Thursday, November 15, 2007

Cliche characters

I just came back from a brainstorming retreat with five other writers (both published and unpublished).

I tend to approach brainstorming like I do synopsis critiquing--I try to figure out what elements could be altered to add more zing to the storyline, characters, etc. the problem is that it usually makes me question or give feedback on the brainstorm ideas, and some people don't like that, they'd rather just have all the ideas at once, whether they're good or bad.

One thing I kept commenting on was cliche characters.

"He's a cliche hero."

"That motivation is cliche."

"Cliche occupation for your heroine."

I'm sure I drove my brainstorming group nuts (at least nobody killed me or threatened to).

But I really think that in this industry, you need to come up with vibrant, unique characters. There are so many great books out there with awesome characters, and as an unpublished writer, you need to make your manuscript stand out from what's already been published.

The best way to police yourself for cliche characters is to read extensively in the line or genre you're targeting. Get to know what's already been done--occupations, personal issues, personalities/archetypes, motivations, backstories, quirks.

I think that for contests, this is key. You're giving the first few pages of your manuscript to an impartial judge, and if your character is fabulously unique, that'll hook your reader.

(A side note: You'll also need to make sure that your character's unique traits come out in the first five pages or the judge won't be as wowed as they could be.)

I seem to see this a lot in the contests I judge--the characters aren't badly written, but they're not unique. They don't stand out, they don't have an out-of-the-box quality to them that makes me sit up and take notice.

Take a hard look at your manuscript--how can your characters be DIFFERENT?


  1. Move over, Camy, I'm right behind you!! Characters are KEY to keeping my interest in a story. And not only do they need to be unique, but they need to be deep, real! I want to know how they feel about things, what makes them bleed, but don't TELL me, SHOW me ... through their actions, their facial expressions, body language and other POVs. I don't mind a bit of internal monologue, but too many writers I have read TELL what they want you to get from the character rather than allowing it to evolve through a scene. Ewww ... cold chills!!

  2. Camy and Julie, You are so right on about the characters. The trick though is getting the great character you have in your head onto the paper in a unique and inspiring fashion. sigh. But I know what you mean. That special character that just jumps off the page and grabs you. That is what I like to read. Any helpful hints on how to achieve that in writing?

  3. Laurie Schnelby Campbell ( teaches about the FATAL FLAW.

    I remember when I was single I used that word to describe the reason a guy got a thumbs down.(!!) But in the case of writing it is the issue which will cause the character arc.

    Another writer, Deb Stover said something that I keep on an index card on my bulletin board. What is your heroes greatest fear? What is the thing you must make them deal with head on?

    This is the sort of thing, IMHO that makes my characters unique. They have to have a fatal flaw, and a deep fear, which are opportunities for that character to grow during the story.

  4. My husband once came home from some meeting or event, can't remember, and he'd met a man there and while they'd visited Ivan realized that the guy ended every EVERY sentence with 'and stuff and everything.'
    No matter what he said, he'd end the sentence with that, like someone else might say, "You know."
    And I had a teacher who tagged about every fifth sentence with, "And so on and so forth."
    No matter if the sentence had a thing to do with that expression.

    I've always wanted to do that kind of rutted speech patter to a character but it's so repetitive in writing it doesn't work. But someday I'll figure out how to make it work.

    Characters are fun and I just started a new WIP and I've been trying to get to the bottom of my h/h. It usually takes me a while and I'm not quite there yet...even though I'm ten thousand words into the book. But it'll come, then I'll go back and fix it. I usually work that way.

  5. I was one who had a cliched character last weekend! :) But after ruminating on her the whole weekend, tweaking her likes and dislikes, tweaking her family background, trying to find conflict that can sustain a book, I hope she's a more interesting and unique character. If she turns out that way, I'll thank Camy for saying, "Nope. Cliche." :) If she doesn't, you'll know that I'm one of the ones who didn't listen well enought to Camy. :)

    By the way, it really is amazing to watch Camy at work. You can almost see the wheels clicking as she's able to think about the whole story, to see the big picture. It's such a gift.


  6. And I am so JEALOUS of this brainstorming retreat.
    I'd rant on but words fail me.

  7. I totally agree. Unique occupations and character traits do make a story more interesing...most of the time.

    However, I don't care to read a story if the author comes up with something so unique that it's totally unbelievable for the genre and/or time period.

    We need to strike a happy medium between being unique and believable.

  8. That's a good point, Pam. For Love Inspired, anyway, the characters have to be such that the reader can relate to him/her.

    The reader wants escapism, but she also wants a character that she can understand. We have to come up with characteristics that make the character sympathetic. Nice little details can make all the difference. And quirks and such.

    Missy--who has spent the WHOLE day trying once again to name a character! It's to the point of ridiculous, but it's really important to me.

  9. Sandra asked: Any helpful hints on how to achieve that special character that just jumps off the page and grabs you?

    Well, I have a hint that helped me with my heroine in my debut novel. In contests, judges kept commenting that she was "whiney," so I pulled out my "Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook" by Donald Maas and did the exercises on character development. WOW!! Did that turn things around!

