My Top Three Sci-fi Pet Peeves

Do you have sci-fi pet peeves? Things that make you roll your eyes, scream and shout, and cry “not again… ” Mine are the Chosen One, the Deus ex Machina ending, and what I call “stupid people doing stupid things”–SPDST? All three seem way too prevalent in speculative fiction and movies right now.

The Chosen One trope is where a character is specially selected in some way to save the country/world/planet/universe, often by reason of hidden birth or ancient prophecy. They usually have some sort of Special Power (TM) that enables them to triumph no matter the odds. This is essentially a Mary Sue character taken to extremes. No matter what happens, no matter what enemies or tests they encounter, they literally can’t fail. This robs the story of any sense of drama or tension, conflict becomes meaningless, and regardless of what happens, you know they are never really in peril. They also make all the other characters irrelevant, as nothing they do will amount to anything because the Chosen One will save the day! This is especially common in the latest crop of superhero movies.

In deus ex machina endings, something completely implausible happens at the very last minute when someone or something suddenly conjures up a solution (often using magic) that saves everyone. It’s as though the story’s creator worked so hard to put the characters in peril that they couldn’t figure a way out and resorted to some sort of hand-waving to produce a solution. Again, it leads to poor tension and conflict and makes the struggles the characters have been through trivial and pointless.

Next up–Stupid people doing stupid things! This is irritating beyond belief and shows up so frequently that I often struggle to read or watch anything. In this type of story, the entire plot involves characters behaving in the worst kinds of stupid ways to supposedly drive the plot forward. This is seen in stories where all manner of horrible things happen, but no one ever thinks to call the police–or leave. Or sometimes a character decides to do something completely out of character, for no good reason except to obviously put themself or others in peril, when any rational person would walk (or run!) the other way.

The characters in my books tend to be ordinary people who end up in unusual circumstances and have to find a way around the challenges they face. I make them fight for what they want, and sometimes they don’t all make it. They have their own goals and ambitions and don’t always act in the best way. Sometimes they’re selfish, make mistakes, or choose the wrong solution, because I want them to feel like real people, and real people do all of those things. They also tend to be smart. That doesn’t mean they don’t mess up. But they try to use their intelligence to figure things out and find a way forward rather than running around in circles screaming and shouting (like I’m doing here 🙂 ).

I hope you like them!

2 Responses

  1. I have no problem, per se, with ‘the chosen one,’ but see them as belonging to fantasy. So, if you see one in SciFi… it’s no longer SciFi. As for the trope, though, it always a little (just a little) more involved than you represent. Their biggest obstacle is always that they don’t know or believe they are the chosen one. They have to overcome that mental block, before they can finally prevail over the big baddie…. Yeah, it’s really been way overdone, but clearly there’s a market.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment and sentiments on ‘deux ex machina.’ Poor plannng on the authors part does not beget any gullible acceptance on my part.

    It’s pretty easy to suss out ‘chosen one’ stories before opening up the book. And there are usually early enough clues (e.g., unrealistic early escapes) to warn one away from books racing toward ‘deux ex machina’ endings. However, ‘SPDST’ (I love this acronym) is far and away the most annoying and prevalent device I see in otherwise good stories.

    It is so much more interesting when seeing intelligent people making honest mistakes or having a brief lapse in judgment (during fatigue, for example), than to have a bumbling character making constant mistakes, which put others in jeopardy. When stakes are really high, everyone is on high alert, and those with the weakest judgment are usually not entrusted with key tasks (unless the main protagonist is an imbecilic leader). Such character are almost always misused.

  2. Thanks, for sharing your thoughts, Jerold. With the chosen one, I dislike it in general, regardless of genre. I agree it’s not a common sci-fi trope, but I’m thinking of Paul Atreides in Dune as one example, which most people categorize as sci-fi, along with most superhero movies, which similarly get thrown in that designation. I agree, most of these peeves are fairly easy to identify, thank goodness!

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