literary tropes

Drifting Towards the Worst Possible Outcomes


What is it with time travel and Nazis, anyway? It’s generally accepted that anyone who develops a time machine has a moral obligation to use it to stop Hitler. It’s also generally accepted that, for our closed-loop timeline at least, all such endeavors failed.

(But seriously, Hitler survived how many assassination attempts? Wikipedia has an “incomplete” list of 25, so there totally could have been time travelers in that mix.)

More nerve-wracking than the time-traveler’s requirement to take out Hitler, though, is the understood condition that any changes made to the past will likely result in an Axis victory and a world-wide totalitarian state. calls it Godwin’s Law of Time Travel:

As the amount of time-traveling you do increases, the probability of Hitler winning World War II approaches one.”

This trope fits right into the open-loop mantra, “Don’t meddle.” Time, that delicate mechanism, turns its course upon the slightest variations, and all alternate roads apparently lead to a worldwide socialist regime and swastikas on the White House. (Which is one reason I prefer the closed-loop model, truth be told.)

Why can’t it lead to a libertarian paradise for once, hmm? Probably because, in our heart of hearts, we’re all cynics. It’s human nature to lean towards the Worst Possible Outcome, and for Western society, that is Hitler’s Holocaust.

I’ve taken it for granted most of my life that there is nothing worse than Hitler, but in recent years I’ve come to realize that I was wrong. For all the atrocities of WWII, the millions of people who died and the millions more who suffered, there is something worse.

It’s worse than Stalin’s Holodomor, worse than Mao’s “Three Bitter Years,” worse than Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, and all the numberless atrocities that have occurred in the history of humankind upon this earth.

It is, simply, that despite the very clear-cut lessons history teaches us through these awful events, there are still people who cling to the power-hungry ideologies that caused them.

How is this even possible? Naive as it may seem, I always assumed that Nazism died in a German bunker in 1945. It should have died there or else shortly thereafter, when images from concentration camps circulated the globe.

“This is the consequence of this system of beliefs,” those images whisper. “Do not tread this path again.”

And yet, this -ism, alongside many others with similar outcomes, rears its head in pockets around the world, as though the consequences were trivial, non-existent, or—worst of all—a necessary means to an end. It’s mind-boggling to me.

The philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Humans may not have the power to go back in time, to fix things so that we can say, “Never at all,” but we should at least hold our ground and say, “Never again.”

Of Time Loops and Paradoxes


Time travel comes in two distinct flavors: the linear closed-loop variety and the branching open-loop variety. The first is stable and reliable, while the second is volatile and chaotic. In many time-travel stories, the reader doesn’t know for certain which variety is in effect until the end.

The Closed Loop

The closed loop treats time as an unchangeable dimension. Events from the beginning of creation to its end are set in stone, and the time traveler’s experiences are already worked into the equation. Essentially, time occurs on a straight line. The traveler loops back to the past, but nothing in the intervening time line changes because they always existed in that past before they actually went there.

Example: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

The third book in Rowling’s iconic series, Prisoner of Azkaban introduces the time-turner, a device that Hermione uses to attend multiple classes at once. The closed-loop nature of time becomes apparent at the end of the book, when Harry and Hermione go back in time to change events, not realizing until afterwards that their future selves were already at play in the earlier disasters. There’s no alternate timeline, in other words. The reader gets to experience the same events twice alongside Harry and Hermione, but the events themselves are identical.

The unchangeable nature of a closed loop does create limitations. To the question, “Why didn’t someone use a time-turner to take out Voldemort before he got too powerful?” comes the dissatisfying answer, “Because no one did.” Everyone knows that Voldemort did rise to power, so obviously no one ever succeeded in assassinating him beforehand. To do so would create an open-loop scenario, which would destroy Rowling’s meticulously planned closed loop.

It would also negate the series as a whole, since Voldemort is the one to get the plot rolling in the first place.

