1. TeabagSalad
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    TeabagSalad Member

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    Clichés to avoid

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by TeabagSalad, Apr 15, 2010.

    I have recently been working on a children’s fantasy story and during the review of my first draft I found myself falling into a few clichés which I feel are all to easy to fall into. Having got annoyed at myself for doing this I thought I would share a few of my thoughts on things to avoid.

    In the looking glass:
    As I have mentioned elsewhere my main character spends much of the first chapter on her own, so it is difficult to give a physical description of what they look like. I found myself at one point half way through a paragraph using what my character sees in a mirror to describe her.

    Not only do I think that this is a bit of a cliché by itself but think about it…when you look in the mirror what are you looking for? You are not looking at yourself to see what you look like, most people are already all too aware of what they look like. What you are actually looking for is anything that is out of place. You don’t really care what colour your hair is – what you care about is if a pigeon has gotten the better of you or if you have a rather large bogie hanging from your nose.

    I think that using a mirror as a descriptive tool is not only a cliché but is also almost an unnatural thing – unless you are using it to describe something that is out of place.

    An ass like Kylie (that’s one good looking donkey):
    Another thing that I almost found myself doing was using ‘famous’ people to describe aspects of a character’s appearance. The problem I can see with this is that this will put that ‘famous’ person in your reader’s mind rather than the character you are trying to describe.

    I do however think that there are some well known aspects of culture that can be used to describe characters. For example “a Mona Lisa smile” is a well known image, however this may make it a cliché in itself.

    Anyone else got any things to avoid?

    Kindest Regards,

    Ian
     
  2. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    First of all, the points you make about the 'mirror' tactic are really just what Cogito mentioned, so I can't imagine what you disliked about his answer, unless you are really thin-skinned--not a good trait in a writer if you are ever going to submit your work anywhere.

    Sometimes I use the mirror trick, though, if I'm wanting to get on with the story, but I don't like myself for resorting to it. I've found from feedback over the years that it's particularly important with children's and women's romance writing to make the appearance of the different characters clear for the reader.

    I would tend to mention hair colour just in a conversation,
    e.g. 'I wish my hair was like that,' Hanna said, looking across the canteen at golden-haired Becky, 'but Mum won't let me dye this yet, she's such a bloody wet blanket about everything.' She scraped her despised locks back into an unflattering ponytail.
    'Well, it's not so bad--in the sun it's got blonde streaks...sort of,' said Nanda loyally.
    This way, a point about the MC's relationships with others can also be made. (Difficult to show in such a pared-down example, but you get the idea).

    I wouldn't use a famous person in a children's story ever because, well, under 14 year olds have a different frame of reference, and they don't know the same 'famous' people as adults.

    Even saying: 'The man's mean little mouth twitched with anger under his Hitler moustache' wouldn't necessarily mean anything to kids--okay, maybe most English kids would understand, but it's a very remote kind of image for them, and I can assure you that it would mean nothing to readers where I live (you never know, your books might be translated one day). Someone famous in one country can easily be totally unknown in another.

    Finally, if you come from London, you never would say 'an ass like Kylie' unless you meant the donkey looked like Kylie, would you?
     
  3. TeabagSalad
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    TeabagSalad Member

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    It isn’t the comment that he is trying to make that I have a problem with, it is the way in which it was done. I have a very thick skin when it comes to comments about my work, however, I was under the impression that this section of the forum was for comments about writing in general?

    The examples I gave in the post were to show a technique (they were a bit lame in all honesty) but having someone make comment in such an abrasive fashion is not really what I want from a forum. It’s not like I am submitting my work to him for publication. I thought this place was for people to be supportive to each other, it really isn’t that hard to make comment and be nice about it at the same time…is it? Anyway enough of that – let’s just leave it be.

    Nice example. Although it becomes a little difficult if your character has no one to talk to in the situation.

    I agree (except for Tigger…everyone has to love Tigger).

    Indeed…that is the real core of the problem. Better to use description rather than relying on what people do or do not know.

    Indeed that is part of the pun. It’s more a joke about Americans using ass instead of arse.
     
  4. Fallen
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    Fallen Member

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    I wouldn't worry too much about physical description in general, T. Part of writing is getting the reader to interact, to get involved with what's on the page. They like the challenege of being able to decide for themselves what your main MC looks like.

