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I'm currently planning a "magical girl" story, and I thought of an interesting way to start it, rather than launching straight into the backstory. It opens with a woman in her mid-thirties, complete with ponytail of death, walking through a city market while being stalked by a shadowy monster.

What I want readers to expect is that the woman is either going to be killed by the monster, or saved from it in the nick of time by the heroine. What actually happens is that when the monster finally attacks, the woman transforms into a magical girl, beats the everloving crap out of the monster, and then destroys it with a magical laser beam. Surprise! She is the heroine.

I want to try and preserve this surprise as best I can, and make the readers think they're following a redshirt or one-off character instead of the protagonist. Not referring to her by name until after the reveal will help, but it's probably not enough. What else can I do to achieve this?

(I'm aware of answers on other questions to the effect of "don't trick your readers". In my case, this is supposed to be a pleasant surprise, so I feel like it's okay.)

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    I have seen one instance in a webnovel where it is subverted. You read the first chapter thinking you are following the protagonist and he turns out to be a redshirt. Very red. I won't post the novel name here (though I have no relation to the author) – Mindwin Jun 6 at 12:06
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    I know there are plenty of stories that do the opposite of this. IIRC there's an anime where the entire first episode is dedicated to a cast of characters who seem to be the protagonists, but are all then abruptly killed off at the end of the episode to make way for the actual protagonists. – F1Krazy Jun 6 at 13:25
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    Not really fleshed out enough for an answer but how about making her a bit of a Walter Mitty character. Have her fantasising that, if only she had a superpower like flight, then she wouldn't have so much trouble with those creeps who liked sniffing after her on the way home. Then one of said creeps, who was literally sniffing after her, jumps her and gets taken to pieces. The woman then regrets that she has to has to lug the body/prisoner/magical doohickey all the way home on foot. – Alchymist Jun 6 at 15:00
  • @F1krazy nah. Those noobs were not in the OP, it was obvious they were redshirts. – Mindwin Jun 6 at 16:34
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    @Mindwin If you hadn't said webnovel, I'd assume you were referring to The Diamond Age. – dgould Jun 6 at 22:45

12 Answers 12

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If I had to play out this scene from the POV of the protagonist, it would be hard to transition from "redshirt" to "heroine" in a first person narrative. She - as a person - is the heroine from the start no matter what the reader thinks. Her personality doesn't change.

That's why I would play this scene out from the monster's point of view. For the monster this is just another night and another prey. It could follow its prey and come to (false) conclusions about how she is just the same as every other prey. then, the monster will be surprised by the magical girl and the chapter ends with its death.

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    I like this. No one thinks they're a redshirt. Everyone thinks they're their own main character. So put the PoV with the actual redshirt--the monster! Great answer. – scohe001 Jun 6 at 13:29
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    Alternatively, from the no-redshirt POV their walk through the market would likely be for all the mundane reasons we all share. Don’t forget the produce, need to remember to pick up something from the cleaners, blah blah. We all have non-heroic time, even if we do extraordinary things. I’m sure there’s a paraphrase of Colossus from the Deadpool film in there somewhere. – Eric McCormick Jun 7 at 1:03
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What pattern are you breaking?

In this case, you are hoping the accumulation of other people's writing clichés will carry your opening. You want to subvert the trope, but unfortunately this trope subversion is almost as cliché. It's used when the protagonist is a strong female, and it's used when the villain is a strong female. Maybe the only reader this would really surprise is someone who has never encountered any strong female characters, ever.

Redshirts emerged from an established pattern. It's a trope now, but it wasn't in the original Star Trek. Red shirts were the cop uniform or army uniform of the show. Disposable extras are obvious because TV budgets make them obvious. Any non-speaking character in a generic service uniform, paid to decorate the scene, is a Chekov's gun. This really isn't a narrative trope, it's a late-1960s television trope – the joke is aimed at a certain culture and a certain age group – maybe all trope subversions are, but this one isn't so fresh.

It's not that surprising

In a tournament plot 2 people fight, one always wins one always loses. This is 100% expected, in fact this is following the rules of every fight scene. It's like a coin toss, heads or tails, one or the other. An actual surprise is if the coin lands on its edge, or the coin rolls away into the gutter leaving them to work out their differences amicably. Or, as the coin is spinning in the air they are struck by a fiesta bus of drunk spring break co-eds. Surprise!

