent to master Jedi status could be the type of media portraying her story—a movie has to keep the plot moving, after all—but even A New Hope showed us a few scenes of Luke learning about the Force and training to use his lightsaber. There are ways to demonstrate that characters have put in the work and earned their skills.
Hard Work Pays Off
One of my favourite characters who has an innate talent, but struggles during her training, is Korra from The Legend of Korra.
The Legend of Korra follows the events of Avatar: The Last Airbender and explores the life of an Avatar in a newly-industrialized world filled with cars and radios. Korra is the Avatar that follows Aang and, though she has no trouble bending Water, Fire, and Earth, she can’t bend Air. The first season shows Korra struggling with this deficiency while, at the same time, dealing with Amon, a villain who wants to take all bending away so everyone will be equal.
In a pivotal scene towards the end of the season, Amon takes away Korra’s bending. Later, she has a breakthrough: though her Water, Fire, and Earth powers are gone, she can suddenly Airbend. This enables her to expose Amon for the imposter he is.
In Season Two, Korra is able to bend all the elements again, but she’s a novice at Airbending. She can physically manipulate the Air, but the movements and breathing techniques associated with Airbending are completely new to her. What’s more, she quickly realizes that her brash, abrasive personality clashes with the peaceful nature of Airbending. She struggles in practice drills and constantly loses her temper.
The clever thing about this season is that Airbending tempers Korra’s hotheaded approach to life. In Season One, she was constantly rushing and making decisions on the fly, not thinking them all the way through. She still does that plenty of times in Season Two, but she also learns how to step back and take a breath before launching into her next idea. Through Airbending, Korra learns a new martial technique and a new perspective.
If Korra had been automatically great at Airbending, none of this character development would have happened. Instead, we feel her frustration with her as she is challenged by learning a difficult skill (something most, if not all, of us have experienced ourselves).
How to Show Your Work
It’s important to remember that, if your character gains a new skill, they are entering a new world; they may have the talent, but they don’t yet know the reason or purpose behind it. This can be a great jumping off point when showing how your character learns.
- Show your character learning about the magic system or the reason behind the way it’s practised.
- Show your character learning the hand/body movements or proper word pronunciations.
- Think about the consequences to magical mistakes. Will your character blow something up if they get a syllable wrong?
- How does your character feel about this magical practice? Are they excited by the power? Do they want to use it to help others?
- Show your character learning the proper stance/footing/movements.
- If your character is learning a new weapon, show them starting off with a practice version before moving up to the real thing. Show them connecting with the weapon itself: do they sharpen the blade? Do they take care of the strings on their bow?
- Show your character practising drills.
- Does your character practice alone or in a group? This can be a great way to show how they deal with competition or failure.
- How does your character gain this new skill? Do they have a chance to train in a time of peace, or are they learning as they go during their adventure? How do they handle the pressure of learning a new still while, at the same time, dealing with the crises of a quest?
- How does your character feel about having the potential to take a life? Are they blasé about the prospect, or does the idea weigh heavily upon them?
Giving your character a new skill provides not only the chance for them to learn something cool, but also the opportunity to delve into their personalities by putting them in a new situation. So, don’t skip the tough stuff. Show them putting in the time.