    If your character is on his own (which automatically challenges the reader to think why), use his/her surroundings to build a character picture. Adventure books on shelves will show a longing to break out of solitude, a pc always logged in a talk site will show a need to comuunicate, a glass case left on the bedside unit will hint that kid wears glasses, a pack of biscuits hidden under his bed, a liking for food and perhaps, maybe a weight issue...?

    Are mirrors themselves cliche...? Only the way they are used, I think. It's pretty standard for someone to stand there looking at themselves eyeing up there faults and perfections. It's been one countless times before. If you use them, maybe its best to bring something new to the table. Scrubes comes to mind here, when Turks looking in his mirror he draws the wig of Shaft on it, to make up for his own baldness. I think the same was done in the Trueman Show. Use them by all means, just get creative with it...
     
  5. boesjwoelie
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    boesjwoelie Member

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    I agree... personally I would never use anyone famous not only because of the above, but I also think that would drag the reader out of the story and back into reality, which you dont want :) (I might mention I prefer to wirte fantasy, in which case that is even more so :))
    But how about using another character you described before for comparison?
     
  6. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    You make some good points, not just about the cliches but about what you would (and would not) be looking for when peering into a mirror.

    It doesn't have to be mirror, of course--it could be a photograph, or it could be a distorted reflection in a shiny metal surface. Perhaps it created an illusion. Perhaps your character imagined her light brown hair tinged with gray, bringing out her fears of aging.

    The color of her hair could come up with conversation.

    He could be looking at his brother or his mother who has the same color hair, and be thinking in terms of comparison.

    She could even be looking at a bear that's about to attack her, and in the moment before death have the absurd realization that the bear's brown hair is much like her own.

    Some might say there are an infinite number of ways to approach it. I personally think the number of ways you can approach it are not infinite. They're finite. There are exactly 3,762,433 ways to approach it. I'll list them later. ;)

    Famous people would surely date your work, though it's been done. Today's famous person could be tomorrow's forgotten person, however.

    As for fictional characters, there are a handful that are virtually timeless and known almost everywhere and have been known for generations. Mickey Mouse. Superman. Spider-man. Tarzan. Sherlock Holmes. These could be used in metaphor or simile, but I wouldn't take it too far.

    But it's true--everyone loves Tigger. ;)

    What's not to love about Tigger? He's bouncy, flouncy, trouncy, wouncy, fun-fun-fun-fun-fun... and that's not even the most bestest thing about Tiggers!

    Charlie
     
  7. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that this may be different between men and women. I think that women fairly often are doing an overall evaluation, especially when comparing themselves with other women.

    I'm still debating my own "Mousy hair. Mousy clothes." example, and while the mirror is a danger because it's incredibly overused, I think that a woman who expects to spend the evening with a much more glamorous woman is, depending on her personality, moderately likely to be doing that overall evaluation.

    I'd be surprised if it isn't the same for men, but I'm not a man, so who am I to say? But if a man were, say, going out to some sort of occasion, and they knew that their ex-girlfriend would be there with a man who's reputed to be action-hero handsome, wouldn't they be doing some sort of overall evaluation?

    I'm not suggesting that the mirror ploy is a good thing. It's especially intolerable when it goes into details. And the "mousy" self-assessment in my example (or its emotional relevance to the plot, anyway) could no doubt be tucked in there without using a mirror, though off the top of my head I'm not sure how.

    I'm just suggesting that it's not all that unrealistic in terms of behavior for a person to do an overall evaluation in the mirror, when entering a situation where their own appearance is particularly important to them. Hey, they did it in Terminator (remember "more than mortal man deserves"?) when, given that it was a film, it certainly wasn't needed for description. :)

    ChickenFreak
     
  8. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    I almost never look at myself in the mirror. Even when I'm combing my hair.

    <---- (That's how I ended up putting my head on sideways.)

    When I do look--funny thing--it's still me! :D

    PS. Men probably don't think your hair or clothes are mousy either.
     
  9. boesjwoelie
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    boesjwoelie Member

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    I don't know if you where referring to the above when you said this, but I ment characters you described earlier in the same story :)
     
  10. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    I was responding to the "Tigger" thing, not your quote.

    I know the "Tigger" statement was intended to be funny, although I responded seriously at least initially.

