Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What to Do with Cliché Characters: Two Tips and a Twist

Happy Wednesday! Ocieanna here. Don’t forget to leave your writing questions in the comments section (or contact me privately through I’d love to answer them!

Recently a friend asked me how to handle cliché characters. What do you do when your story calls for a character, but you’ve met him too many times in novels before, like a mean boss, a frumpy best friend, an ignorant gold miner, a wizard, you know, the folks who show up in every book?

Good question.

First, the obvious. Dump the character. If you can get by without the wizard, banish him. Sometimes characters creep into our stories not because they fit, but because we feel obligated. All romances have frumpy best friends, so mine must need one too. Maybe your story does require one, but maybe not. Stop and evaluate the best friend’s purpose. Can the story survive without her? If it can, you might just want to break off the friendship. Sorry, honey, you’ve got to go!

Second, switch it up. Sometimes you can’t just nix the gal. In my book, Love Finds You in Lonesome Prairie, my protagonist works at an orphanage. So, of course, there’s a headmistress … Ding ding ding! A headmistress at an orphanage rings the cliché bell, doesn’t it?

A selfish, mean, ugly villainess immediately shoots to mind, along with images from Little Orphan Annie and The Little Princess. I couldn’t cut her because she played a key role in the plot, so I intentionally made sure she wasn’t anything like Annie’s Miss Hanigan. Instead she’s kindhearted, yet dimwitted. She always wants to help, but ends up hurting those she loves despite her good intentions. A headmistress with a twist.

There’s the key. A cliché character can stay if she must, but tweak her a bit. Can you think of how to mix up any other cliché characters? What if the wizard lost his powers and was forced to depend on his knowledge of botany instead? Or rather than an ignorant gold miner, he’s college-educated with a deep back story explaining why he’s mining for gold instead of teaching physics at university.

Third—and perhaps most provocative—maybe you just have to keep your cliché character the way she is. Gasp! This makes me cringe a little because I’m the president of the anti-cliché society, but think of it this way. We all want to feel a sense of coming home when we read a novel. A familiar character is like having a friend guide us through the new world. Perhaps that’s why movies and books with characters we’ve all seen so many times do well. Star Wars, Twilight, and Harry Potter are obvious examples.

I recently watched Notting Hill again. The folks who put out this film also did Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually among others. Similar characters show up in all of these films. Very similar. Especially the quirky friends, the shy hero, and the distant, slightly mysterious, sought-after girl. Yet, maybe these films are popular partly because audiences know what to expect.

Of course if you let these cliché-types stay, it’s important to craft them carefully. Make your wizard, frumpy friend, or gold miner so pristinely believable your readers won’t even notice she’s met her before. I’m not saying to embrace clichés—no way! But your readers may actually appreciate a few friends to cozy up to.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and let me know!

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