How To Avoid a Cliché in Three Easy Steps*

* Note that I don’t actually have three easy steps, but I wanted a clichéd title…

Along with accusations of a predictable plot, poor dialogue or an unimaginative setting, one of the criticisms that many sci-fi or fantasy writers dread is that their characters are clichéd. ‘Stock characters’, ‘cardboard cut-outs’ and other such terms are judged to be anathema to good writing.

In the modern world, it is almost impossible to avoid cliché of one sort or another, or so it seems. With so many books, TV series and films over the past forty years pretty much any type of character you can imagine has been explored somewhere already by someone else. We now face not only the problem of the cliché but also the anti-cliché – that is to say, attempts to make characters not cliché have themselves been so widely used they have turned into their own form of cliché.

Let’s take for example the Gentle Giant. We all know this chap. He’s large, either with fat or muscle, and can really handle himself, but inside hh has a well-meaning heart and a soft spot for small animals and children (not in that way…). He is often slow-witted but likeable. If one goes to the opposite extreme to avoid this, we have the brutal bully, who uses his physical bulk to get what he wants. He is greedy and avaricious. He is also just as much a cliché as the gentle giant, as evidenced by countless slave overseers, gaol wardens, bosuns and other stock bully characters throughout fiction.

So we are seemingly faced with the dilemma – go with the really old stereotype or go with the new post-modern cliché evolved to avoid it. The truth of the matter is that your character on a basic level isn’t going to be original anymore. What he or she needs to be is believable.

Where’s the Trope?

Stereotype, cliché, archetype, trope – all words that basically mean the same thing, but with differing levels of acceptability. The self-same character might be described as stereotypical or clichéd as a criticism, or equally praised as being a good use of a staple trope or a strong archetype. What makes the difference?

The answer is all in the realisation of the character. Archetypes/ tropes are useful because they are shorthand direct from writer to reader. They carry with them all sorts of expectations and assumptions about the character that the writer doesn’t have to waste valuable time and space explaining. Take the knight as an example. By introducing a knight into a fantasy setting one conjures up all sorts of imagery of who the character is and what he does with one simple word. Similarly, the ‘US Marine sergeant’ instantly creates a picture of a weathered, cigar-chomping badass who doesn’t take any nonsense and gets the job done. Beautiful princesses, conniving viziers, scabrous beggars, pirates, learned druids, mad high priests, free-spirited cowgirls and all manner of other archetypes abound throughout fiction. To move from cliché to strong character, a writer must not be afraid of the template upon which he or she is basing a character, but also be aware that it is nothing but a skeleton upon which to hang more.

Writers prepare in different ways. One of the things I do when setting out on a new piece is to have a brief overview of the main characters for my own reference (if only to make sure I spell their names the same way until I get used to them!). These bald notes always, always appear to be clichés for the reasons I mentioned earlier. The gregarious character who is always ready to crack a joke. The experienced veteran with trust issues. The wet-eyed new boy with everything to learn.

Wherever possible I try to focus these few notes on personality traits, with only the most basic necessities about physical appearance (if any). As Matt Keefe explains so well in his essay here, think about character not biography. Sometimes it’s also worthwhile making a note of the character’s role in the story – after all, sometimes what a character does is as clichéd as their physical and mental make-up; a best friend is going to have to either betray the protagonist or stay loyal, both of which might be seen as cliché, so just be certain which it is and not worry about it.

Arrested Development

These bare bones are always going to look somewhat trite and unoriginal by dint of being unfleshed notes. What turns a cliché into a strong archetype is how you realise that character during the writing process. The cardboard cut-out is a great analogy, because it demonstrates the most obvious deficiency of a cliché; it lacks depth. Now, we all know some shallow people, but when we really think about them there’s always something more than the façade (sometimes not much, but that’s people for you). A writer’s characters must also appear to have that similar quality.

The first is contradictory behaviour. Very few people are 100% true to themselves all of the time. Personality is all about predilections and likelihood rather than hard and fast rules of behaviour. Character A is a coward and is 99% likely to run away from a fight. That 1% of occasions when he or she doesn’t run makes them more believable. The timing of these contradictions can also be clichéd, though. As I mentioned, what characters do can be stereotypical as well as what they are. If Character A’s 1% of bravery is in the last big fight against the bad guy and saves the protagonist’s life, it’s veering back towards cliché. If Character A stands up for the protagonist halfway through the book but later reverts to type – that phrase tells its own story doesn’t it? – then Character A will appear more rounded and less clichéd.

