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

September 4, 2013

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.

How to murder your brilliance in one simple sentence

February 15, 2010

So there I was, jogging my little heart out on the gym elliptical machine, reading a book I was thoroughly enjoying. The voice was wonderful, the story fun and entertaining. I was enjoying reading something outside my normal pleasure reading repertoire. The narrative was filled with witty, self deprecating womanly angst that we’ve all been through at one time or another. Har har, ohhh, so been there, babe. I was totally engrossed until I came across this one line.

“I threw up a little bit in my mouth.”

I stopped ellipticating and re-read the line. Eeeeeek!!! Did I read that right? Gah. Did she really use a line that is on virtually every blog or writer’s board? Furthermore, how in the name of St. Syntax did this tiny, weency sentence pass the author’s editor? I would have zapped that little blighter with a flame thrower.

What plays well and elicits a snork from readers on internet boards and blogs does not mean it’s going to have the same effect in a book. I wanted to scream “NARC!”  To me, it’s as bad as trying pass off “It was a dark and stormy night” as your lead-off sentence and not expect howls of “ya gotta be kidding” to ricochet off your quill.

Writing a recognizable sentence and attempting to use it as your own is akin to a perspiration stain on a wedding dress. You can look past the stain and look at the overall wedding gown, but your eyes can’t unsee the stain. And you’ll begin to wonder about the bride’s ability to take care of the situation.

Ok, maybe I’m overreacting, but what this innocent little sentence did is take me out of her story – which was bad because it was a pivotal part of the story. Instead, I stared at the offending sentence and wondered what the author was thinking. Was she that unable to figure out how to express utter shock? Or did she really think this wouldn’t be seen as a literary faux pas?

We writers are word whores. We can’t help it. We see clever things and want to adopt them for our own writing. But there is real danger in adopting something that virtually everyone knows isn’t your own. For one thing, editors can fall off gym equipment.

Change up an internet cliche so that it becomes yours. After all, there are a gajillion ways to express shock to the point of feeling sick, so write that instead. You’re supposed to be clever and unique, so go write your own brilliant stuff. Besides, and be honest here, how many of us have EVER thrown up a little in our mouths? Isn’t that an all or none proposition?

And that’s why it works so well on a board – it conveys shock and dismay as only internet-speak can do. But keep in on the boards and out of your book.


Cliché – “make like a tree and get outta here”

January 7, 2010

Am I the only one who remembers Biff Tannen from Back to the Future saying this? I remember how hard I laughed because, well, Biff was such a moron. He couldn’t even get a single cliché right. Had Biff been a writer it would have been to his advantage.

I’ve come to think of clichés as the soft underbelly to lazy, unimaginative writing. Even the beagle isn’t impervious. Just yesterday she sat on her perch [which is my desk] and watched the hot German Shepherd saunter past. “Le sigh,” she said, “that Klaus makes my knees go weak.”

“Beagle,” sez I, “you don’t have knees, so how can they go weak? And furthermore, is that the best you can do – belt out a cliché that’s as old as the hills and twice as dusty?”

“Hah, talk about cliché,” she snorted. Ok, she got me.

Cliché becomes so because it’s used as a catch-all phrase. If there is an emotion or reaction, there are particular phrases that are used over and over to cover it. Instead of using the weak knees cliché, try something else.

“Every time she sees Antonio Banderas, the joints in her knees turn to grape jelly.”

“Although Antonio rebuffed her offers of having his love child, she still loved him. She always would. But now seeing him would make the cartilage in her knees dissolve like bitter acid.”

Whenever I see clichés in writing, I always wonder about the level of the author’s writing skills. We’re supposed to be clever word slingers, so why on earth would we discolor our writing by using someone else’s overused, tired, worn-out phrase?

“Her heart raced.”

Oh, how I hate this particular sentence. It’s a cop out. Come on, dig deeper. Ostensibly we all know what it’s like to be in love, so internalize this so you can come up with something that is unique, yet hits the right note.

I think many writers have trouble expressing feelings or reactions because they aren’t putting themselves into the scene. Whenever I need to dig into emotions in my writing, I insert myself into that situation and let those emotions wash over me. How do I feel? How is my body reacting? Am I sweating? Do my teeth itch? Am I suddenly more aware of my surroundings? If so, what do I see? Smell? Hear?

Now, a cliché thought may pop up into what masquerades as my brain, but I force myself to think way outside the box in order to avoid expressing anything that’s been said over and over in many other writings. Agents and editors seek those out like a tax man armed with the calculator of death in search of a juicy audit and a victim with weak bowels.

Mr. McDreamy makes every woman’s knees go weak, and a generic one size does not fit all, so don’t keep using the same phrase to signify an emotion or feeling. Fire up those synapses and get in touch with your own emotions. Besides, when was the last time a hot hunk of manmeat really made your knees go weak? I’m an old bat, and the only thing that weakened my knees over the years was that eighteen mile bike ride – and I still haven’t forgiven The Hubby for it.

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