The Open Loop

The open loop treats time as an ever-branching dimension, malleable and unpredictable. A change in events will cause the timeline to diverge from that point forward. This scenario requires an infinite number of universes, with the time-traveler moving from one to the next as the timeline recalibrates.

Consequently, the traveler retains memories of the events they destroy, of the alternate branches from whence they came.

Example: “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury

This short story, to which I owe my comic’s punchline, tells of a man who accidentally kills a butterfly in the prehistoric era, only to return to an alternate reality of his own time. What seems like an insignificant action causes dire consequences, for him and society both.

The open loop technically has all possible outcomes at its disposal, but let’s be honest. It’s usually the worst scenario that occurs, at least on the time traveler’s first return. If the traveler gets a chance to correct their error, things will still never be exactly what they were beforehand. “Don’t meddle” seems to be the moral of the story.

The Open-Closed Hybrid Loop

An innovative variation in time-travel stories combines open and closed loops. The broader timeline is closed, but the time traveler gets stuck in an alternating, repeating loop until they can arrive at that closed-loop outcome.

Example #1: Groundhog Day (1993)

Bill Murray stars as Phil Conners, a weatherman who gets stuck living the same day over and over and over again. He remembers each incarnation. He tries to break the loop, to no avail. He doesn’t age, but he does retain any skills he acquires over the course of his relived episodes.

Example #2: “Endless Eight” by Nagaru Tanigawa

In this installment of the Haruhi Suzumiya series, sarcastic high-schooler Kyon relives the eight weeks of summer 15,000+ times because unwitting-master-of-the-universe Haruhi is secretly dissatisfied as the holiday comes to a close. Unlike Phil Conners, Kyon retains only a sense of déjà vu from one incarnation to the next, though it does become stronger over time.

The short story is brilliant, but the anime version created a ragestorm among fans when the same episode aired 8 weeks in a row, reanimated each time with different visual details, but with the same sequence of events. It gave viewers a taste of the time loop from Yuki Nagato’s perspective, though, as she remains fully aware for each of the 15,000+ repetitions.

The open-closed hybrid allows for the exploration of multiple possibilities with the assurance of one designated outcome. It can, however, become tedious if overdone.

Beware the Paradoxes

Please note: time travel in fiction introduces the potential for massive plot holes. Attention to detail is key when incorporating this plot element into any story, written or visual, because the audience expects the end result to make sense. As with all fantasy, time travel must adhere to rules of logic.

Shoddy time travel is the reason I despise movies like The Lake House (2006) and Kate & Leopold (2001). You can’t save the guy whose death sent you to the place where you encounter the magic mailbox that allows you to meet him two years in the past (because if you save him, you wouldn’t have gone, and then you never saved him, so you did go, but then you did save him, so you wouldn’t have gone, and then…). Similarly, if a photographer from the future flees a scene before the love interest from the future appears, said photographer can’t use a photograph of the love interest at the scene to convince her to go back in time to appear on scene.

Seriously. Get your crap together, people.

(I have been banned from watching time-travel-themed chick flicks, by the way. I’ve been banned from watching chick flicks in general, but the time-travel ones are especially verboten. Apparently I’m a killjoy.)

In the Silence of the Darkest Hour


12th century England marks the transition period between Old and Middle English. William the Conqueror’s victory in 1066 ushered in a slew of French nobility and clergymen. The ruling class, though a distinct minority, spoke a different language than the peasantry, and in the subsequent decades, this factor led to a very quickly evolving native tongue.

Old English—or Anglo-Saxon, or simply Saxon, as it was called in this period—fell out of favor. It branded its speaker as a member of a lesser social class, while French indicated a more elite status. (English would remain “vulgar” up until about a hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, by the way, and the narrative of its inherent inferiority persists even today.)

This difference in language statuses resulted in a lovely phenomenon, however: many of those on the lower end of the social spectrum sought to elevate their standing through language acquisition, so that French and Saxon co-mingled to produce a new hybrid English.

That’s right. It’s extremely likely that our beloved language is, at its roots, a creole.

