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Avoiding cliches when creating fictional characters

Today's post is about avoiding clichés in characters. Publishers and editors receive a stack loads of unsolicited manuscripts, and they need only one reason to pass on your novel. Poor writing is one reason. A saturated market is another. But perhaps one of the major reasons for a rejection is that you have clichéd characters. Why give them any reason to pass?

What is a cliché? It is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

A cliche isn't just phrases such as 'old as the hills' or 'sent a shiver down my spine' or 'love at first sight'. While these expressions may be true, they're overused and a writer of creative fiction ought to be able to come up with something more creative. Or we fail. It's as simple as that. Give the reader something that isn't creative, and you've failed as a writer of creative fiction.

Character traits and situations can also be overused. These also signal that the author is struggling to come up with something original, or if not original at least not overused. I'm not just talking about 'reluctant hero' or 'femme fatale' or 'mad scientist'. (Note: I have used a vengeful scientist as a character and he and his science were integral to the plot.) The point is, if you can use something else, do so. If you can't, it had better be so important to the story that if you take it out it impacts the story.

Here are two way to avoid some of these clichés.

The eyes that change color when you're about to go wolf

It is said that the eyes are the window to the soul. Science discovers this to be true because the iris pattern can give an indication or emotion - neurotic, warm, trusting, impulsive, for example. This is possibly why many authors give their characters the ability to rely on showing emotion or change in personality through the eyes. In Supernatural, all the demon's eyes go black. This is to tell the audience that this person is a demon. It's a tad overused because we all get it, but once you start a trait you gotta keep going with it.

This might work on TV where the camera is placed directly in front of the action, but using the eyes to move the story along is flawed in oh so many ways. Let me explain:

1. For any change in the eyes to be noticed, a second character has to notice, or the main character has to be standing in front of a mirror.

The character can only see what they can practically see. Nothing can happen at night. Nothing can happen with this character's back to another character. We can only report on what we see and if you have a shape shifter whose eyes change color to indicate he's about to go wolf, you are limiting the how and where.

2. How many people do you know avoid eye contact?

I know heaps. Some people talk with their eyes closed. Most people hold contact for a second and then flick their gaze away. So for a change to be noticed, we have to suspend belief and accept that people walk around staring at other people's eyes. Humans are predators and too much direct eye contact kicks our primal gears into thinking this is a challenge. We just don't do it.

3. All the action has to happen within two feet of the character.

I dare anyone to stand on the other side of a room and see a character's eyes shift from brown to purple. Without a pair of binoculars this is a physical difficulty. So your character has to stop what they're doing, someone has to stand two feet away, this someone also has to maintain eye contact, and the main character cannot take the action further away or even turn their back. It's too limiting.

4. What color are my eyes?

Seriously, I have a photo on my website and facebook. Take a quick look and then tomorrow, without looking, tell me what my eye color is. I can't even remember what my best friend's eye color is, and I see her often. In all honesty, she could turn up tomorrow with emerald green eyes and maybe I'd notice, but maybe I wouldn't. Remember what I said about eye contact. Humans typically give a casual glance then look away.

When writing characters, we need to move beyond hair and eye color. I've gone whole novels without describing the hair or eye color because it's not integral to the plot. I've had to go back in and add them during edits because I mentioned hair color on the final pages and had failed to mention it in the beginning. The point is, I could have left it out altogether and it wouldn't have made a bit of difference. The character's actions defined him, not his hair and eye color.

There are four other senses - smell, touch, sound, and voice that can better prepare a reader for when a character is about to go wolf.

The only child with one dead parent

Novels typically have fewer characters as this leads to less confusion when multiple characters are talking at once. But this doesn't mean that our characters all have to be the loner, the orphan, or the only child with one dead parent. While characters need to have wounds, there are many types of wounds a writer can use, such as divorce, separation, long distance work, absenteeism.