Maybe the biggest reason this won't surprise anyone is that I can't imagine how a story would be promoted or summarized without mentioning who the protagonist is. Joss Whedon's million-dollar idea was this exact trope reversal, and he even described it very similarly – a cheerleader alone in an alley chased by a vampire – but the name of the movie is Buffy: the Vampire Slayer so you'd have to wander into the wrong theater (and not glance at the marquee) to be surprised.

It's also problematic

Recast the scene with a man, as in April's answer. You have 2 characters in a dark alley, a human man and a drooling monster. Which one is going to be the surprise protagonist? You get zero points for guessing it will be the human being. For this "trope breaker" to be some sort of surprise to the reader, you are essentially relying on the reader's belief that any side-ponytail female is less than human. They would sooner believe there is no protagonist at all than see a vaguely human shaped vagina as an obvious protagonist. Dudes might fall for this. Really stupid dudes.

It's also patronizing, so I think it runs counter to the "pleasant" surprise. Consider some other patronizing reversals: a smart black guy, an educated Southern-accent bubba, a sexy librarian, a nice cop (or a bad cop depending on your cultural decade), an East Asian cabby that doesn't speak in pidgin….

The problem is these aren't characters these are just a 1-note joke. Once the trope is busted there is no further payoff. It's patronizing because it assumes everyone is a bigot. Hur hur. You've lost your non-bigot readers because they just cringed, and you lost the knuckle-draggers because they are rolling their eyes at your obvious SJW pandering.

Buffy: the Vampire Slayer lasted because it was satire. It went back to the same comedy well over and over with a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief. The hero characters remained formulaically shallow and misfit, but the villains were also anachronistic and funny, and everyone spoke in the same pithy dialog. They didn't just break that one cheerleader-as-victim trope, it became a smorgasbord of trope buffoonery. The show surprised us when it got serious, that's when they broke their own pattern.

For anyone who isn't stupid, you'll need a misdirection

April suggested separating the Magic Girl from the protagonist. The protagonist is surprised, even if the reader isn't entirely. The surprise reversal is still carried within the story. It doesn't rely on your reader being a sexist middle-aged baby boomer who grew up on 1960s boy adventure TV reruns.

Establish an in-story pattern first by showing the monster attacking other side-ponytail women. Okay, not quite so literal, but the idea is to not make this the opening scene. Build up the monster as something that kills and kills successfully. Raise the stakes by letting us meet the magic girl in her normal form. Does she have amnesia or a secret identity? Did she come to this planet to get away from monsters? Whatever the pretext, we should see her in her normal world – and also the monster in its normal world, killing – so the reader has expectations about these characters in particular, not just the surface situation (a tournament fight in an alley). Now when the reveal happens, it breaks your established pattern.

Use a decoy character who looks more like a hero and kill him off first. Similarly, you can have a few characters so it looks like an ensemble. Surprise, the hero is Beth the 30-something grocery store clerk, or the burrito waitress – anything that gets your character count above 1 monster and 1 human because most people will see there're only 2 characters and pick the human-shaped one, despite that pesky un-heroic vagina – we'll just assume that's a character flaw that she'll get over somehow.

She dies. Sort of like having your cake and eating it, the monster kills her before she comes back as laser girl. Maybe this is how she loses the amnesia, or maybe she is with friends (who must die before she can reveal her true form?). It's going to open more questions than it answers, but we've turned a 1-note trope reversal into an origins mystery. Again the readers may not be entirely fooled but the element of surprise takes place in-story. There might be consequences from not-dying if there are friends/witnesses, plus there's a savior/resurrection theme and it could explain any other transformations (assuming she stops dressing like a 30-something suburban mom).

Lean further in to the subversion. Here's the opposite. Yes, she happens to be LaserGirl the Invincible but she left all that behind to be a suburban mom, dammit! Similar to Bewitched and other immortals among us characters, the hero is revealed to be an unstable balancing act between maintaining her chosen lifestyle and saving the planet. She doesn't have to be a reluctant hero – she's actually darn good at the hero part. It's the PTA meetings, and dinner at 6:30, and hiding the laser powers from the husband and kids, and this neighborhood has no parking…. You still get your opening scene switcharoo, but it pays off longer as cracks in a mask.