Evidence lies in the shift from the Old English structure of Subject-Object-Verb (SOV, very Germanic) to the Middle English structure of Subject-Verb-Object (SVO, a common creole structure). French vocabulary piled into the language with class distinctions firmly attached. This is the period that gave us the Saxon terms for animals in the field—cow, pig, and chicken—but French terms at the dinner table—beef, pork, and poultry. The peasants in the field spoke Saxon, but their feudal, meat-eating masters spoke French, and the surviving terms reflect as much.

French and Latin dominated the written word. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ended its approximately 300-year run in A.D. 1154, but it was a singular relic by then. The Insular Script, developed in Ireland and popular in the Old English period, would give way to Carolingian cursive and a more gothic style (both of which are super difficult to read, haha), so that not even the alphabet looked the same.

Not that it mattered: for the duration of the 12th century, only peasants spoke English, and they were more than likely illiterate.

This illiteracy added to the rapid linguistic change. The written word provides an anchor; from A.D. 1100-1200, the English language was a ship adrift. Accents shifted and dialects mushroomed. The feudal system chained English speakers to their French masters’ lands, isolating communities from one another. The language of London arose as the standard-bearer while the western and northern dialects became marked and increasingly distinct.

King John I’s loss of Normandy in 1204 heralded the slackening of French influence upon the island nation. From that point onward, English would gradually reclaim its rightful place once more. But in the midst of the 12th century, native speakers could harbor little hope for their spoken word.

Truly this is the Dark Age of the English language, out of which a brilliant future emerged.


Out of Place in Time and Space


Anachronism, that bane of all historical fiction writers, can crop up when you least expect it. Obvious New World acquisitions—coffee, cocoa, and tobacco—perhaps are easy enough to weed out. They are luxury items, associated with a certain lifestyle.

New World produce of a humbler nature might sneak into the narrative undetected. Basic as it may seem, those medieval peasants aren’t eating potatoes in their stew, and they can’t throw tomatoes at the prisoners in the stocks. Sorry.

Corn provides a particularly interesting case, because the word existed in English prior to New World exploration. It referred generally to all grain rather than one specific type. Thus, in the KJV Bible, when Pharaoh dreams of seven ears of “corn,” it’s not the on-the-cob variety; and when Christ’s disciples pluck the corn from the corn fields, they naturally rub its chaff off between their hands before they eat it.

It’s easy enough, from a modern perspective, to substitute the narrowed definition of corn into either of these instances. For Americans at least, corn is almost everywhere we look, from our soft drinks to our gasoline. And because it’s so pervasive in our culture, it’s an effortless hop-skip-and-jump to assume that it’s always been there.

Alas, not so.

Technology provides another source for potential anachronism. The introduction of gunpowder was a game-changer for any civilization. The development of cannons and guns rendered such protections as castle walls and plate armor ineffective where they had previously guarded against blades and battering rams. As guns increased in power, armor became a hindrance rather than a help.

The cycle of armor, too, has a logical progression to it. A prominent anachronism occurs in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: protagonist Hank Morgan encounters plate armor in 6th century England, roughly 700 years before it came into use. Mail—or maille, or mayle—preceded this more recognized type of armor. Oddly enough, the term “chain mail” is a later descriptor: lists its entrance into the language as occurring between 1815-1825 (which exactly corresponds to when Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe artfully romanticized the Medieval period).

Which brings us to, perhaps, the most glaring anachronism of them all: the language itself.

Language change can be at once both rapid and slow, obvious and subtle. Slang comes and goes like a flash in the pan, while a subject-agreement cycle might require centuries to manifest. Literacy plays a huge role in slowing change, but any encounter with foreign cultures will speed it up. All of these elements and more combine to make an ever-shifting linguistic field. Anachronism of terms, then, is basically impossible to avoid.

