In part two of my series on clichés I’m going to look at character clichés.
A polite way of referring to character clichés is to call them archetypes, and it’s true that these do exist. We all know a friendly mechanic in blue overalls, a funny dentist who hands out lollypops, a depressed, rebellious teenager, or an adult who never grows up, but once you get to know them, you find that they all have unique qualities of their own.
Elements of clichés exist in all humans, but unless you’re writing something deliberately basic, you need to make your characters complex and interesting. Clichés are neither.
The late Robert Graves, in his wonderful poem The Devil’s Advice to Storytellers advises that you should populate your novel with random travellers, like you would find on a train or in a cafe. Try having a look next time you’re waiting for a coffee. These people are all interesting in their own way. Describe some of them. I often take a notebook to public places and write short, descriptive phrases about people I see.
It’s amazing how few outright clichés you will find. Much fewer than in the latest Hollywood romantic comedy. Best of all are the people who raise questions in your mind. An elderly woman wearing a red coat and blue beret holds a faded biscuit tin. What’s in the tin? Why is that teenage girl holding hands so tightly with that sad little boy? Make your characters fidget, look around and get jealous. Make them do real things that real people do.
Many clichés are based on looks. Dialogue helps too. As we walk down the main street of our town we are constantly assessing people. Take that kid with a skateboard tucked under one arm, baggy shorts and his cap on backwards – he’s a skater, smokes dope, does graffiti and wags school, doesn’t he? Not if he’s your nephew, because then you know that he also collects rare coins, came second in his school in maths and is a good long distance runner. Or take the old man driving down the road at 70 km/hour. If he was your grandfather you’d know that he raced for Holden at Bathurst in the 1960s.
What separates clichés from real living characters is detail. Clothes, age, facial features and hair colour are a great start. But readers need more than that. They need to know the experiences that made the character into the person they are. The great writers of commercial fiction can paint these details very quickly, with just a few strokes of the pen (or keyboard). The finer points of character, in genre fiction, are best fed into the story a little at a time. Literary writers will slowly build immensely detailed characters.
Don’t write nationality clichés: the disciplined, obedient German; the gruff, penny-pinching Scotsman; the loud American; or the ocker Aussie. People might see these as insulting. Or jobs: the boring accountant, the stern headmaster, the selfish (or selfless) politician.