Character Clichés – “Make Like a Tree and Get Outta Here”

I flew out to So Cal last week from the ‘Burg to see my adorable niece get married. As I got my seatbelt buckled, I noticed about three separate families with tiny babies, and another group of 45 kids get on the plane. Insert inward groan here. I’ve been on flights where I wished for a speedy death from a screeching baby, so the sight of all these mini-humans had my inner dialog sounding something like this: “1…2…20…25…gah! Look at all those walking hormones! On MY plane! Please, Benevolent Cosmic Muffin, just kill me now. Don’t make me wrestle the flight attendant for a rusty butter knife – even though I think I could totally take her…”

I had an overwhelming desire to dig my fingernails into my cerebral hard drive. Face it, we don’t real high expectations from a group of ‘tweeners, right? Well, the joke was on me. They were adorable…even the babies. I practically danced off the plane when it landed 5.5 hours later.

What I did is give in to a cliche. I made assumptions based on previous experiences, and gave no consideration that there could be any other outcome. We normally see ‘tweens as alien creatures whose breathtaking toxicity tarnish everything they come into contact with. We expect it.

As writers, we can sometimes fall prey to cliches, and it makes for boring, lifeless writing. The divorced, chain-smoking, messy detective; the airhead cheerleader; the dumb jock; the prudish/strict/scary teacher; the romance story clumsy female protag; the angry, resentful teen, the blushing bride…the list goes on forever.

Readers don’t want the expected because, well, they’ve seen it before. Lots of times. Readers are smart, and they want the unexpected. They want to be pleasantly surprised. They want twists. Nothing gooses my gander more than to finish a book saying, “Wow, awesome characters –  a welcome change from the typical run-of-the-mill.”

Take a look at your characters. Are they people you’ve read before, or do they have dimension? The cop/detective doesn’t have to be a divorced, chain smoking slob. He could be the fastidious type who’s borderline obsessive compulsive. Think of what that trait did for Monk. The idea is to think outside the box when it comes to your characters. They are the most important element of your story, so you have to make them leap off the page.

Take time with your characters, avoid the cliches. It’s the first thing that will cause an agent or editor to deep six a project. Now go out and be brilliant.

2 Responses to Character Clichés – “Make Like a Tree and Get Outta Here”

  1. Christi says:

    Memorable characters really drive a story. Even though it’s been more than a decade since I read Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara is still clearly imprinted on my psyche. She was dramatically different from other female characters of her era — and even of today.

  2. Laura says:

    ^^ Second the Scarlett O’Hara comment.

    This issue takes on another dimension when you think about writers who try too hard to write diverse casts of characters…and end up making said characters walking cliches of whatever stereotype fits their ethnic group, gender, orientation, religion, even age…People are people, period. Most of us are complex and nuanced with many personality traits. It’s easy to resort to cliches and let one or two traits define a character, but it gets annoying to read after a while.

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