Much has been written about the dysfunction of the English writing system. People lament that words like break and beak don’t rhyme, or that though, through, rough, trough, bought, and bough display six different pronunciations for the same cluster of four letters. Welcome to the Great Vowel Shift. In the 1300-1600s, English vowels migrated in their pronunciation.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, for people like me who love this sort of thing), this is the same time period in which Caxton brought the printing press across the Channel and standardized spelling became a thing. Mid-shift. Meaning half these vowels shifted their pronunciation after printers decided, “Hey, this is how that word is spelled.”

Haha. Oh well.

Personally, I adore the English spelling system. It’s quirky, yes, but all restricted codes are. Those who call for spelling reforms dismiss the history inherently tied to our lexicon. They also fail to acknowledge that funetik speling looks iliterit. English has 13 vowels and only 6 letters with which to represent them. A true spelling reform would require a revised alphabet.

Too much effort.

And of course, for any type of historical fiction, modern spelling applies. But if you’re headed back to the Middle Ages, be aware that any modern words dating from that period had a markedly different pronunciation back then. Chances are, your time-traveling hero won’t recognize them right off the bat, especially when they’re ensconced amid the jargon of their day.

Gilding the Tarnished Ages Past


Time travel stories make a lot more sense to me when authors branch out beyond Middle-Ages Europe. Of all the civilizations in the history of the world, Europe of the Dark Ages is probably on the lower end of the Desirable Destinations scale.

And yet, we romanticize it. It’s pastoral! It’s idyllic! Clean air! Fresh, unsullied landscapes and wildernesses yet to be tamed!

Realistically? It’s filthy and germ-ridden and completely devoid of our modern comforts. Sure, there are vast swaths of pristine land, but good luck living out there. A modern soul foraging in the wilds of five hundred years ago would probably die of starvation within a week or two, if the elements didn’t get them first. The cities are even worse: raw sewage runs in the streets and taints the rivers. The water is undrinkable, unless you’d like a side of cholera with it.

And in the royal courts? Heady perfumes cover the reek of body odor because no one ever bathes.

History is gross. The people who lived through it, bless their souls, had no other choice.

Some time-travel stories responsibly take this into account. Others plop their characters in the midst of a bygone Europe and—pardon the topical idiom—polish the turd right shiny. But life in ages past was difficult, and a time traveler would feel that difficulty most keenly.

Sure, acknowledging the negative side of past eras will usher in a plethora of extra variables, but that’s half the fun.

The time-travel plot line works particularly well when the character tumbles back through the centuries by accident or happenstance and has to adjust to this different rhythm of life. When they’re choosing where to go, however, my internal voice pipes up with, “Ooh! Ooh! Pick the Ming Dynasty! The Mayan Empire! Go find out what the Indus script sounds like!!!

Yes, if I had a time machine, I’d probably use it for recording ancient languages. Don’t judge.

My point is that the world is vast and lovely and richly historied, and if you’re going to go rustic, you can do a whole lot better than Medieval France.

More importantly, you can do a whole lot better than plopping down into one time and camping there. This is a vacation cottage industry prime for the picking: can you imagine the going rate for a three-hour tour of historical events?

(Cue the Gilligan’s Island theme song, haha. I smell a plot in the making.)

Time to Trust Technology


It takes a special kind of character to self-experiment with new technology. On one end of the spectrum, you have the Tesla-smart guy, who’s done the math backwards and forwards and knows that everything will work as expected. On the other, you have the delusionally stupid guy who just assumes that everything will work out.

And then, in the middle, there’s the desperate, fearful, hopeful one who needs it to work.

Luckily, in time-travel fiction, the time-travel mechanism pretty much always does its job. Sometimes it’s accidental. Sometimes it’s supernatural. Sometimes it’s a lab experiment with a convoluted machine that harbors suspiciously jargon-esque parts, like “flux capacitors” and such.


Reason would dictate that for every successful bout of fictional time travel, there were probably half a million other scientists that ended their quest as rust-colored smears on their garage walls. But of course those stories never get written.

(Because they would be short and gruesome. But I digress.)

