Like most angsty teen girls, I used to read romance novels. There was something predictably comforting about the characters and the plots, which typically followed two models: outspoken girl falls for quiet boy, or introverted girl intrigues loudmouthed boy. Typically the woman was unaware of her beauty— “Her comely physique and arresting smile drove the menfolk wild, but of course she had no idea of her effect on men, being much too busy caring for her twelve younger siblings and ailing mother all while pursuing her real passion of creating high-end clothes. For cats.”
Or else the heroine was too aware of her looks and had to be taken down a notch by her man—and honestly that scenario doesn’t even warrant a fake sentence.
It’s no big surprise that a lot of genre writing depends on clichés. A reader expects certain things from a romance novel, including easily identifiable (aka stereotypical) characters. But for those of us not writing bodice rippers, how do we avoid clichéd characters? And what makes a character a cliché?
Lack of contradiction in a character is the most obvious nod to cliché because nobody is all good or all bad all the time. Nobody is beautiful and kind and witty all the time; on the flip side, I’ve never met someone who always says the wrong things. Obnoxious people sometimes have redeeming moments. Nice people occasionally behave like they were raised in a barn by manner-less wolves. A noticeable dearth of gray areas in a character’s personality will make your character as intriguing (and realistic) as a plastic Ken doll.
I once found a grocery list someone left behind in a cart with the following items:
- Whole wheat bread
This was years ago but I still remember this list. As I was grocery shopping that day I created a whole backstory for the people who wrote this list: they were twenty-somethings who had a child and who were not eager to have another one anytime soon. One of them liked to eat healthily, the other not so much. And talk about a relationship of compromises. Yes, we can have sex—as long as we use protection. Yes, you can eat processed deli meat—as long as it’s on whole wheat bread. Contradictions in real life are interesting. And contradictions in your characters are necessary to keep them from becoming stale.
I’m currently reading Mary Gaitskill’s short story collection Bad Behavior and in the short story “Daisy’s Valentine” there is this description of a character:
He had met Diane at Bennington. He’d been impressed by her reputation in the art department, by the quality of the LSD she sold and by her rudeness. (Gaitskill 4)
The sentence turns on the rudeness part. What an odd pairing of traits for someone to admire. But it’s exactly this unexpected detail that makes the character suddenly interesting.
Contradictions can also apply to what a character says. In real life, people often say one thing while doing something else or meaning something else entirely. I love this sentence from Miranda July’s short story “Majesty” found in her collection No one belongs here more than you:
I am not the kind of person who is interested in Britain’s royal family. I’ve visited computer chat rooms full of this type of person, and they are people with small worlds, they don’t consider the long term, they aren’t concerned about the home front; they are too busy thinking about the royal family of another country. (July 19)
And what is this story about? It’s about a woman obsessed with Prince William.
As writers we need to have faith in our intelligent readers that they will not only accept a flawed character, they will embrace and believe a character who says one thing but does another. We accept contradictions in real life (even if we rail against them.) Without contradictions, if your characters only live in the black and white of life and never the gray, you run the risk of creating cartoonish characters. And most of us don’t want to read a story starring these two: