Breaking The Mold

15 May

I figured it was time to break out a writing post. I’ve been doing so much ranting lately it’s become second nature. Admission time: I can’t stop. I stand on my desk at work and DAMN THE MAN FOR THE TYRANNY OF MY CUBICLE WALLS. (True story, I did actually suggest to Bob, the guy that sits behind me, that we should TEAR DOWN THE WALL that holds us back from our call-center brethren. He laughed; I don’t think he realized I was serious . Bob will figure it out soon enough. >.>)


So I take part in Georgia McBride‘s Twitter baby #yalitchat from time to time (if you’re ever looking to stop by, she announces the chats on her Twitter Feed). It’s a bunch of bookies – wanna-be writers, published writers, editors, fans, literary agents, etc – who get together and discuss a pre-determined subject as it pertains to young adult fiction. It’s amazing how much good information can be crammed into 140 characters. Anyway, last week’s topic was romance in YA. I’m not going to reiterate most of what was discussed – SHOULDA BEEN THERE SUCKERS – but I am going to hone in on something a few of the participants talked about, and that’s expectations in fiction, more specifically, character expectations.

I’m sure you’ve all heard “Cliches exist for a reason” (therein making said statement a cliche, but I digress). The assumption of course is that there’s a kernel of truth to a cliche – that a certain social bracket/age/race/shape/size/personality type can be dismissed with a generic assessment or over-arcing umbrella description. I begrudgingly admit it’s possible in some cases, but in this day and age, my question is – is that acceptable? To simply thrust any group of people together and say “that’s just how they are”? Most folks don’t want to rely on cliches to judge others as it can sometimes be sorta, you know, racist and ignorant and shortsighted, so why then are stereotyping cliches so prevalent in fictional characterization? Book characters are based on people, and people are individuals, and umbrella statements are generally agreed upon to be bad things . . .


During the #yalitchat, a teenaged fan/reading enthusiast asked why authors insist on portraying all D&D players as nerdy, social outcasts with no friends. I couldn’t think of a single instance where it wasn’t the case (though I’d be welcome to someone presenting evidence otherwise). That single question got my little squishy brain going, and man, the places it went. I started pondering things like jocks (dumb/insensitive/party-mongers), nerds (highly intelligent/socially awkward/only hung out with like-minded nerds), and cheerleaders (perfect-looking, pretentious, easy) and I realized creators are pandering to cliches. They’ve overtaken our media. A perfect example? Watch Glee. Every character there is an embodiment of stereotypical expectation. I understand that characters need to be relatable, but shit, I can honestly say after watching what is one of THE most popular teen-shows on TV, that I wasn’t like any of them. I was an amalgam of various characters. I was a person, not a parameter.

Fact: people don’t fit into the neat little slots writers tell us they do.

Writers: stop perpetuating the cliches.

I don’t care what you write. It could be short fiction, book-length fiction, scripts, roleplay, or papers for school. If you are writing a character that is a cookie cut-out of what every other author has already presented before, you are building a cliche and – yeah, I’ll say it – you’re being lazy. What’s so spectacular about rehashing what someone else has already constructed? It’s boring, and predictable, and makes me want to shake you. Be bigger than the cliche – add levels to the one-dimensional status quo. Don’t make a heroine that’s beautiful but doesn’t know she’s beautiful. Don’t make her either too shy, or overly bad-ass and hard as a rock. If she’s quiet, give her a strength that has a reason for being there, and for God’s sake, don’t make the strength only come from the man in her life.

Don’t like that example? Fine. I challenge a writer to make a sensitive jock who works hard on his studies and isn’t an asshole to his peers. Make him GAY – that’d be spectacular. I want a D&D computer geek who’s not only socially capable, but actually popular with his peers. Make a skinny girl end up with a fat guy, or vice versa. If you write fantasy stuff? Make a warrior more than just a hunk of meat with a sword (thank the heavens for Logen Ninefingers), and a sorceress who’s not an aloof, overly-intellectual, gorgeous bitch. Give me more than a woodsy werewolf, and more than an eloquent, beautiful vampire. Ugly up your fae. No seriously, just smear ugly all over its face like a money shot gone wrong. Or, OR! If you want those archetypes in place, do something devilishly different with one of the details so I can see past the goddamned cliche and actually want to turn the page. If I can predict exactly what’s going to happen/snippets of dialogue because you rewrote what countless others have done before, what’s the impetus for me to continue? Where’s the thrill of discovery?

I understand that execution of this is far tougher than I make it sound here. (Let the bra-burning and streaking commence!) I’ve written things I thought were WILDLY DIFFERENT and discovered after the fact that I’d mirrored someone else’s creation, and man, that made me feel lame. I’ve fallen victim to repeating cliches the media has shoved down my throat, too. So just as much as I’m preaching (and damn it, ranting again) at other writers, know that it’s something I’m working on every time I sit my fat ass down in my chair. Layers, levels, and shattering expectations. Let your character break the mold.

Chip away at cliches one unexpected word at a time.


2 Responses to “Breaking The Mold”

  1. Joe May 15, 2011 at 11:21 pm #

    I’m kinda workin’ on this. Trying to sort out an original story of my own, and it’s neat how the points you make run very close to a few things I’m wanting to try. I’d give a boisterous “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED”, but it’s more like a “challenge intriguingly noted”.

  2. Bika May 16, 2011 at 8:19 am #

    First, I think you need to watch this:

    Second, character-building is too much fun to use a cookie cutter persona. You’re doing the character a disservice if you don’t give them quirks and personality outside the narrow track of a cliche.

    I don’t think I have a problem avoiding character cliches, myself, but plot and setting are another story. It’s hard for anyone to do something that’s really unique though, isn’t it?

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