For me, YA novels featuring the dead parent/s aren't creative enough. It's too simple a way to avoid complications that would make a character seem more real. One of the cheat ways is Batman's backstory. Bruce Wayne's parents are killed in a dark alley so he takes up a life as a vigilante to hunt down their killer. It's a neat way to explain the backstory but in today's competitive environment, it lacks the depth that readers are seeking.

The truth is that characters can be surrounded by family and still feel alone. However, if we are setting the book in an era other than today, we need to look at that era's family structure and family breakdown to be able to give our characters believable and creative wounds.

1. Post 1950s:

In today's society, we're no longer ostracised for getting divorced, most countries have a welfare system (of sorts) and there is greater access to support for single parents. There is child care so a single parent can attend work. Not all single parents lead miserable lives because someone died or left them to raise a child. Many raise a family quite successfully.

As well, and this is not always the case, quite a few grandparents assist with the rearing, and in some cultures aunts and uncles play a vital role. There are also a lot of programs that assist single parents by setting up activities with third party 'adoptive parents' if you wish to call them that.

It is harder today to be truly alone, yet we often have our characters living in total, clueless isolation simply because we can't have too many characters in the story. Often, a few lines peppered throughout the novel can explain the absence of other people. They don't need to be major or minor characters. And as a writer who grew up in a house with lots of family, the thing I sought most was isolation whereas friends with fewer siblings often sought friendships. We writers can use this to develop our characters.

When writing young adult, it could be a good idea to look at families around you in order to make the character's home life more believable in today's society. The modern family raises some pretty well-adjusted children, so why are we giving them a family history set in the medieval ages?

In my novel Feedback, I purposely wrote characters with normal lives because they then have an extraordinary event happen which throws their normal life into the spin cycle. My female main character is one of five girls and has happily married parents. Another character has two older twin brothers and both parents working. The third character is the only with a prior wound, his mother is missing and his aunt is helping his dad raise him and his sister.

2. Pre 1950s

The nuclear family consisted of two or three children, a boy and a girl, a happy home, a father who worked, a mother who stayed home and cooked and looked after the house. The reality was that even though there was birth control, in this society, women didn't get divorced because they didn't have jobs and it was still considered taboo for a wife to leave her husband. If a husband died, a widow would most likely find it necessary to remarry so she could support her children. There was a limited child care system; it was only created from the world war for women's whose husbands had died in active service.

The war devastated the finances of many countries so a lack of jobs saw the decline of the large family. But there was also issues around birth control and that many people were still opposed to it. In this scenario, an only child with one dead parent might exist and be a believable character. Isolated by lack of technology could explain the insular storytelling.

Children could leave school earlier, they got jobs at a younger age, signed up for armed service. They led adult lives yet were only learning to become adults. So this is plausible but how many books are set in this time period?

3. The medieval family:

In the olden days, children were born as a means of bringing income into household. So yeah, you needed to have ten children. If a wife died in childbirth, the sad and undeniable truth is that she would have been replaced to help the father raise the other nine children. It happened in Snow White and many other fairy tales - hello evil step mother - and created many an interesting plot line, so if your novel is based in medieval time or even has a fantasy element that mimics medieval life, then replacing the wife can work in your story.

Look at the era in question when writing your character's backstory. Throughout history, the undeniable truth is that most men went off to work and most women tended the home. There are cases where women were warriors, but for the majority the man and woman co-existed with each performing their separate roles because they had to in order to survive.

On the other hand, if a husband died the woman was typically straight off to find a new husband or she and her children would starve. She also needed protection for the family home. It was a sad an undeniable truth of this period of time that single women were workers, typically teachers or governesses. Now, I'm being cliche in this generalization, I apologize for that, but I'm just highlighting that as I said a bit earlier, you need to look at the structure of the era.

You can play with the circumstances and add intrigue and jealousy and anger and spite into the scenario as happened in many fairy tales where the step mother was jealous of the daughter.

Now that I've pointed these out, I hope that by avoiding these two clichés, or at least offering a strong case for them appearing in your work, will help improve your character development and overall story.

I'm always happy to hear your thoughts on my writing tips, so if you have anything to add please let me know.

Till next post,
D L xox


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