“I encourage students to pursue an idea far enough so they can see what the clichés and stereotypes are. Only then do they begin to hit pay dirt.” —Robert Morgan
Clichés come in several forms: language, ideas, characters. Clichéd language is tired, moth-eaten. Clichéd ideas are well-tilled soil. Clichéd characters are stereotypical, overused, predictable – cardboard. In defining these, we fall into clichés.
As a creative writer, you’re urged to go for originality, depth, and complexity.
But how can you avoid clichéd characters, especially protagonists? And once you realize you’ve started your story or novel with one, is it too late? Can you salvage the character and your work?
We turned to several seasoned fiction writers to find out.
A clichéd protagonist won’t feel like a real, live person, but merely a type – and types are boring because we’ve seen them often enough that they become a category instead of an individual. Types don’t pull us in, make us care, involve us in the ups and downs of daily existence. Only full-fledged persons can do that. Keeping that in mind, what are some clichéd character types you would do well to avoid?
“Two types come to mind,” says Walter Cummins, author of several short story collections and publisher/editor of the literary press Serving House Books. These types include “the absolutely evil villain and the absolutely pure hero or heroine. It’s the stuff of comic books or movies with comic book roots. They are clichéd because they are one-dimensional and simplistic.”
As a creative writing professor, Steven Wingate, author of the novels Of Fathers and Fire and The Leave-Takers, is also often troubled by the “obvious heroes and villains that show up in fantasy and dystopian works.” Such types, says Wingate, are “drawn without much attention to personal uniqueness or history” and “tend to be limited by their role in the tale and have no inner life of their own.” Beyond a simplistic motivation, such as I must fight the enemy because they killed my loved one, they have no discernible identity, serving merely as a plot device.
“Usually when I see this,” says Wingate, “I ask my students to spend some time writing about their character outside the context of the narrative they’re working on.” Doing so helps them get beyond their character’s limited function of driving a specific plot.
Of course, there are numerous clichéd character types beyond the obvious heroes and villains. According to Ivelisse Rodriguez, whose Love War Stories was a finalist for the 2019 Pen/Faulkner Award, some obvious characters to avoid include “the racist, the abuser, the sexist, the homophobic, the transphobic, etc., because we have seen these characters, and they tend to represent a type versus an actual nuanced, human being.” It’s perfectly fine to have characters with these negative traits, she says, but “they just have to be more than these. No one is ever just one thing.”
Novelist Melanie Conroy-Goldman, author of The Likely World, warns against “ingrained stereotypes around race, class, ability, gender, and sexual identity, such as the tragic mulatto or the bitchy boss,” though she sees these more as stereotypes than clichés. Do be careful to avoid these, she cautions: “Leaving aside the obvious moral problems of using such stereotypes in your fiction, readers and editors are very much alert to them these days, and they won’t help your work.”
The problem with clichéd characters “is that they conform too neatly to expectation,” says Conroy-Goldman. “The drunken father will behave in ways that are selfish and violent. The bored housewife will behave in ways that are self-destructive and shallow,” she says. “A character whose behavior conforms to expectation leads to a predictable and limited set of actions.”
Aim for complexity if you want to avoid predictable characters. According to Nancy Jensen, author of In Our Midst, writers need to “surprise, challenge, disturb, and move readers in unexpected ways” – which is impossible to accomplish “if you’re working from a character you’ve already labeled or categorized as a type.
“If you typecast your characters before you know them from the inside out, the entire story will be constrained by the associated stereotypes,” she says.