1. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    How not to write cliche characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by architectus, Aug 22, 2008.

    Your characters are flat, cliché, cardboard cutouts, fake, unbelievable, and you don’t know why?

    What I am about to share I believe is a revelation, a revelation that helped me a lot.

    Keep in mind that it is much easier for me to explain how to avoid this problem, than it is for me to put it into practice.

    Imagine you are walking down the street, and this tall blonde struts by you like a wannabe model. Maybe she is not so wannabe, because she fits the role. She is wearing dark sunglasses, and has an expensive hand bag. Her $500 shoes really stood out to you.

    You have developed a first impression of this woman. Maybe it is a good impression, or a bad impression, but she is a cliché. We have seen her time and time again. She is not unique, not even in the slightest, not until we get to know her that is.

    This is the key. What makes this woman an individual is her personality. She could have a likeable personality or an un-likeable personality.

    If this female were to become our best friend, how would this take place? How do we become best friends with anyone?

    Think about your best friend, or a good friend. How did you become close? You got to know some of their past. They chose to share intimate past events with you. The divulged their feelings with you. How they feel about this or that. They shared secrets with you. Secrets are important. We come to trust a person that shares their deep dark secrets with us.

    Over time you got to know them as an individual. You learned their sense of humor, by seeing how they interact with others, and with you, and the things they say. You learned things like their favorite color, favorite animal, favorite type of movie, favorite type of food, etc.

    In time you have got to know your best friends, strengths, weaknesses, fears, talents, and so forth. All this is what made them an individual in your eyes.

    Back to the tall blonde cliché. Think of a movie you saw that had a tall blonde cliché type of person in it. I thought of the 1995 movie Clueless. At first we do not identify with such a person, because they are flat and have no life. We stereotype them. But if the movie does a good job at developing her, we will grow to love her.

    We need to get to know many of the things I mentioned above. But more importantly, we need to see her struggle, see her change. This is the most important thing in a story. Your main character needs to change. It is good that other characters change as well. The story it self needs to change your character. Perhaps he/she overcomes one of their fears, has their strengths tested, and so forth.

    It is our job as writers to show the reader the uniqueness of our characters. To show them their personalities, and reveal their secrets, fears, talents, strengths, weakness, and so forth. This is not an easy job, because we have to do it in the context of the story. We have to reveal it over time in proper context. We cannot just stop the story, and go yeah so he fears snakes. We have to show that he fears snakes in a scene. The person who wrote Indiana Jones did a good job showing the main character’s fear of snakes.

    We as the writers have to think of clever scenes, so that we can reveal these aspects about our characters.

    Think of popular characters in novels that people have grown to love. Now think of them on the surface. Guess what? On the surface they are so cliché. Take every character in the book the Stand, by Stephen King. On the surface they are cliché. But as we got to know them, we grew to love them.

    What about Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer. On the surface, can you get more cliché than them? They are just your typical young hillbillies. Mark Twain did a great job in revealing all the aspects I mentioned above about them. You have to reveal an important part about their personality in the very beginning of your novel or story. Mark Twain pulled this off gracefully, with the scene where Tom convinces the kids to not only paint the fence for him, but to pay him money so that they could paint the fence. This revealed so much about Tom’s personality. We learned he is playful, full of energy, and clever in a cute way.

    I believe the main character needs to have at least one weakness, and one strength. Her strength ought to be tested, and she ought to overcome or come to grips with her weakness.

    Many people love Dexter, not because he is a serial killer, and they have warped minds. They love him because he has qualities we can all relate to. He has problems we can all relate to. We know his deepest darkest secret, and no one else does. That makes us feel special. He shares his personal thoughts with us, and with no one else.

    With showing and not telling, with well written scenes, reveal these qualities about your character, and your readers will grow to see them as a unique individual.

    They will either love or hate that unique individual depending on what his qualities are.

    Fears
    Likes/dislikes
    Type of sense of humor
    Secrets
    Problems
    Struggles
    Weaknesses

    Strengths
    Talents
    Important snippets of their past
    Their feelings
    Their favorites: Movies, Food, Color, Books, etc
    What moves their emotions? What makes them angry, sad, happy, etc.

    In a novel you have more than enough time to fully develop more than one character. With a short story you do not. I try to stick to one very important past event that makes sense in the context of the story. Depending on the type of story, I choose what qualities I want to reveal. But using a weakness and strength is a good idea. Test his strength, and show how he overcomes or comes to grips with his weakness. Their weakness could be a fear of spiders that they overcome, or come to grips with. Like in the new Indiana Jones movie, he is forced to grab a snake. That must have been so hard for him, but he did it.

    I hope this helps. Because this is a forum post I don’t want to take the time to rewrite it, so I am sure it has grammar problems and such. If you wish to rewrite it, feel free to do so.
     
  2. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    I just put myself in my characters' heads and become them. I try to think, believe, and feel like they do. When you live out somebody's personality, it's kind of hard to reduce them to a stereotype. "Becoming" one's characters can help one discover their individuality in a way that merely observing people from the outside can't do.
     
  3. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    I also become my characters. It is how I discover the qualities I mentioned in my post about them. However we do it, we need to show the reader these qualities about our characters, or they will not grow to love them.

    But even if the writer becomes their characters, it does not guarantee that they will remember to show the reader their characters, weaknesses, strengths, loves, fears, and so forth.
     
  4. Ungood
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    Ungood Contributing Member

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    This is a very good and enjoyable thread.

    Thank you for posting it!

    It was most enlightening.
     
  5. Acglaphotis
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    Acglaphotis Contributing Member

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    Great post, I'm taking notes of it.
     
  6. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Thanks I am glad it could help. It has helped me.
     
