When I was growing up, westerns dominated the small screen. As my experience expanded, I realized that it didn’t take much to figure out who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.
Good guys — white hat, shirt neatly tucked in, guns riding high and often two strapped to the belt (they were always extremely good with guns), friendly, polite (especially to women, old men, and children), law-abiding.
Bad guys — black hats, rumpled shirts (also often black), guns riding low, black horses (usually slow), a five-o’clock shadow or a couple days growth of beard, surly, chews and spits a lot, leers at women, mean even to friends, cheats at cards.
Stereotypes. That’s what the characters in westerns became, and I suspect part of the reason the public lost interest in westerns was the predictable nature of the stories told about these stock characters.
The thing is, it’s easy to fall into producing assembly-line characters. When we think about villains, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t “lovable.” So we shape them to fit the need at hand. They are mean-tempered, ugly, squinty-eyed, fat, rude, selfish. Whereas the good guys … Well, you see the problem.
How can a writer steer clear of stereotypes?
First, each character needs to become an individual. No two of us are alike, nor should the characters in our novels be alike. But more than our different looks, we show ourselves as individuals by our actions. Hence, the characters that stand out as memorable are the ones that act in ways that are unique, unexpected, and homogenized.
Often the things that make a person unique are considered quirky or weird by others. The TV program Monk became popular in part because the brilliant detective who solved crimes a la Sherlock Holmes was plagued with obsessive compulsions and a long list of fears. He was unforgettable.
Quirkiness doesn’t have to be that extreme, though. A kindly June Cleaver-ish stay-at-home mom could be dyslexic and unable to read. A successful car salesman could be inept at handling his own finances. The star high school quarterback could hole up in his room on the weekends with a book.
Where does the writer come up with quirks in a character? From real life. As a starting place, think about people you know and the ways they do things differently from others.
Quirks can also lead to unexpected qualities which create unexpected actions. The dyslexic mom, for example, refuses to help out in her son’s classroom even though she’ll volunteer her time at the homeless shelter and participate in walk-a-thons for breast cancer research. She’s involved, civic minded, but steers clear of her son’s school.
Sometimes, however, the character may violate his own list of taboos which creates another kind of unexpected.
Again using the main character in Monk as an example, from time to time one of the people he cares about — his brother, the captain who hires him, his assistant — gets into serious trouble and he has to climb a ladder (he’s afraid of heights), go into a sewer (he’s afraid of germs), or pay a ransom (he’s cheap). Of course each trait deviation is clearly and properly motivated, but the fact that he does what he fears is unexpected.
Sometimes, however, he doesn’t come through, or does so only because of incessant
nagging prodding from another character. Thus, his change in his routine way of living remains fresh and unpredictable.
A third way to make a character memorable is to homogenize them — stir together both strengths and weakness. Notice, this is not the same thing as saying they need to have a mixed bag of good traits and bad traits. Strengths simply mean that the character is very good at something particular. So the villain might be a better swordsman than the hero, or he might be a master at manipulation and control (think The Godfather).
In the same way, each character needs to have weaknesses and fears. Even Superman had a physical vulnerability (his “allergy” to kryptonite) and a fear of putting the people he loved in jeopardy. Creating characters who are a composite of qualities makes them much more interesting.
Scarlett O’Hara was an obnoxious flirt and didn’t know her own heart when it came to men, but she was resilient and strong-minded and determined. Was she a heroine or a villain? Sometimes she seemed like one only to show herself to be quite different a few chapters later.
What about Bilbo Baggins? He was reluctant, timid, and enamored with ease . . . except he was also clever and adventurous and trusting.
When an author avoids cliches in writing, his prose takes on a freshness that makes it a delight to read. When he peoples his fiction with fresh characters, they take on a life of their own and become memorable.
What memorable characters can you think of that show uniqueness or the unexpected or the homogeneity of strengths and weaknesses?
3 responses to “Characters Can Be Cliches Too”
I was just wrestling with character this morning, doing a piece on witnessing my mother’s visit to her psychic friend when I was about 8 years old. Mom always had a tissue stuffed in the sleeve of her blouse or sweater -it always embarrassed me! The psychic peered over her pointy black cats eye glasses; and 8-year old me furtively scratched at a mosquito bite, wishing to be at the swimming pool. I added a dangler at the end regarding two strange thoughts that “popped” into my young head that day. I believe it was a “nudge”- a future vision of what my life would be, 25 years later.
Thank you for this timely piece! It reinforced what I thought I was doing!
Melanie, what great detailed memories to draw from. Yes, those are just the types of things unique characters do. They are a little quirky, not so very common that any generic character would do them. Those kinds of things make characters seem real and believable. So glad you found the article a help.
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