So, one way of avoiding cliché is not to hang important plot or narrative elements on single instances of uncharacteristic behaviour. If it really is important that Character A saves the protagonist in the final battle, then the transition from coward to hero must be portrayed in such a way that it is almost expected, though to keep suspense it should not be certain – character development. Character development can be overdone, because very rarely in real life do we see the kinds of radical changes in behaviour that many fictional characters undergo. They have epiphanies concerning themselves and suddenly about face and do the right thing for the necessity of the plot and ‘character development’.

Development that works well is subtle and continuous. Character A is still, at heart, a coward at the end of our story. However, he has grown sufficiently in confidence for a small act of heroism at the end. He’s not going to physically confront the big evil our protagonist must defeat, but in some small but important way Character A influences the battle. He might risk his life to throw a sword to our heroine (yes, it’s a heroine, let’s not even start on gender-specific clichés!) and then scuttle back for cover. If the character has been realised well, the readers see that this may be a small victory but it is an important one.

Keep it Real, Man

With prominent characters writers have time and space to explore them in more detail, with minor characters this can present a much more problematic situation. First of all, don’t labour too much over walk-ins. If the sub-ensign of the UMS Irrepressible’s only job is to hand our valiant captain a message from the engine rooms, nobody cares. He’s not a character, he’s a function of the plot. You might like to give him the broadest brush possible – young, old, blonde, excited, worried. That’s all he needs, because your reader doesn’t care about him, your reader cares about the message.

Some characters are a lot trickier, as they are not main characters but they will appear several times. These secondary characters are most likely to cause you problems, with more ‘screen time’ than your walk-ins but not enough space to be realised as main characters. Firstly, avoid the temptation to big up their part. It’s interesting that Herr Werner mentions fighting off just such a character in his latest post for his blog. Sometimes secondary characters are immensely entertaining for a writer because they seem to develop more naturally than the strictly-controlled main characters. Don’t let them steal the show, especially if you have a pre-determined word count to adhere to!

On the other hand, give these characters a little bit of time in the limelight. They may only exist to perform a functional purpose like a regular walk-in, but now and then give them a reaction, some extra dialogue to express an opinion, or some other small glimmer that they are in fact a person and not a plot device.

Go For It!

If all else fails and you really can’t avoid a cliché, then grab the bull by the horns and ride it for all you’ve got. If there’s one thing worse than a cliché it’s a partial cliché. You know the ones; they’re 80% cliché and it is obvious that the writer has tried to throw in a real curveball in an attempt to avoid the inevitable – the virtuous knight who likes to kick dogs, the deranged psychopath with a liking for flower arranging or the hardy ship’s captain with a liking for poetry.

One of the reasons that stereotypes, tropes or whatever you want to call them, endure is that people respond to them. If you use a cliché make it the best rendition of that cliché ever to be read or seen. Take Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s chock-full of clichéd pirates, and don’t we just love it for that. Now and then it’s great to see pirates doing things we think pirates should be doing, complete with peg legs and parrots. If the writer realises the cliché with unashamed gusto and skill the reader responds positively; the writer is being honest and so the reader is left to enjoy the entertainment for what it is.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very interesting and useful, Mr. Thorpe.

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  2. So we can summarise this by saying that what is important when creating a character is making sure that they’re plausible and not unbelievable – make them act as a person like them would, and never make them do something just to speed the story along.

    Oh, and I was wondering. How does one get a book published by BL? Nothing serious at the mo, just a series ticking over in my head…

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  3. Y’know, your timing is actually amazing!

    I found myself pondering this over the weekend as I considered whether the protagonist (and indeed some of the other primary characters) in my current literary endeavour was(were) in danger of becoming a cliché, and then you go an post this li’l gem of a blog!

    Very useful insights there Mr Thorpe!

    Rooney

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  4. Glad the post was timely. I’m planning to do a ‘character creation’ follow-up prompted by Perius’ comments. Please send any questions to the Ask Dennis address and I’ll attempt to give my take on the solutions.

    Cheers,

    GAV

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  5. “Oh, and I was wondering. How does one get a book published by BL? Nothing serious at the mo, just a series ticking over in my head…”

    Have a look here:

    http://forum.blpublishing.com/forum_posts.asp?TID=915

    GAV

    Like


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