  7. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    it's like i try to tell people, you want a "real" character, then you'd better know as much about their life and who they are as you would yourself.
     
  8. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    True, I agree. A course in psychology couldn't hurt. Especially abnormal psychology. Or reading a few books on the subject. It can really help bring a new dynamic to characters.
     
  9. Honeybun
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    Honeybun Active Member

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    Hi,

    I agree with all the things you've mentioned. Most, if not all, characters in books are cliches. So, the thing is how to make yours, who are yet another set of cliches, stand out.

    I think, seeing that we are all interested in writing, regardless of the genre we prefer, it is very important to read as much as possible, in order to be able to achieve that. As the natural cycle of life, everyone learns from his/her predecessor, and once you have read extensively, you're likely to come up with new ideas and be inspired.
     
  10. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Huneybun that is true. It seems to be common that all successful writers are avid readers. A lot of them read 100 books a year.
     
  11. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Something I forgot to mention. Also it is a good idea to share how the MCs feel about things, or share their ideas, or thoughts about things that relate to the story.

    If your story is about spiders, then tell us how the MC feels about spiders. Do they love spiders? Do they own a big tarantula? Do they fear spiders? Do they just want to smash a spider when they see one?

    If the story is about time travel, then tell us how the MCs feel about traveling in time. Do they all love it, or do some hate it? What are their philosophical or moral views of time travel?

    Sharing the MC's feelings, philosophical views, or moral views, about things that directly pertain to the story, helps build her into a unique individual that steps out of the pages into our imaginations, and lives there forever with us.
     
  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It's far better to show their feelings/thoughts/ideas through their actions than to tell the reader outright, though.

     
  13. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    exactly!
     
  14. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Right. That is what I mean. I guess I should have said, show us how they feel about spiders, instead of using the word tell. But you could also do it in the narration.

    Descending into the dark basement, she crept down the noisy stairs. She hated the dark ever sense she was a child, ever sense that time her step father locked her in the dark cellar. She hated him too, and she was glad when he finally kicked the bucket.

    I like when novels do this at the right time, during a suspenseful moment, because it draws out the suspense. Makes you wait a few more sentences to find out if anything is going to happen.

    I don't like how Stephen King over does this though. He will drag on and on, for pages sometimes, stalling the action. My favorite author Dean Koontz usually only stalls the action for a few sentences, and a paragraph or two at most. I notced on average he uses this technique once every 1.5 pages.
     
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    King suffers from verbal diarrhea in his advancing years. Heinlein did the same thing when he got old.

    But showing need not be that much wordier than telling, either. The fact is, the words you use to show often continue the actiion instead of stalling for dry description, and in the process paint with a more vivid brush. So the additional wording you MIGHT use, seen out of context, actually do more of your story's work when seen IN context.
     
  16. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    I'd say in a nutshell, to make believable characters, then you need to understand people....
     
  17. iknowimsoslow
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    iknowimsoslow Member

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    I just posted this exact thing yesterday! I'm all for giving the characters depth and background, but he just lays everything out on the table like we're to stupid to figure it out on our own. That really bothers me.

    I hate the cliche of the "smart" girl. Almost every book I read, the main character is the misunderstood girl that no one likes because she's so intelligent. There has to be a few dumb girls out there.
     
  18. ciavyn
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    ciavyn Senior Member

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    Yeah, but do you want to read about them?
     
  19. iknowimsoslow
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    iknowimsoslow Member

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    Good point. :)

    But I get sick of the abnormally smart girls. The ones that know they're genius's and brag internally about how smart they are.
     
  20. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Could you give an example of the type of smal-girl character you are refering to? A novel that had one. I am just curious is all.
     
  21. Carthonn
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    Carthonn Active Member

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    I think we underestimate how much people crave cliche.
     
  22. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    I think they crave archetypes, but they still must be individualized, if we want them to fall in love with the characters.
     
  23. iknowimsoslow
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    iknowimsoslow Member

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    Most of the books I read are supernatural novels and the girls in them always narrate that they're not naive, they're to smart to fall for something and then they end up dying or what not.
    And they always have read all of Jane Austen, they can play the piano by ear, they can speak 4 languages, just anything at all to make them sound better.
     
  24. Teele
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    Teele Contributing Member

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    Wow! Round of applause from me, architectus! A lot of very good and very relevant points brought up. For me, the joy of the story (whether reading or writing) is seeing how the characters evolve and come to grips with their strengths and weaknesses.

    Of course, each character will seem cliche at first, because we, as humans, have this thing in our brains that makes us categorize things. Including people. On getting our first impression, its human nature to lump them into a group right away; even if we do it unconsciously. We see someone and we're like, "Oh! A geek." or "Oh! A teenage girl." or "Oh! A psychopath." This is actually a defense mechanism that protects us from information overload. Its easier for us to put them into a category that allows us to ascribe common traits, as opposed to memorizing every detail we observe in every new person.

    Now, that initial stereotyping is later replaced as we get to know the person. Like you said, this is why characterization is so important. We move beyond the geek, the teenage girl, and the psychopath into Real People; people with dreams, and pasts, and secrets, and strengths, and weaknesses. And it is these things that need to come forth in order for each of our characters to become truly unique.

    Now, you also mentioned the 'show before tell' approach. -raises hand- Guilty! Characters are the main thing for me, so I plan mine out explicitly. Then, when it comes down to the drawing board, I feel this incredible desire to barf all my characterization notes onto the first page. As I recently found out...this doesn't work. :D By the same token, I also struggle with using too much verbiage in my descriptions. These are the main things I've been trying to work on.

    Whew. Sorry for the rant, folks! And thanks again for putting an essential concept into words!
     

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