Hit that joke hard in Scene 1 and keep hitting it forever. Establish the main character as the victim and kill her off. Then, an alien warrior (or whatever) inhabits her dead body to fight monsters, but the 30-something mom's memories persist. She's got a mish-mosh jumble of overlapping memories and character traits. It's probably been done a hundred times so it's all in the details. Like Buffy, you get to tell the same kinds of jokes over and over through an iconic self-contrasting character. In Hero-mode she has quirks of Mom, and in Mom-mode she has quirks of the Hero. You can swing her in the opposite direction as needed to contrast whatever is going on (as opposed to Cap'n Ms Marvel who is 2 of the same hero archetype, so why get her memories back she's the same character either way).

It depends on the stakes you establish in the story

There's a whole character behind this trope. Was she pretending because she wants to attract monsters, or was she on her way to spinning class at the gym and a monster found her? Is she more interesting as a normal woman who discovers she has powers, or as a powerful being who wants to be normal? It depends on what sort of themes you want, or what you want this character to say.

Obviously, if all she has to say is "BIFF! BOOM! POW!" or maybe in this case "ZAPP! ZAPP!" then you won't need to over think it. You are trying to raise the stakes with some choreography (running, fighting) and then a deus ex machina. As it all happens in the 1st scene it will be tough to make us feel anything much. Here's a normal lady, but nope she isn't. There's a monster, but it died immediately so I guess it wasn't very threatening.

How does this pay off in the long run? The next monster might fall for it, but the reader certainly won't. This is a 1-note "opening twist" and it's gone in a split second. Now what? How can this scene pay off later in the story?

I think what worked with Buffy is the athleticism shared by cheerleader and warrior. Her personality is iconoclast, but she still did backflips and gymnastics like every other female warrior. If this trope-reversal is to develop into a character trait, you'll want to consider something that moms and monster-killers have in common where this character can find her niche.

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    This is a very comprehensive and convincing frame challenge. I'll have to go away and think about whether I actually want to do this now. – F1Krazy Jun 5 at 15:43
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    I'm not sure how you bring sexism into this given that the OP says "What I want readers to expect is that the woman is either going to be killed by the monster, or saved from it in the nick of time by the heroine" - meaning the protagonist has already been established to be a heroic female character. – Rand al'Thor Jun 6 at 7:50
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    @wetcircuit: Lots of books start with a prologue where an innocent redshirt is killed. No need for any misdirection, establishing patterns, decoys etc. I don’t think any of your arguments really hold merit. – Michael Jun 6 at 10:52
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    It's not problematic. You seem to think that the gender matters for this idea, but it doesn't. You could pull it off with a man in the same way. The point is to show an apparent "civilian" who turns out to be the hero, not to say "women in their thirties can never be heroes". And to reiterate, it doesn't inherently say that. Explain to @F1Krazy how to pull it off without being condescending instead of shooting him/her down, would be my suggestion. – PoorYorick Jun 6 at 11:03
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    I like how Buffy the show subverts the subverting subversion in the pilot -- we KNOW the blond HS-looking girl is the slayer, right? because pre-Buffy-Movie, we knew she was a victim....but it's Darla! So the blond is the Vampire! (Not victim, not heroine, but the monster as our first blonde.) (unrelated -- I always wanted a season or at least mini-arc where Buffy becomes a Vampire, and is still a slayer.) – April Jun 6 at 14:31
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Write from the POV of the monster. This way the prey can be described in more dismissive terms. You can then add inner thoughts of the monster. Dismissive thoughts about how this one does what they all do. First they get scared and their blood makes them easier to find. Then they run, and tire themselves out. Next they die. Hey wait, where did that thumping heartbeat go and why are her eyes glowing?

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    I like this option the most. Have the monster misinterpreting her actions and engaging her based on them only to have the HeroMom actually frantically searching for the keys she accidentally launched at mach speed when fighting the mugger mere minutes earlier. – IT Alex Jun 6 at 13:18
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I would do a heroic twist of the very first scene of the Buffy the Vampire series, which opens with two high-schoolers: a rather rough around the edges but still 90s cool boy and a nervous girl who is following him, but he keeps having to assure her that they're safe and no one is in the school building that they are breaking into after hours.

