Or (according to TVtropes): Penny among Diamonds
I desperately, inconveniently, and perhaps inexcusably, love this trope. I will be using it a bit more broadly than the tvtropes definition, as you will see, but the basic idea is the same.
The poor lad or lass of low social standing somehow gets involved with the higher social classes–cultural clash ensues. Their social “betters” look down on them and mock them as the hero tries to function in that element of society. They have to try twice as hard to accomplish half as much because the deck is stacked against them.
Since I so dearly love this trope, I will likewise try twice as hard to be objective about its flaws. Just expect a little more gushing on the “good stuff” section. (Also, I’ll admit, this is closely related to this trope that I already explored. A lot of the same issues came up).
Shallow rendering: This is the same as with nearly every trope. If you don’t dig deep and write it thoughtfully, it will fail. The most typical example of a shallow application of this is when there’s the “poor girl” hounded relentlessly by a cartoon-standard “rich mean girl” without any complexity or exploration as to the whys and wherefores. The “rich kids” or nobles, or upper class or whatever–they need to be drawn with precisely the same complexity as our stable-boy/servant girl protaganist. Otherwise the conflict is worthless. (more on this in point 3)
Misdirected rage: This one may be more of a personal pet peeve than anything else, because it can be done well, but I really don’t enjoy this trope when the stable boy character spends ALL his time and energy on raging agains the mean-rich-jerk-guy, letting stupid things get under his skin, and basically acts like a flaily, foolish, spoiled brat when his experience (you would think) dictates the opposite. Pride gets hurt? Sure. But obsessing about mean-rich-guy’s insults non-stop? Just straight boring. It’s a time-waster, and if one is trying to get by in a society that views them as inferior, flailing with rage at the drop of a hat is probably the least effective way of proving them wrong. I like to see the character get things done. This is definitely NOT to say that he won’t lose his temper sometimes, or struggle with bitterness, because that’s almost a given, and even a necessity (see point 4).
Mere Illusion: Where the whole trope is just to show how awesome our servant girl main character is. Mean rich girl screeches about her wealth and many fine goods, just to show that our girl isn’t as shallow. Mean rich girl fawns over handsome guy, just to show that our girl catches his attention without any effort. Mean rich girl tries so hard to be beautiful, but our girl just is without ever trying. Mean rich girl wants to be the best at everything, but our girl naturally and effortlessly outstrips her in all fields, from grace to grappling. This isn’t about the real clash of cultures and societal standards, this is about using a setting and characters as window dressing to talk up your main character.
Utter Perfection: Related to the above, where our stable boy is just perfect. Never unkind to anyone. Never struggles with discouragement. They’re just a sweet little angel who everyone else is a jerk to, all the time, for no real reason. He can be a good and honorable person–that’s actually my favorite version of this trope–but he cannot be perfect and perfectly innocent. Hardship and injustice do not bestow moral perfection or innocence. Those situations can–and should–arouse empathy, but should not be inextricably linked to moral superiority. We can all be awful sometimes, even when we’re stuck on the bottom rung and everyone’s being awful to us.
The Good Stuff
Let me crack my knuckles here for a sec. Okay. Here’s where we get personal. I know why I love this trope. Others may share some of my reasons, while some reasons may sound absurd to you. Feel free to take all the following with a grain of salt. I’m also going to be explaining the particular versions that I like.
Handled rage/Cool customer: When our hero is thrust among the rich and famous or social powerhouses, and–whether subtly or overtly–is looked down upon but they just let it roll off of her back. The disparaging treatment rankles and bites–even wounds deeply–but they grit through it and don’t let it hitch their stride. They handle it. They don’t stoop to the occasion. They keep their cool…most of the time. If they keep it most of the time, then really lose it once, it’s WAY more powerful and shows where they draw the line, where their breaking point is. Seeing the breaking point means a lot more if they usually try to keep calm and swallow their pride.
Endurance: It’s hard to make these points distinct, as they are so interrelated. I LOVE to see a character with endurance. Physical endurance. Emotional endurance. Seeing someone who is being hounded at every angle to give up–has every good reason to ‘give up’–but doesn’t. Oh, I live for such characters. Someone who knows they’re at a disadvantage, but doesn’t dwell on it, or scream about it. They just focus and endure, and work through it. Preferably honorably, though that’s not always the case (flaws, remember…those less honorable characters can be fascinating too, though I don’t enjoy them as much).