I’ll admit it. There’s part of me, upon encountering a trope like time travel, that wonders, “No, really, how many people failed at this before your character succeeded?” Part of the allure of time travel is that *this* character succeeds where so many have failed. *This* character breaks through that seemingly impenetrable barrier that so many others slammed their shoulders against. *This* character is wise, special, well-favored of the fiction gods.

That’s hardly unique to time-travel stories, though. Most genres want a special protagonist. Pay no attention to the scores of failures that exist to counter-balance such success.

The term “time machine” comes courtesy of H. G. Wells, author of—you guessed it—The Time Machine. In this classic tale, a time traveller creates a vehicle that carries him hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where he discovers that the human race has devolved into two factions: the Morlocks and the Eloi. The Morlocks are skulking and brutish—because anything called a “Morlock” is going to be antagonistic, of course—and the Eloi, true to their lyrical name, are innocent and harmless.

And there’s a girl called “Weena.” Yeah, Wells isn’t winning any awards for his names from this corner of the Internet. (But I will give him credit for recognizing his weakness and leaving his time traveller nameless, hahaha.)

The novel, published in 1895, in addition to sparking hundreds of time-machine tales in its wake, has received multiple adaptations for radio, film, and comic books. It is, in short, a literary icon.

And its protagonist, of the Tesla-smart camp, set the benchmark for time-traveling protagonists everywhere. But he also disappeared at the end of the book. So maybe—just maybe—somewhere in time, there’s a rust-colored smear with his genetic signature on it.

You don’t know. No one does.

The Moment of Truth


There comes a moment of truth in most makeover scenarios, and it can go one of two ways:

  1. “Yes! This is who I was always meant to be!”
  2. “Nope. Nope, nope, nope, nope. What have I done to myself?”

The first option accompanies the Cinderella-type makeovers that occur near the end of the story, when the curtain drop is imminent and everything is twisting happily together. The second option, on the other hand, occurs when the makeover character has time to reflect on the many changes that their new look has prompted, and to assess whether those changes are pleasant or otherwise.

I’m sort of a sucker for the second type. Much as I adore the whole before/after effects that a makeover brings into the plot, I love when a character realizes their inherent worth had nothing to do with their looks and that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. Every set of circumstances brings its share of challenges, so when a post-makeover plot is all sparkles and sunshine, it feels unbalanced to me.

Change is difficult, and whether a character can embrace it wholeheartedly or needs to step back a pace depends on their personality. The Makeover trope, as simple as it is, allows for variable results. It can also reveal when an author’s character development is lacking.

Some questions to ask when this plot device crops up:

  • Why is this character getting a makeover?
  • What advantages will come from the makeover? What disadvantages?
  • Does the makeover bring out the best in the character? Does it bring out a nasty streak?
  • Post-makeover, does this character act true to their established personality?

A higher social status—especially one achieved with relative ease—can bring out the worst in someone. Those who have been mistreated in the past often mimic that treatment upon others when they get into a position of greater influence. It’s human nature. Society is a fickle beast, and any easy ascent in popularity might just as easily vanish.

The strong characters, then, are those who can recognize themselves beyond any pleasing or trendy façade, who treat others with dignity regardless of their position on Fortune’s ever-turning wheel, who learn from their mistakes and ultimately stay true to their fundamental beliefs.

The Makeover itself might only be skin deep, but it lays bare the inward character—whether darling or demon.

The Makeover Fairy Strikes Again


The Makeover Fairy (AKA the Fairy Godmother) exists in a story for the sole purpose of transforming the main character in a flash, and at a pivotal moment. The classic example for this trope is, of course, Cinderella, where the fairy godmother appears out of nowhere to cast a glamour over her ill-treated beneficiary.

Much has already been said about the ham-handed convenience of such a fairy godmother, who allows Cinderella to live through years of abuse and injustice before she bothers to show up. I prefer to attribute her unreliability to the capricious nature of fairies in general. Why should she have come earlier? Was there ever a fab party on the line before?

(Of course there wasn’t. And who needs a ball gown for boring old life?)

