Smoking Man Syndrome: A Rant about Tropes

So, I was reading this action novel about zombies. I’m not going to say the name, even though over all I enjoyed it. There was one trope that really bugged me. In fact, it created an entire rant to which you are about to be treated. Since the goal of the rant is to rag on this one point, not bring that author down, I’m not going to name the book.

The trope, I am going to call the Smoking Man Syndrome, after the Smoking Man from the X-files TV show. The closest the website comes in the “No Name Given” trope, the character that has no real name or identity. It’s common in shows and books alike.

The way it works, and in this book it was almost word for word, is that a character is introduced at some point. When questioned about his identity, he says, “my name is not important.” Who does he work for? “That’s not important, either.” We are led to believe he’s the spokesperson for some shadowy government organization. He comes and goes as the story demands, imparting information or gathering information for his/her organization. Maybe we learn more about the organization in the future, or maybe we don’t.

Like all tropes, it exists for a reason. It is a great non-reveal for the audience/reader. It helps keeps us in suspense. It allows us to glimpse a deeper conspiracy without completely knowing about it.

The problem is that it’s completely unrealistic. If you think for one second that it could be realistic, that explains why you don’t work for the FBI, the CIA or some shadowy government organization. Because if you did work for one of these organizations it would already be drilled into your head, never give information to anyone unless you are positive of their identification and credentials.

Sorry Mr. Smoking Man, your name and who you work for is vital. Nobody in the FBI or the military is going to share one scrap of information with you until they know for sure who you are and where you fit in their chain of command. “Sorry, I am not at liberty to discuss that.”

And then there is the information he imparts. You can tell me whatever you want, but I am not going to trust it, let alone act on it, without some confirmation. On the X-files show we suspend disbelief and go with it, but can you imagine any real FBI agent trying to tell his boss he needs to fly to the Antarctic because some guy he met in a parking ramp told him that was where the aliens were?

And yet he keeps showing up, dropping his vague hints. “My name is not important.” Two lines later they are talking about some top secret zombie lab in the Congo. Or revealing where the hidden works of Leonardo Da Vinci might be hidden. Or whatever.

Just once I’d like to see the FBI agent have the smoking man locked up for impersonating a federal official in an attempt to force him to divulge something more substantial about his real identity. Or better still have a trap foiled because the main character refuses to rush in based on a vague hint from someone he doesn’t know. That would be awesome.

End of rant

Which tropes bother you? Check out the list over at for inspiration.


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