The Beat-down: Okay, I don’t really know how to understand or justify my own affinity for this aspect of the trope, but usually when there is a character who is the stable boy/servant girl type among the wealthy or powerful–and these are broad terms, there can be lots of aspects to this other than wealth–there comes a point where they endure a brutal beat-down. Physical, verbal, psychological, or a combo of all three. Everything has gone wrong, they are cornered, bruised, bleeding, desperate, despised, bordering on losing all hope, all future, all recourse. No one’s there for them, because they don’t belong to these people and these people never wanted them to begin with.
Maybe they get back up, blood in their teeth, and keep walking through the jeering. Maybe they don’t because they can’t. Maybe someone, at long last, comes through to help them get up. I don’t know. But something about the beat-down–that “Heroic Red Ring of Death”–which is perpetrated directly because of the social clash of “high” and “low” (of whatever variety that may be) strikes something in me. Most often, this is a literal beat-down. A ganged-up beat-down where there is no escape save when the various fists decide they’ve had enough cruel fun. Yeah, inescapability is a huge factor here. It’s not something you can just ignore.
You would never wish this on anyone. If it were to happen to you in real life, you would not feel heroic or epic, I don’t think. Moreover, I doubt that most of us would handle this kind of a situation with the dignity that I find so particularly compelling when it is shown in the character on the page. But I do find it compelling. It jolts something in my heart, and it isn’t just regular empathy, or “feels.” I’m not 100% sure what it is. There’s a ferocity and a resonance. This “beat-down” thing gets me even far outside this ‘pennies among diamonds’ trope. (Watch the movie “Brick” for a good example of that)
I was like this since I was a very little kid. I felt a drum in my chest when I saw these scenarios. I wanted to be that person (to endure it for them?) and I wanted to help them and I was in awe of them.
4. Sparse Tool-kit: This is a basic thing, and surely no surprise. The character with the limited tool-kit is often going to be more interesting than the one with the endless resources. As G.K. Chesterton once said, limited resources are what make the world a beautiful and fascinating place. Every grain matters. Every stroke. Nothing can be taken for granted. Everything by the skin of the teeth. If there’s only one axe, then you better not break it. There’s nothing coming after that.
For some reason, I am having trouble coming up with the full list of examples that I wanted to offer–my brain is creaking a bit today–but here are a few, and hopefully I’ll add more later.
–The Black Cauldron: Taran is a pig-keeper who is on an adventure with a Princess and a Prince. He feels inferior, and Prince Ellidyr ensures that he feels it constantly. Taran is one of those that respond with irriation and pride, but it works and makes sense in context. The ending is a little too easy (the “I-was-mean-so-now-I-must-sacrifice-myself-so-the-main-characters-can-live trope is NOT my favorite), but the adventure and conflict is good.
–The Scorpio Races: Man, this is a gorgeous book. Sean has little, doesn’t own the horse he loves and races with, and all he wants is to work with the water-horses, keep his own, and live his life. He’s controlled by the owner of the horses, and put in a bad way by the man’s son (a somewhat stereotypical “mean rich boy” at first glance, later with viable explanations) but is stoic, and endures. Works hard, doesn’t give up.
–Mara, Daughter of the Nile: This one has a beat-down in it, albeit for slightly different reasons than the initial class disparity. Mara was a slave, bought to become a spy, and trapped into becoming a double spy. At the end she is beaten nearly to death because, though she is worthless to the Queen and “nothing but a guttersnipe,” barely deserving of having a name, the whole coup depends on her refusing to give up the key players. And refuse she does.
-(Movie) School Ties: This one may be overly-simplistic and kinda cheesy, and not 100% accurate, but I still love it. Brendan Fraser plays a poor, blue-collar Jewish high school student (1950’s or 1960’s) who gets a football scholarship to a fancy-shmancy (Catholic?) school, because they’re in a bad way, losing all the time. He hides the fact that he is Jewish and, despite his poorer background, is more-or-less accepted by his peers, though one of the boys is jealous of his status (a very young Matt Damon). He feels conflicted about playing football on Yom Kippur. When they find out that he’s Jewish, they very quickly turn on him. He’s a fighter, and doesn’t give up.
At the end, he says to the dean of the school “you used me for football, and I’m going to use you to get into Harvard” and walks off.
There are many more examples–and better ones, I imagine–and I’ll add them as I can.
I don’t even fully understand all the reasons I love this trope, but the above-mentioned at least go part-way to explaining. I love endurance in the face of unkindness and unfairness. I love someone who handles their work with a calm hand, even when that hand they’ve been dealt is worse than everyone else’s.