A book I’ve been rereading reminded me of something I love in fiction. I don’t know if it specifically counts as a trope, but I love it when an author forces me to change my mind about a character. This isn’t about the character changing. It’s not a growth or redemption arc. It’s about my mindset changing, often because of new information or even just getting to know the character. Often this comes about because the viewpoint character changes their opinion. If there’s a character I initially find offputting, but then the author forces me to change my mind without the character changing, then I become ride-or-die for that person.
It’s hard for me to come up with good examples without spoiling big revelations, but one that comes to mind is Donna Noble from Doctor Who. In her initial appearance, she was loud, obnoxious, and abrasive, and the Doctor found her incredibly annoying, so the audience was also supposed to find her annoying. But then when she joined the series full-time and we got to know her better, all those negatives became endearing. She did go through some growth as her horizons changed due to her experiences, but she was still essentially herself. Her growth just made her more herself. We did see that some of her traits were defensive mechanisms and we got to know her better behind the bluster, and that made us love her.
I think I first encountered this trope in the old gothic romantic suspense books — those “girl in a nightgown running from a castle with a lamp in one window” books. Usually, there were two men who were possible romantic prospects. One was super friendly and polite, and you were inclined to like him. The other was moody and surly, and the reader and the heroine didn’t trust him. But then we’d find out that the “nice” guy was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, while the moody one was going through some stuff and had good reason to be moody, but was actually a decent guy, and he’d be the one to help save the girl from the one who was a pleasant snake.
It’s tricky to pull that off as an author. If you know what’s really going on with a character, you already love them, so it’s hard to withhold all those nuances so that readers may find the character annoying at first. Maybe it’s easier for pantsers who don’t know when they start that this person will turn out to be endearing, so they can write them as annoying and then reveal more as they get to know the character better.
One common way this kind of twist works is by presenting the character as a stereotype at first — the stuck-up rich girl, the shallow playboy, etc. — and then letting us see past the stereotype to the real person beneath it who is more nuanced. A lot of it has to do with the way the viewpoint character sees this person.
I think I respond well to this in fiction because I’ve had it happen so often in real life. I’ve had so many good friendships develop with people I was initially inclined to dislike. I assumed things about them at first sight, then got to know them and realized these people were pretty cool and we had more in common than I thought we would. I think there’s also an element of valuing the things we have to work for, so if it’s a process to come to like a person, once you do like them, you like them more than you would have if you’d just liked them from the start.
I don’t know what I’d call this trope, maybe “they aren’t so bad, after all.” I guess it could be similar to the “jerk with layers,” but in that case, the person actually is a jerk, even if there’s more going on, and he usually does have some kind of change or redemption arc. With what I’m talking about here, the change is in the viewpoint character/audience.