This breed of character marches to the beat of its own drum. Maybe it’s a fashion-forward co-worker, or the trendy-goth sister of the love interest. Maybe it’s Leonardo da Vinci. Regardless, the Makeover Fairy receives token acknowledgement within the story, but their only real purpose lies in helping the main character look ah-mazing.

They swoop in—with or without the character’s consent—work their magic, and then gleefully send their human canvas out into the world. They don’t typically attend the Grand Event themselves. Their motives are altruistic, with no expectation of favors returned.

If the story is a solar system and the main character is the sun, the Makeover Fairy is a comet, circling in for a dazzling close encounter before rocketing back out of the way again.

It’s all very tidy.

The unsolicited makeover, too, lends to an air of humility for the main character. She didn’t go looking for beauty so she’s not vain, you see. She’s pure-hearted, and the universe rewards her for it.

She’s also beautiful to begin with. You notice that she doesn’t need any pounds shaved or teeth straightened. Her aesthetic shortcomings amount to a few cosmetic tweaks. In the rare instance where this is not the case, the character’s transformation can be summed into a quick montage of morning jogs and salads for lunch, as though a complete lifestyle change only requires the decision itself and a peppy playlist.

If only real life were that easy.

But we don’t turn to fiction for real life. We turn for an escape, and one of the most seductive messages of escapism is that some exterior source is going to intervene and grant all of our fondest dreams, with little to no effort on our part.

It’s a lie, but seduction typically is. The true pattern of hard work appears quite dull in comparison.

My Fair Wager


When it appears in literature and film, the Wager requires three main elements:

  1. Person A whose reputation is on the line.
  2. Person B who challenges Person A with a bet.
  3. Person C whom Person A must manipulate to win the bet.

And there’s this unspoken rule that somewhere along the line, Person A is supposed to develop compunction for using Person C as though they’re an object rather than a human. And often Person A falls in love with Person C and must make penance for using them in a bet. And usually, Person B tries to act as a spoiler by revealing the nature of the bet, because B secretly resents A and doesn’t want them to succeed or be happy.

But that’s not always the way it goes.

The Wager motif is probably best recognized in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, in which Henry Higgins bets Colonel Pickering that he can transform flower girl Eliza Doolittle into an elegant lady and pass her off as authentic in a high-society crowd.

Shaw drew his inspiration (and his title) from a well-known myth found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Pygmalion, a master-sculptor of Cyprus, carves a woman from ivory and subsequently falls in love with her image. After supplication and sacrifice at the temple of Venus, he returns home to find the statue brought to life. They marry and live happily ever after.

Higgins and Eliza don’t end up together, despite what that ambiguous ending in My Fair Lady may have implied. Shaw felt that this would undermine Eliza’s character, to have her put herself under Higgins’s control again after gaining her independence. Instead, in his end notes, he has her marrying Freddy and running a flower shop.

Because it’s so much better for her to have a useless husband than an ungrateful one.

Apparently, he met with opposition from theater and film directors on the subject for ever after—to say nothing of his audience and his critics, most of whom would have preferred the happy ending of Eliza + Higgins = Lurve over the empowering ending of Eliza + Independence = Happiness.

But I digress.

The Wager aspect of Pygmalion, despite its iconic status insofar as literary wagers are concerned, fails to include any of the unspoken rules I listed above: Higgins does not regret using Eliza; he might fall in love with her, but he’s too proud to admit it, so it doesn’t matter; and Pickering genuinely wishes him well rather than trying to undermine him.

In fact, this Wager is probably the least offensive wager in all of literature and film. Yes, Eliza gets treated as an object and an afterthought, but she’s aware of the bet from the beginning. Her ultimate injury stems from her misguided assumption that she’s part of the club alongside Higgins and Pickering, that she’s an equal player in their antics. When, after her diligent work and incredible success, they can only congratulate one another as though she doesn’t exist, her rude awakening enables her to separate herself, take the skills she has learned, and live a better life.

The Wager itself doesn’t diminish her. What’s more, Higgins might win his bet, but he loses Eliza in the process. Adaptations of this story, so intent upon getting their “happy ending,” fail to capture this subtle nuance. Or perhaps they’re looking further back, to the happy ending of Pygmalion‘s inspiration.