Now, if you've ever seen any horror movie, you would know this story like the back of your hand: The title includes the word vampires... vampires have little regard for the rules. Everyone who watches this scene has the situation in their head primed... it's obvious that he's gonna make her feel comfortable, they'll be a titillating erotic scene, and then the obvious vampire boy kills the innocent girl. In horror films, monsters are drawn to teenagers having sex like moths to a flame.

Only that scene doesn't get to the screen as the teen boy is distracted by her thinking she heard a noise and goes to check. Nothing there, and as he turns to tell her this, she jumps at him, bites down on his neck and we learn he has a rather girly scream for what we assumed was the obvious monster of the episode. Next we see of no name bad boy, his corpse falls out of a locker onto the bitchy cheerleader every teen horror has to to torment the hero.

Now, it's not a major spoiler these days, but this scene was quite the surprise of the time. Again, I pointed out it was set up to be the horror film cliche. The boy was clearly dropping innocent lines in a whisper that made him sound creepier than he was. Of course you whisper when your breaking into a high school to have fun time with a hot blonde girl. Of course a guy would play protector to a girl he's trying to have sex with, just to show off how masculine he is. These are normal things in the light that the guy isn't the monster. He is playing at being the macho man bad boy to impress her, because you can clearly tell, the innocent girl is not this kid's first rodeo. He's done this before and gotten away with it. And this self-confidence, combined with knowing where in a horror genre work, can easily mislead the audience into presuming his valid reason for being cocky is the self-confidence of the predator, allowing the real killer to tremble with fear. The predator is hiding in the grass, waiting for the confident prey to stray too close. It had not been done before.

One of the best known attempts of these is the surprise that Arnold Schwarzenegger's titular character in Terminator II was the hero. I say surprise, because most people who watch the film have had this spoiled for them, or watched it so much that it doesn't even register. But at the time of the films release, the trailers for it were careful to show the kid and Arnold in the same scene and if you watch to the point of of the first shoot out, and how the shots of both of the characters are framed... Arnold is way more menacing than Robert Patrick, and Patrick is doing a very good impersonation of a cop. In fact, the only reason John Conner fleas the cop is because the cop is asking for him, and John just stole money from an ATM... John doesn't know why the cop is asking for him, but it's never a good thing when a cop goes looking for you personally... especially when you know you just committed a crime. Patrick's character also has a subdued introduction compared to Arnold's Interaction, where the latter's first interaction is to engage in over the top violence inflicted upon the hell's angels style bikers in the biker bar, a defining feature so well associated with the character, it's the reason why Arnold's catchphrase is "I'll be back" (The line was from the original Terminator scene. James Cameron put it in, intending for the joke to be apparent only on a second watch of the movie... but he went to an opening weekend showing, and was surprised to hear the line get chuckles from the audience before the Terminator's "Return". The audience was so aware of the character, they were certain that not only would the robot deliver on it's promise, it would do so in the most outlandish way possible). All of this plays into one of the greatest movie surprises that everyone forgets is supposed be a surprise.

In all these examples, the story is set so that the audience expects the former. It needs a eye for dialog, action, and subtlety that betrays the motives, but only when seeing it on a view. One idea I had for the expectation that she is expected to be a victim, (and please excuse my more Kamen Rider references, I don't know Magic Girl genre stuff, but the Henshin Hero is close enough). Open in a public place with the redshirt getting a compliment on her bracelet from a creepy guy... have her move along, only for the creeper to follow her build up to a chase but have it end in a dark alley where she thinks she's safe... only he's right behind her. Have him burst into the actual form of the monster, roar, and knock her to the ground. The monster picks her up by the arm with the bracelet. She grabs at the creature's large, massive fingers with her free hand, trying to pry them loose, but clearly she can't. THe monster lifts her over his head, and roars at her, prepared to deliver the final fatal blow or what have you and then...

A faint sound is heard that causes the scene to come to a halt, a tiny cry of "Henshin! Henshin!" in an upbeat jingle voice. The monster looks around stupidly for a moment before opening his fist enough that he can see the jewel on the bracelet flashing. This time much louder, it again cries "Henshin! Henshin! Make way for the amazing hero, MAGIC GIRL* Cut to your stock transformation footage, and flash cuts of the costume, and then proceed with the ass kicking of the monster.