    Donald Maas makes you define the character's personal stakes, then he has you up those stakes. In my case, my heroine was jealous of her beautiful sister because she caught the eye of the man the heroine loves. Pretty shallow and whiney. So I defined my heroine's personal stakes -- she wants a love relationship that's as strong as her parents -- and I up those stakes by giving her polio as a child, which crippled her and killed her twin sister at the age of nine (conveniently, there was actually a polio epidemic in Boston at this time, so I was good there). Suddenly the heroine's fear of being alone (she was alone in a hospital away from her family for a year)and hell-bent on a deeply committed relationship is not only understandable, but sympathetic, giving my once-whiney character an almost noble quality.

    I strongly recommend Donald Maas's workbook, not only for character development, but plot development as well.

  10. Excellent post, Camy! Thanks for the reminder. It's easy to fall into cliched characters, usually when we haven't taken the time to get to know them.

    Like Julie, I love the Donald Maass workbook. He pushes us to write larger-than-life characters. Immediately I think of Scarlet O'Hara, one of my favorite heroines. Beat you to it, Julie!The woman was loaded with flaws and fears. Scarlet, not Julie. :-)
    That's what made her so interesting. I've heard some people didn't like her. I've never understood that.

  11. Gosh, Janet, I would have never thought someone as nice as you would love Scarlett! I haven't met that many people that like her, to be honest. But I am in total agreement about her--she is my all-time favorite character. Why? So flawed and so unforgettable!!

  12. Characterization is a huge part of a successful novel. LaVyrle Spencer, Anne Tyler, Nora Roberts, Joseph Wambaugh are all master craftsmen/women (among many others) who develop full-blown characters you either love or hate. As long as they stir you to a strong emotional connection, the author hit their mark.

    But I agree with Pam, if the author tries to hard to 'tweak' their characters, you end up with a charade instead of a novel, kind of a thin veneer on what could have been a great character because the author's trying to hard to 'make' the character rather than evolve them into the person we want them to become. That hurries and thins the process.

    Everyday people are in books all the time and we love them, so don't feel like you need to create some out-of-the-stratosphere person. Romance publishers actually devote dedicated lines to first responders, military heroes, medical practitioners...

    I mean, come on, what red-blooded American girl doesn't want to fall in love with a doctor at some point in her life???? Umm, hello??? The whole save a life routine, the long hours, dedicated service, haughty or prideful persona that comes around... There's a reason these books are popular, because people relate to them.

    So the choice of career doesn't matter to me, not one whit, because I love stories rife with real people who go a step above and beyond what normalcy would expect. The unlikely hero (MacGyver, Greatest American Hero, CSI) scenario often takes the Beta male and puts him in a situation requiring he step up to the plate, and he does, albeit reluctantly. We get growth, strength, maturity and room for L-O-V-E....

    Which is why we write romance, right?

    Jules I remember the early 'Faith' of your original book and the latter 'Faith' of the contracted novel. You hit the nail on the head by changing her profile (love Writing the Breakout Novel... Love it, love it, love it) to engage her with the reader rather than encouraging the reader's intrinsic urge to slap her silly.

    Not me, of course.


    Camy, fun post to get people thinking.


  13. Hey, Mary, forgot this:

    I love those quirks of speech as well. Southern novels have a way of doing that, making the repetitive sayings/expressions fun rather than annoying. I think it comes down to timing and not overusing, and having the other characters recognize the person by their quirks, thinking of them, referring to them in third person or internal thought so the reader gets invested in the quirk, but not overrun with it.

    That way you're making the point, but not hammering the poor reader with an 18 oz. Stanley to the head repeatedly.

    (For those of you who don't do your own home repairs, Stanley is a tool manufacturer... They make hammers....Nice, well-weighted hammers.)


    As a woman who knows both ends of the hammer, I hate to get lambasted with one when I read, and it's tricky for authors to recognize 'how much' of anything is just right and not 'too much' for the readers' sake.

    Okay, done. I'll stop yammering now.

    And Mary, your characters shine with an inner light all their own, of humor and reality, so I know you can have some fun pulling that off.

    Ruthy (who doesn't want anything, Mare. Honest)

  14. Oh, thank you for reminding me about the Breakout Novel Workbook. Mine is all scribbled up with notes from two finished novels (which turned out great, LOL) so now I need to ask for a new one for Christmas, since my latest book is badly in need of some great ideas.
    I LOVE Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. One of my favorite writing tools. And my new WIP is a Southern fiction type historical set in 1890, and I've been thinking the same thing about those speech quirks. Oh, my, there are so many to choose from, just from my family members! But I guess I shouldn't use those. . . .

  15. Do it, Melanie. See if they recognize themselves. They almost never do.

    (wicked grin inserted)


  16. Melanie, you gave me an idea for my Christmas list, as well. I've got Donald Mass' book but not the workbook, which I understand is even better than his book.

    Thanks, Camy, for encouraging us to go deeper into our characters. My critique partners and I like to ask, "Why?" And then "Why?" again and again and agin, until finally we get to the core of the hero or heroine. Tina, I'm with you -- love looking at the character's greatest fear, greatest need, etc.

    On online brainstorming session might be fun sometime. We could all add our two cents as to how the character should be developed. Just a thought.

  17. Melanie, I copy the pages so I don't have to buy another copy of the Maass' Breakout Novel Workbook.

  18. Excellent thoughts, Camy and everyone! Taking notes...LOL!

    I too loved to watch all your mental wheels in motion at the brainstorming retreat.

    Cheryl Wyatt