As far as that original tale is concerned, there’s no bet at all. Pygmalion sculpts the beautiful figure because he thinks real women are disgusting. And his “love” for his creation is more akin to obsession. He caresses the statue. He kisses it. He brings it gifts and dresses it in clothes and drapes it with jewelry and lays it in his bed and sleeps with it.

Yeah. He thinks real women are gross, but he fetishizes an inanimate hunk of animal tusk. Classy guy right there.

Kind of makes a person wish Galatea* had given him the boot when she very first came to her senses. It also kind of makes a person appreciate Eliza’s awakening in comparison. Much as I love a happy ending, it can only truly happen when both sides of the couple are equal.

Otherwise the underlying vibe becomes Master-and-Slave, and that is a losing prospect every time.


*Fun Fact: Ovid never refers to the statue-turned-woman as Galatea. He doesn’t refer to her as anything, except “the ivory statue,” “the ivory maid,” etc. The myth gained popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which time “Galatea” became the most common name for her awakened form and the name that basically everyone associates with her now.

Image Is Everything and Nothing at All


Fictional makeovers almost always work. Unless the story invokes an Emperor’s New Clothes type of comeuppance, a character’s efforts to look their best will typically earn them some immediate reward according to their desires.

And characters usually seek makeovers for one of two reasons:

  1. A desire to fit in with one’s “betters.”
  2. A desire for revenge.

Take a couple seconds to guess which one I think provides the more interesting plot line. Go on. Guess.

(Aside: there is a third scenario where the character receives a makeover through no instigation of their own, but that is a topic for another post. Next week, wink wink.)

#1: A Desire to Fit In with One’s “Betters”

Jaws drop. Eyes bulge. A higher social standing gets served up on a silver platter. This type of makeover is all about the reveal, all about that wonderful moment where the downtrodden former dweeb unveils their new, stylish look.

This reveal usually involves a montage of the character sauntering slo-mo down a school hall or a street somewhere, parading their new digs to all their peers in that triumphant glory-walk.

It’s a Cinderella moment, a fairy-tale dream come true. Its placement in the storyline determines its overall effectiveness, too:

  • If it occurs near the end, the character gets their love and their success and lives happily ever after.
  • If it happens toward the beginning, the character will get their desired effect for a season, but will likely realize they’re not happy and possibly revert to their old self, at least to some degree (but still live happily ever after that way, natch).

This type of makeover feeds upon the social narrative that image is everything, and that the prettier you are, the better your life will be.

#2: A Desire for Revenge

Characters who want revenge against former tormentors often employ a makeover as one of their tactics. Sometimes, this makeover is drastic enough that they can assume an entirely different identity, unrecognizable to those who once knew them.

The revenge makeover renders a character physically equal or superior to their opponents. It opens doors. It creates opportunities. It masks intentions.

It is, however, a means to an end and not the end itself.

The quintessential example of the revenge makeover occurs in Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Wrongfully imprisoned Edmond Dantès returns to society some twenty years after his supposed death to masquerade as the wealthy Count. Money, time, and life’s experiences transform him so that his victims fail to recognize the poor sailor Dantès beneath his cultivated façade. Instead, with a massive fortune to back his movements, the Count masterfully manipulates and systematically destroys the men who ruined his life.

And the reader relishes every minute of his journey.

The revenge theme makes for wonderful dramatic tension, most particularly because of the toll it takes upon the vengeful character. This darker theme breeds anti-heroes and fosters sympathy for the former tormentors, who suffer under reversed fortunes. It is both ruthless and humanizing, a true storyteller’s delight.

The revenge makeover cynically delves beneath the “image is everything” narrative. Image becomes both a weapon and a weakness, ripe for the vengeful character’s exploitation. It facilitates the plot, but it does not govern it. Revenge itself governs until that fateful moment—if and when—redemption topples it from its lofty perch.