If you want there to be an expectation that there will be a hero who can save the girl, perhaps both the monster in human form and the red herring hero are chasing her and both are acting in a manner that would lead the audience to conclude their partners (when they aren't). When she's cornered, have the red herring do what all men who aren't aware they're in a magic girl genre series think: I'm the hero, she's the damsel in distress. And like all times, this makes him volunteer for damsel in distress, and now she has to do a reveal that she's the hero (transform).

Alternatively, the dude's the hero and transforms to save her, only to bet owned by the monster. She runs over to him, rather than away from the monster, to tend to him, only to now be in danger and without a protector hero to save her... or so it seems... She wasn't tending to him... but grabbing the transformation device, which she activates and uses to kick ass (you can easily do the bracelet scene again). Though this works better if the hero's design is one that isn't strongly gendered like most magic girls, and the name is not a gender association, as this way you can further mess with audience expectations by putting the art of the hero on the cover, in such a way that it looks like the person in the suit is the man (easier than you think. Most Henshin hero suit actors are men... including the female characters... the reason why the Pink Power Ranger normally wears a skirt is because it hides the, um, area that could give it away... all the stunt actor has to do to complete the illusion is wear an undershirt with a fake bust. And you thought the original yellow ranger being an in character man in japan was the oddest thing about Power Rangers).

And finally, if you're feeling really daring and adventurous, and since this subversion is pretty well known in Superhero genres, try this. The big reveal about your "Damsel in distress" woman and your "hero" man is that... they are are exactly what they appear to be. She is a damsel in distress (but joins the team as a powerful ally) and he is actually the hero of the story... but there's a second part to this tale: When he shout's "Henshin!" the transformation sequence still turns the man into a Magic Girl... with all that is implied by that change. Again, this works because the modern reader is going to see the obvious if this is a magic girl genre work (You really can't hide the ball that she's going to save her self, considering the heroine would be on the cover... unless the heroine on the cover isn't a heroine when living a civilian life. From what limited knowledge I have of the Magic Girl genre, a general them is that the transformation comes with a host of problems as the transformed form is normally more idealized than the civilian form and the body image issues the girl(s) deal with. While they don't have the same exact issues, Men are not immune from having Body Image issues, which I'm pretty sure, this scenario would definitely have room to explore.

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+1, Wetcircuit, though I will disagree on the Buffy angle; she is right on the misdirection.

This is difficult to pull off. The way I would do it is a little "close up magic"; you have to write from the POV of the hero but still mislead the reader into thinking she is doing something DIFFERENT than what she is doing.

One way to do that is give her a phone and somebody to talk to, a partner or spouse.

Here is an outline of a conversation. On the phone she is complaining.

Hero: No, I can't find this guy anywhere. And I have to get home and start dinner, I can't do this all night.

Partner: Just stop and get some pizza on the way home.

Hero: I'm not feeding kids pizza every night, it isn't healthy.

Partner: Alright. Well try Baker street, that's on your way home.

Hero: We tried that last night, and you said you didn't trust that report anyway!

Partner: I know. Just try it again.

Hero: Whatever. What's the quickest way to Baker?

Partner: Um, let me check your phone. Oh. Take a right in the next alley, then three blocks to Baker.

Hero in the dark alley, disgusted by trash and litter and puddles of who-knows-what-that-is-but-it-doesn't-smell-like-water. She hears trash cans being rattled. In front of her, a dumpster shape-shifts into a monster.

Hero: What the hell are you doing in an alley?

The monster attacks. Hero mode.

The trick here (so you can tailor to your own story) is to make it seem like she is searching for a person, and frustrated by not being able to find him. You could do the same bit searching for an object.

As a superhero, she isn't afraid of the monster, she is just irritated that she can't find it, and she has a life to live.

In the alleyway we present things that stink and she finds disgusting, she doesn't want to be there, but still in her mind there is no monster because she thinks she has missed her chance. She is just taking a shortcut to Baker street. She doesn't even expect to find the monster in the alley.

But make sure if you go through it a second time knowing she is a superhero, you aren't cheating. She just wasn't thinking about being a superhero while talking to her partner on the phone, she was thinking about her domestic life. Because killing monsters is routine for her, she doesn't really have to think about it.

