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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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Transforming a clichéd character

If you’re going for literary fiction, you’ll need to avoid a clichéd protagonist – or transform this clichéd character into a complex one. How can you do that? Are some clichéd characters just not fixable? Should you simply avoid such a character at the outset?

According to Jensen, no transformation is possible. “If your goal is to create a fresh, unique story, but you’re thinking in terms of character types, you’re already in trouble.” Instead, she says, you should “refuse the stereotype in the first place. Work with human beings, not types.” But how do you do this?

To begin with, she says, don’t focus on surface features like “the blue-haired girl at the dry cleaners.” Dig down deeper by posing a series of penetrating questions: “What hurts her, what brings her joy, who are her friends – and why?” The more you discover, the more you’ll create a complex character instead of a type. You’ll see tie-ins that “govern how she stands, how she speaks, what she says, what she does, and how she perceives herself and others.”

Wingate, however, believes transformation of a clichéd character into a complex one is possible. “Most characters are stereotypes when we first start writing them, so they’re hard to avoid.” The time to deal with them is during the revision stage, he says: “I liken it to our relationships in real life; you don’t know much about your friends when you first meet them, but after a while, you can predict what they’ll like or dislike.”

If you want to transform your clichéd characters, this will take some time, he says, just as relationships with people do. “It mostly involves looking at the things that connect the characters to the story world – their histories, their relationships with people, their feelings about their setting, etc.” Transformation calls for seeing your characters in complex terms – in realizing the various dynamics that govern them, as individuals, in relation to others: “Turning poorly known characters into ones you understand is all about making the investment in knowing how they are connected to their world.”

For Cummins, “The challenge for the writer is understanding the why of such a character, which is not the same thing as forgiving or redeeming her or him.” Backstory is one useful method. A good example to consider, he says, is Joe Christmas of William Faulkner’s Light in August, where backstory is especially helpful in establishing the believability of this violent murderer. “That’s why the novel is so powerful. Faulkner’s goal, and that of any serious writer, is to strip away the apparent one-dimensionality to find the complexities.”

Rodriguez says there are at least three strategies you can employ, backstory being one. In her story “The Belindas,” she was able to show how her protagonist “arrives at a point in his life where he is abusive.” In fleshing this out, she made him more complex, more believable – “and not just a stock character.” Language itself can be transformative – if it allows your character “to be seen in different ways.” Third, she suggests showing “the character engaging in action or showing emotions that are contrary to how they have been presented thus far.”

According to Conroy-Goldman, four possible approaches are at your disposal. First, consider adding “one central but unexpected element to your characterization.” For example, “Haruki Murakami’s characters sometimes come across as affectless and flat, but they’re enlivened by bizarre little features of behavior.”

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A second approach she recommends is to “give us access to the inner life of a character and in particular their motivations.” Getting into the “inner workings” of a character’s mind is the way to individualize this character.

Third, go for particular details that make your character come alive. Consider Vesta Gul, for instance, says Conroy-Goldman, the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s recent novel, Death in Her Hands. A number of particular details enliven her for us. She’s a reclusive, 72-year-old widow, for one. She heats leftover coffee. And she loves her dog, Charlie. “We see her as a full person. Efficient – she saves the coffee, self-denying – she doesn’t bother to make herself a fresh pot, perhaps even jittery or excitable – the second round of coffee, coffee rather than tea.”

Fourth, focus on voice. Regardless of point of view, whether third or first, “a seemingly clichéd character whose voice is very particular appears utterly fresh.” She finds this especially true of Death in Her Hands, in which Vesta is “prone to violent musings, which she delivers in a perfectly matter-of-fact way.” The tone achieved here, contrary to what we might expect, “opens up possibility,” says Conroy-Goldman, keeping Vesta from being a predictable character.

But what if you don’t want to transform a clichéd character? According to Kiefer, “one way of employing a stock character is to draw attention to the cliché. For example, you might have a particular character comment on how character X is a ‘walking cliche.’ This tells the reader that you, the author, are employing the cliché purposefully and tells the reader that they’re in on the joke.” If you want to try this technique out, he says, “look at Patrick DeWitt’s wonderful The Sisters Brothers as an example of how clichéd characters, scenes, and situations can create theme, meaning, and relationship.”

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