    Charlie
     
  11. EileenG
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    EileenG Member

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    Another huge problem with using a famous character is that they may have aged badly or been involved in a nasty scandal after you put them in. To me, Sean Connery is the ultimate James Bond. To my kids, he's the wrinkly old guy in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
     
  12. amariel
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    amariel Member

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    would it be useful, when describing characters, and writing in the third person, to mention things like:

    she brushed her long, black hair from her eyes
    he untied the knot with graceful, nimble fingers

    that way you can describe your character's physical traits without needing anyone else "in the room."
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Your POV character/narrator has a voice and personality too, and slipping in description that way is not in character unless the POV observer has a crush on the character (to perhaps a stalker degree). That isn't to say it never fits, but it's considered a somewhat amateurish approach by most editors who have written about description and narrative - at least the ones I have read.

    From my experience as a reader, I cringe when I see that approach, and have done so before I was particularly interested in becoming a writer.
     
  14. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    Unless it has real bearing on the plot, mightn't one consider leaving the physical description of the main/viewpoint character ambiguous?

    I've read that it helps reader identification to do so. The reader will generally imagine that the viewpoint character looks like him/herself (the reader).

    One could tell an entire story without revealing the main character's hair color, or for that matter, the main character's race or skin color. One need only reveal what the story requires.

    Unless the main character's hair color has a bearing on the story (main character kidnapped because the killer is obsessed with people who have blond hair!) why not just leave it out?


    Charlie
     
  15. Vacuum Eater
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    Vacuum Eater Senior Member

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    You're just outlined the main reason why I usually don't enjoy the types of books targeted toward a male audience: not enough description of the characters - or anything else for that matter. Reading is a sensory experience for me. I don't want the author to merely feed me a sequence of actions and reactions; I want to see, hear, and feel what's going on!

    I enjoy getting a real "feel" for the characters, as the author envisioned them. It's annoying to have to take on the job of making up an appearance, age, and so forth for the characters (even the personality, in dire cases), when it was the author's job to share their vision with me.

    Readers are going to have to exercise their imagination no matter how much description you provide, but providing some descriptors stimulates the imagination even more. With a little description, a character that may have seemed bland or boring suddenly becomes a unique and interesting person . . . unless the author chooses to use a tired stock description.
     
  16. Meliha
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    Meliha Member

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    I'm kind of testing describing the characters through how they think others see them - I think many of us do this without even realising it. The fun part is, it gives inside on the character; but I'm not sure how it'll be received.
     
  17. Kursal
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    Kursal Senior Member

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    I suppose this one depends on your audience, although I always think it is more of a balancing act to try to appeal to the greatest numbers. As a reader, I am quite capable of making up my own mind as to the look of the character. In fact, when an author throws in a bit of character description half way through a story I find that more distracting than if it is all at the beginning.

    That said, there will always be a section of your audience that wants to have that description so it's not a particularly bad idea to include one. How you go about it is another matter. I personally feel that it is better if that description is borne out of your character's interaction with the world they are in.

    I have to say, I'm not a big fan of the mirror thing. If you are writing in the third person then you shouldn't need it. If you're writing in the first person then why would someone describe themselves looking in a mirror?
     
  18. EileenG
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    EileenG Member

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    I've got to say, when I look in the mirror, I'm checking if my hair needs brushing, my collar is twisted, and if I've anything stuck in my teeth. I never look at myself and go "Vivid blue eyes, a mane of tumbling red curls and curves in all the right places. Check!" And I think I'd distrust any character who did.
     
  19. Kursal
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    Kursal Senior Member

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    If you were writing in the first person and wanted to show how self centered your character was, that could work rather nicely. It would need a bit of polishing. Actually, I have some doubt as to whether such a character could hold a whole story by themselves. That must come from the skill of the writer.

    It seams to me that appearances in mirrors would do better to serve as a metaphor for a character's own internal reflection. That way, it is not the description of the character that is conveyed to the reader but the insecurities instead.
     
  20. DaWalrus
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    DaWalrus Member

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    I am working on a certain piece, where I have covered much ground without ever mentioning the appearance of the main character. Upon realizing it, I went back and added that in the very beginning. Otherwise, the only details that suggest what does he look like would be his name and occupation, which is very indicative of his age. His youthful, fairly good looks may not be central to the story, but they aren't irrelevant.

    Perhaps, a sentence such as : "His <adjective> hair, <adjective> eyes, and his <another detail>, have earned him some attention from the girls back in school. But he wasn't exactly the most popular guy. Not in the top ten, not even in the top fifty, for that matter." Is this better than the mirror trick?

    Come to think of it, isn't writing, among other things, about creating pictures in the readers' minds? E.g., his appearance adds a significant touch and a producer casting a movie would probably take it very seriously. Think "Youth in Revolt." I wonder if this means I badly misunderstand the rules of the game.