  • Which Buffy angle did you disagree…? – wetcircuit Jun 6 at 10:01
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    @V2Blast I incorporated some of your edit; but rejected it. +1 is not a footnote, it means I voted for wetcircuit's answer because I agree with nearly all of it, and what I am adding in my answer extends something about her answer. Specifically that misdirection is required. Your edit ruined that meaning. The "+1" acknowledgement is an unwritten practice many of us use here; don't convert them to footnotes. And don't edit to just put something in your own words; my grammar and spelling and understandability were fine as they were. – Amadeus Jun 6 at 10:05
  • @wetcircuit I did not agree Buffy was satire. I do agree the commonality of athleticism is what worked, I do agree there was a lot of trope-busting going on, and although it was at times funny I don't think it was ever written as a "comedy"; nor do most of its fans. I think it was a modernization for a young audience of a tired old horror staple, to make both vamps and heroes more relatable. Buffy begins a "stranger in a strange land", new to the supernatural scene, and (IMO) grows throughout the series. Real life is often funny, but I don't see them setting up gags and punchlines. – Amadeus Jun 6 at 10:16
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    thank you for explaining. Buffy as our everyman in the Supernatural world is a great point, I don't think I ever considered that because to me she seems such a character (something she lost over the seasons), but yes of course, all those exposition for dummies scenes were usually for her (later the gang's) benefit. A show that could have bogged down in lore chose to be almost flippant since the lore was always above Buffy's head and she reduced it to the simple actions ("get to the place, poke him with a stick, got it, Giles")…. Gotta disagree about the comedy (Harmony was a fav) – wetcircuit Jun 6 at 10:45
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    I used to hate how femmey-femme Buffy was, but then I realized (with help from the Still Pretty podcast) that they were showing you can be "you" (whether it's colorful and texture like Willow OR girlygirl in baby blue and short skirts like Buffy) and still "Kick Ass" -- it was a reaction to the Ripley (Alien) trope -- that "strong" female protagonist who was also "strong" had to appear minimally feminine. (Maybe overkill the other way, but I get it now.) – April Jun 6 at 14:35
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(Note: This answer is basically the opposite of Cyn's answer. I can see arguments for doing it either way; in the end you might have to play around a bit and see what works best for your story. Cyn's answer is certainly nice because you don't need to give any details about the heroine yet, so you can fully develop her later.)

The cliché

The cliché that you are trying to subvert is often played like this: The first character that is introduced in a novel is a humble working-class person who has a hundred problems on their mind. They have kids waiting at home, they worry about their parents who are old and need to be looked after, they think about their mean boss at work. The novel actually goes into quite some detail here. The point is a sort of ironic contrast between the things they worry about and the thing they actually should be worrying about - the monster that's waiting around the corner.

Maria Lopez was walking home. It was 11 p.m., and she was tired. She had had a double shift at the hospital again, thanks to Dr. Weiss, the insufferable chief physician who had no respect for the nurses and their working hours. Now her feet hurt and her head was aching. And the worst part was that she would have to get up again in seven hours. Sometimes Maria found herself thinking that her children would end up as criminals due to her never being around. As she passed a dark alleyway, she inadvertedly imagined Pablo and Emilio as teenagers, lurking in just such an alleyway, waiting to rob people just like herself who were just trying to get by. She shook her head to dismiss the image. "They are good kids, they would never do that", she scolded herself in her head. She felt ashamed, but also a little bit nervous. Did something just move in the shadows of the alleyway?

The subversion

The goal is to write about the character as if she was exactly the cliché described above. Take the more mundane parts of your character's life and have her really focus on those in that scene. In that scene, she is not thinking about her magical girl secret life at all, she is full-on thinking about trouble at work, in her love life, bodily aches, maybe she's feeling a bit vulnerable, and so on. While your portrayal of the character should not be a heel-turn in comparison to the later parts of the novel, it is okay if you over-emphasize the non-special parts of her character.

But of course, at some point there's the reveal, which is an important part of the subversion. This is the maximum tension point in the chapter. The character is aware of the monster, and she has to act now. But the reader is still thinking of her as a weak everyday person. The reveal can be humourous or it can be awe-inspiring, which really sets the tone for the rest of the novel, so be careful here. You don't want to give your readers the impression that they are reading a light-hearted novel, when you're going for full-on drama later on.

Maria turned around, slowly. Her eyes widened. Big, slimy tentacles were reaching for her. She instantly knew what was about to happen. All her previous worries vanished from her mind. She knew that nobody was here to save her. The streets were empty, and nobody could hear her scream.

The monster lurched forward. With closed eyes, Maria fell to her knees and folded her hands.

