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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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Clichéd secondary characters

We’ve spoken of protagonists, but what about minor or secondary characters? Do we need to make them complex as well? Can we create cardboard specimens of them and still have a solid story or novel?

Cummins reminds us of E.M. Forster’s distinction between round and flat characters in his famous Aspects of the Novel. Round characters are “open to change and developments that may surprise the reader. In effect, they are not predictable, and a good novel gives the reader an investment in what will happen to them.” Even so, says Cummins, “every character in a work of fiction can’t be round. That would pull the work in too many directions.”

If you think in terms of function, he states, secondary characters can be flat and clichéd “if their role is limited and functional.” Such character types include “the kind kindergarten teacher or the harsh boss or the close friend who serves as a confidant.” In this regard, fiction mirrors everyday life, since “we’re surrounded by such people, like the friendly clerk in the grocery store or the unsmiling doctor’s receptionist.” Unless we happen to know “what’s going on inside them, the intricacies of their existence,” they’re not “round” but “flat” – to use the fictional terms.

Conroy-Goldman agrees that the writer faces less reason to invest in characterization of a secondary character: “The minor character demands less in the way of depth – we can usually get by without knowing their inner lives, for example, or understanding their motivations, both of which are needed for a main character.” Even though we don’t need to explore their inner lives, we can certainly find a compelling quality to focus on to individualize them in some way. For example, she states, take a look at “the sexy neighbor girl” in Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Note how Murakami finds a way to keep her from being merely a type: “When we meet her, she’s flirty, not wearing much, smoking a cigarette, idle. But by the end of the scene, we notice she has a limp – she’s recently been thrown from the back of a motorcycle. This one little detail surprises, and opens up all sorts of useful questions for, the reader.” The upshot: “Without the limp, she wouldn’t be as vivid (or as able to drive the story).”

According to Wingate, “secondary characters don’t need to be as well-developed because they don’t do as much. We don’t spend as much time inside their psyches, so their flatness doesn’t show as much as it would with primary characters.” They make quick entrances and exits, “and neither writers nor readers get to look at their internal conflicts up close.” Given that scenario, how much development should we give them? “Ideally,” says Wingate, “we can think proportionally about how much to develop our secondary characters. They ought to have enough detail so that we remember them – often, this is a very precise, fleetingly observed detail.”

For Jensen, on the other hand, secondary characters “can often play crucial roles in the plot.” With that in mind, “if they’re clichéd, they could trigger a clichéd plot pattern.” The only logical reason to include a clichéd secondary character, she says, is “for the primary characters to react to the cliché as a cliché.” This clichéd character, then, serves as an expository device, as a reflection, in some way, of the protagonist.

A secondary character’s function is key for Rodriguez when she writes: “With secondary characters, you have to think about whether or not they really need to be in the story. How are they earning their space in the story?” Unless you can find a useful function for a clichéd secondary character, including one is “going to diminish the quality and integrity of your story.”

Avoiding clichéd characters

If you’re writing literary fiction, be careful not to settle for a clichéd protagonist, the lens through which your story is told, through which it evolves. If you begin with a clichéd character, the jury’s out on how much you can transform them. But as we’ve seen, there are some methods to consider seriously. A secondary, or minor, character might well be clichéd, but even here, you’ll need to make this character interesting or compelling in some way. Avoid the ho-hum, the utterly predictable. Nota bene: “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader,” said Robert Frost.

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Jack Smith is the author of six novels, three books of nonfiction, and numerous reviews, articles, and interviews.

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