    In fact, I often struggle to find just the right words to precisely describe a certain visual or physical detail. Such could be a pause in a conversation, because the character is sad or unsure, or a sigh, or the last word in a replica being shouted. Is this wrong/amateurish?
     
  21. EileenG
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    EileenG Member

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    I'd be more inclined to go for the telling detail, the greasy/baby fine/receding hair, the teeth with gaps/unnaturally white and even, the mouth lined from sucking a cigarette, the make-up that ends at the chin.
     
  22. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    This has nothing to do with books targeted at male or female audiences, and you've completely misunderstood what I'm saying.

    I didn't say that description in general should be minimized. My comment was very specific regarding the viewpoint character in a third-person limited viewpoint piece.

    I enjoy description as much as anyone--detailed, vivid description.

    The point is that in the third-person limited viewpoint story, the reader is supposed to be seeing "through the eyes" of the viewpoint character. So the choices on description for that character are limited: the character stands in front of a mirror, or is described by speaking characters, or some other contrived method, etc.

    Further, by not describing that particular character, the reader is more capable of identifying with the character. Which is good, since the reader is seeing through the eyes, and thinking through the brain, of the viewpoint character in that particular style of writing.

    The reader should unconsciously think of himself/herself as the main character in the story, when writing is done in this mode. The reader sees what the viewpoint character sees, hears what the viewpoint character hears, smells what the viewpoint character smells, thinks what the viewpoint character thinks.

    But in no way am I suggesting that writers shouldn't describe characters in general.

    I'm not sure everyone understands the meaning of writing "third person limited," or the context in which, or the reasons, that I'm suggesting (as many "how to" books on writing suggest) that in this specific viewpoint, for this specific character, the viewpoint character, limiting description has certain advantages.

    There seems to be some confusion (this often seems to come up) about third person limited.

    Third person limited is a different type of writing than Third person omniscient. It is similar in many ways to First person.

    In third person limited, the narrator can only see through the eyes (hear
    through the ears, think through the brain) of the "viewpoint character."

    I do believe, by the way, in very vivid descriptions. Just not of the physical characteristics of the viewpoint character in a third person limited POV story. Reading is a sensory experience for me, too! (And, I would venture, for most people who read, male or female... I'm not sure where you got this idea that males don't like details in description.)

    Suppose the opening scene in a third-person limited POV story has the character waking up, walking into the kitchen, getting a cup of coffee and opening the paper. I want vivid description. I want to smell the coffee, I want to hear the drip of the pot, I want to feel the newspaper in my hands, I want to feel the skip in my heart when I see the headline.

    And if, moments later, another character comes in, describe how they look in extreme detail. Because you're seeing the other character through the eyes of the viewpoint character.

    What I don't want is, "He went to the mirror and looked at his brown hair." Because nobody goes to the mirror and thinks, "Wow, I have brown hair." It's not realistic third person limited. It's not from the viewpoint character's point of view. It's not proper third person limited. It's contrived. And it does nothing to help me identify myself as being the character, which is supposed to be the experience of a third person limited story.

    And if you just say, "He ran his hand through his brown hair," that's even worse, because he can't see his own hair, so you're breaking viewpoint.

    Describe, yes, but from the viewpoint character's point of view, which is what third person limited, is. The viewpoint character is going to think very little about the color of his/her own hair.

    Charlie
     
  23. Vacuum Eater
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    Vacuum Eater Senior Member

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    Ok. I always get the viewpoints mixed up . . .

    I guess I just don't like third-person limited. I prefer to see the main character as me instead of myself as the main character. It's part of the "escape from reality for a few hours" experience.
    Probably it's from attempting to read through my brother's piles of thrillers and war novels. Most of them tend to focus their descriptions on how a certain procedure was done or how a device worked (technical sort of stuff), rather than how the characters looked or how the food tasted, etc.
    Hmm . . . would you say "Anne of Green Gables" was third-person limited?

    Sorry, I just feel like I need an example.
     
  24. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd consider the POV in Anne of Green Gables to be 3rd person omniscient rather than limited.
     
  25. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    As far as I can recall, the Green Gables books were third person omnisicent. I think. I remember "seeing" every major character from outside, rather than being inside any one of them. And being given information about everyone's thoughts.

    Ann was a character who did focus very strongly on the color of her hair - she hated that red hair. But I'd consider that a personality characteristic, unrelated to the viewpoint.
     

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