The emerald between the palms of her hands began to glow. As she opened her eyes again, they were glowing too. Her voice was dark and booming as she spoke: "By the power of the Crystal Angels, I smite thee!"

Maria, the Crystal Angel of Kindness, was going to have to do this herself.

I don't know if I really succeeded here, but I tried to drag out the reveal for some time without writing something that just does not make any sense in hindsight. (To justify her reaction here, a later passage might have to explain that she does not really like smiting monsters, especially not after long shifts at the hospital.) The reveal can be handled differently as well. Another choice would be to slowly introduce elements that contradict the previous characterization of her, so that it is not a classical "twist" but a slow-burning realization that this character has more to offer.

Can you really trick your readers this way?

At some point, you have to accept that not everybody is going to "fall" for this, simply because not everybody has the same tropes in mind when they start reading a novel. Some people expect the novel to start with the main character, and might simply not get what they were supposed to expect differently (your novel is proving them right after all). Others might recognize the cliché, but might then go into full sleuth mode in order to predict all possibilities how the scene could play out. "Oooh, she's gonna die. Or wait, maybe she's gonna be saved? Oh, what if she is the monster!" These people are likely to be disappointed no matter what you do because they think their own ideas are cooler than the ones you come up with.

But I would argue that for a majority of readers, the scene "just works" without them really thinking about it. They will read it, and when the twist comes they'll say "huh, cool, didn't see that coming!", and then they'll keep reading, slightly more engaged. Without ever analyzing the scene too closely.

In order to get the feeling of the scene just right, I recommend reading some novels where the cliché is played straight. One of them is "The Swarm" by Frank Schätzing. It starts with a fisher in South America who will not survive the first chapter, if I remember correctly. But especially for the subversion it might be necessary to emphasize the dangerous atmosphere of the scene. Have the main character be nervous, have her look over her shoulder, let a light suddenly go out, thunder in the distance, barking dogs... whatever sets the mood to "things will go horribly wrong soon".

  • Upvoted - not only does this do a great job of achieving OP's aim, but it also helps to reveal quite a lot of information about the protagonist and her life to the reader very early on, without it feeling like clumsy exposition. – AJM Jun 6 at 16:24
5

Make the character part of the setting.

There are various methods for making a person in a story appear to be the main character (or at least a prominent one). For example:

  • Giving her a name (obviously even background characters can have names, but if the narrator refers to her by name, she's more likely to be a big character).
  • Listening to her thoughts.
  • Giving background information in the narration (her profession, how close to home she is, how her heavy dinner is sitting in her stomach right about now).
  • The narrator having a familiarity with the character.
  • Showing complex emotions (fear is okay here but I mean giving her a complex inner life).
  • Describing her in detail.

You want to do the opposite. Don't give her a name, just call her "the woman" or something similar. Describe her minimally, just enough for the reader to picture the scene. Stay out of her head. Don't give any background or additional information about her that isn't present in the scene.

You want the narrator's gaze on her. Show her, follow her, record her actions. You can do this by using the point of view of the monster, as other answers here suggest, but that isn't necessary and may not be what you want (it lifts the monster to the place of a main character, though it can work if done infrequently).

The point of view here can be from the narrator (in a movie it would be the camera). An observer who moves around the scene like no human can.

Allow the narrator to describe the woman as if coming across her for the first time (because that's what the reader needs to think). Don't show the narrator having any familiarity with who this character is.

All these things will make the woman part of the setting. Your reader won't think she is going to stick around after this chapter (either because she dies or because she gets away).

At the end of the opener, or at the start of the following chapter, you can reveal who the woman is and tell the reader more about her.

3

Misdirection works better if there is something to be misdirected to. To extend the metaphor you used in your question, if you want to make people think someone is a redshirt, it helps to have an apparent yellowshirt. So, for instance, you can have a police detective investigating mysterious deaths. Then a girl comes along that matches the pattern of victims. Will the detective reach her in time?

If you're willing to break audience trust for the sake of a twist, you can use the title and cover art to help set someone else up as the protagonist.

One problem that your idea of "subverting" this cliche is that this cliche is itself a subversion. Thing of Scream. We were clearly meant to think that this character played by a big-name actress was being set up as the protagonist. But now this "twist" has become so common that it has itself become a cliche. Now you want your reader to think that you think they will think that your character is the protagonist, so they will think she's a red shirt, so they will be surprised when she's actually the protagonist. That's a lot of levels to expect your readers to be operating on.

