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Pro tips for avoiding clichéd characters in fiction

Banish those walking clichés from your work for good with these tips.

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Story problems resulting from clichéd protagonists

A work of fiction is a complex interweaving of myriad elements. In such an intricate tapestry, a clichéd character won’t be a discrete entity. A rippling effect will most likely occur, affecting other story elements.

Plot is one. “A clichéd character comes with pre-packaged qualities, including pre-packaged actions and reactions, even when situations vary,” Jensen says. “Clichéd characters increase the likelihood of a clichéd plot.”

Clichéd characters “won’t do anything that isn’t already pre-determined by your plot, so if you’re not careful, your plot can end up just as cookie-cutter as your characters,” Wingate cautions. “If your character can’t surprise you with their internal motivations and connections to the story world, then they won’t be able to surprise you on a narrative level, either.”

Conroy-Goldman agrees. A flat character is likely to “confirm our expectations” by behaving “in expected ways” – and, moreover, if a predictable character type doesn’t do this, their actions “will seem out of character” to the reader.

A clichéd plot is one that “doesn’t have enough nuance or depth to it,” says Rodriguez. “A cliché, by virtue of being a cliché, never penetrates past the surface-level, so if a story is led by a clichéd character, then, presumably, the story never delves deeper.”

Furthermore, none of your characters will be believable without depth. “Readers sometimes want to find themselves in the text, and they can’t do that if they meet characters that don’t seem real to them,” she says. The total effect? Readers will lack interest in your story. Since clichéd characters “are characters that we all have seen before,” the reader won’t be “learning anything new. And who wants to read a story where nothing new is being gained?”

In lacking character development, says Cummins, you’ve “undermined the core of storytelling. A clichéd protagonist starts at square one and ends at square one, but the readerly expectation is some change or illumination.”

Is there no place anywhere, then, for clichéd characters?

Certainly, says Cummins, if you rely on them as “an object of manipulation, as with comic book villains.”

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Yes – in formula fiction, states Jensen, where “predictability with occasional variation is what the audience not only expects but demands. Predictability can be comforting.”

Or clichéd characters might conceivably work if you’re writing a certain genre novel, says novelist Christian Kiefer, author of Phantoms: “See Hallmark holiday movies or romance novels or many Westerns.” But he also grants that you might be able to pull this off with a more mainstream novel: “Little Big Man is a veritable catalog of Western clichés but Thomas Berger’s use is conscious and specific. The result is sharp, incisive, and very funny.”

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