3

Split the POV of the opening scene.

Half the time so you are seeing it from the monsters POV where he is focused on the prey (redshirt).

But half is from the hero's POV, as magic girl, being aware of what monster is up to, predicting his moves, getting ready to strike. As the scene climaxes the readers will expect the monster to strike, the hero to intervene and the prey to be saved. And this happens, but what they don't expect is that the prey and hero are the same. That's the twist.

Might be difficult to do without giving the game away or having an inconsistency, but if writing was easy everyone would do it. You can improve your chances by having the characteristics of the hero in their first-person (calculating, strong, aware) be very different from the characteristics that we seem to be observing in the prey.

2

I would say play up the vulnerability of the protag, perhaps describe the scene from an almost-predatory perspective. Make it clear that by all accounts, she is monster meat... and then bam, with the laser, the protag blasts away both the monster and the expectations.

I wouldn't subvert expectations for its own sake, however (Game of Thrones (the TV show) is a handy example of such folly) there's a place for including this, especially given this is a magical girl in her 30s (already unconventional).

2

What is a redshirt?

A character who seems along for the ride, is capable at their job, but who isn't the primary character in the story. When element X gets introduced, the red shirt is offed to show how dangerous element X is. The red shirt is therefor not a primary part of the scene. To be a true redshirt you must be a secondary character in the story.

I'm not sure you're subverting the trope you think you are

You're subverting dead anime mom. Not red shirt. So think about anime moms. What are they doing, why do you like them. It's not just anime moms (there's anime dads who die too).

Subverting the Anime Parent dies trope setup

You need an anime hero. You need to follow them around. You need to introduce them to a family. That family has either a dark past or works in a dark place, but is oblivious (as far as the reader can tell) to that darkness. Your hero character is not or appears to be from the reader's point of view about to learn just how dark that setting really is.

The Subversion

The hero dies or is about to. The anime parent it turns out only made it to parentage because they'd figured this all out already. You're going to have trouble with the hand off because your reader will already be invested in your hero. So, it's probably worth killing the hero outright. Plus more pain for the childrens.

The trick here is that if the anime parent exhibits unearned awesome you're going to lose your audience. So, you need to figure out how that parent takes their role one step farther. They aren't just competent at parenting, they're also obviously competent at dealing with agent X. You just didn't realize it until agent X showed up.

The subversion has to be sudden, but inevitable.

I think this can be done. Telling you exactly how to do it would be wrong. Honestly, the hero dying could be your act 2 corpse. This entire thing could be a pretty good story. One that looks like a hero story, then a horror story until its a hero story again.

0

In movies, many "redshirt" scenes like this avoid showing the redshirt's death clearly. You can use this to your advantage.

Here is what I suggest you do: follow the cliche exactly. Then subvert it after the readers/audience have forgotten about it.

Let me give you a summary of how I would write this:

So, here is the way these scenes typically play out. We see the red shirt running from something. They are running so fast that the camera is shaky, we can hardly see anything. What could they be running from? The red shirt looks behind them. They slow down. The monster is no where in sight. The red shirt relaxes, collapsing onto the ground, catching her breath. We see the monster slowly creep up behind them with out their knowledge. The red shirt turns around, and then the camera pans up to a shot of the sky, or the moon etc. And we only hear the screams, we don't see anything.

Then, we introduce a fake main character. "Sherlock". This faux main character heard that someone went missing, and heard reports of screams in the area. Sherlock investigates this for a long time, maybe he hears rumors of these monsters.

After some time. The Sherlock character finds the monster, but its not what he expected. The monster is dead, bloodied, its arms have been ripped clean out of its sockets, etc.

Who could have done this? Sherlock hears rumors of an even greater monster. A monster that eats that other monster for breakfast. Sherlock finally gets close to this monster's lair, and the monster attacks him! Sherlock is completely unprepared for this, and is inches away from dying. But at the last second, the red shirt jumps onto the monsters back, and rips its arms out of its sockets. We now see that when these monsters are in pain, they scream like humans, explaining the beginning. It was the red shirt who killed the first monster all along.

Give your audience enough room to forget about the beginning Thats the only way to have them feel pleasantly surprised.

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