Seeing as I blasted clichéd villains in my last post, I thought I’d look at a few more offenders in the character category. First up…
The Rich and Handsome Jock (AKA Mr. Popularity)
That’s right. The Quarterback, the Basketball Star, the Track and Field God. He’s the guy rarely seen without an entourage of cheerleaders and other equally cool jocks. Our pal Jock is envy of every guy and the unattainable lust of every girl. In adult fiction, he’s the power broker/power attorney/power fill-in-the-blank with rakish good looks, expensive tastes and the ‘it’ sports car.
I think we writers gravitate to this particular cliché because of some twisted need to unpack our emotional baggage left over from teenage years. We all remember Mr. Popular in school, hanging with the in group and attending all the cool parties (you know, the ones we weren’t invited to). He could look down his nose at 80% of the school and people loved him for it. As teens, most of us could never reach that level of celebrity, never bathe in the glory of the popularity fountain. But now, as writers, we can make make Mr. Popular dance to our tune…and pay for ignoring us.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling this way, either; writing should be therapeutic. Don’t we all live a little through out fiction? So by all means, drag up your past demons and shove a cattle prod them. Just fight the urge to turn the popular jerk who snubbed you in the past into this ‘perfect male icon’ stereotype.
Mr. Popular doesn’t have to be self-centered, rich and powerful. He doesn’t have to play the star position on the football team, be favoured by all the teachers, have doting rich parents or be Orlando Bloom gorgeous. Piling all these things onto a single character is a bit like grabbing the reader by his shirt collar and saying, “SEE? See how popular he is? He’s got it all!” If you’re doing your job, you don’t need all these props to prove he’s the guy everyone gravitates to. This advice can be also applied to Miss Popularity types as well. Make the character’s popularity real, but don’t overdo it.
The Weird Girl
This one’s usually a goth type, only her dress is so eclectic it can hardly be attributed to any sort of ‘style’. She retreats into her own space, moody and angry, or stares creepily at other people while doodling headless cats all over her calculus textbook.
Weird Girl is another clichéd character who needs a good slap of originality. Why not make her blue-eyed and blond-haired? Make her beautiful, or put her in a situation that other girls would envy her for. Maybe she’s a cheerleader too, or admired for her prowess on the volleyball court. Weird girl does not have to equal a social deviant or outcast. Maybe she’s a stylish dresser, tells the right jokes, laughs in the right places…but there’s just something weird about her, like a sniffing fetish that makes her smell everything she touches. Maybe she’s got a thing for cheese and it’s all she’ll eat. Maybe she refuses to wear anything but green and insists she’s seen leprechauns.
Whatever her ‘thing’ is, make her own it. Only then will she seem like a realistic character rather than a casting call for ‘the weird kid’ on a low budget TV show. Embrace your inner weird and have fun with this type of character. If you hobble yourself to the tried-and-true forms of weirdness, you might miss out on creating a spectacular character.
The Mean Girl(s)
Again, the need to rifle through our shattered experiences as teenagers hurts our good writing judgement. Mean Girls: popular, beautiful, have-it-all and want you to know it. If you don’t cower beneath their superior icy glares, they’ll make you pay. And Mean Girls don’t stop until there’s blood on the walls and innocent dreams of acceptance lying dead on the floor.
With this stereotype, we need to step back and remember how important it is to create a unique three-dimensional character. Like those villains we talked about in the last post, no girl, however snarkily depicted, can be mean to everyone and not have it come back to haunt them. Either show the consequences of such actions (a loss in popularity, being cast out, rejected, etc) or show them as people first, mean girls second. Everyone has redeeming qualities, problems, needs. Show us theirs.
What can make your ‘Mean Girl’ character more rounded and credible? Why not try putting her in a wheelchair, or give her a teacher who has it in for her? Show how she’s working toward a goal, or what her problems are. Maybe she questions her actions, feeling feel torn between what’s right and what’s accepted by others.
Everyone makes choices and must be responsible for them. Always show the consequences of your character’s actions. There are certainly some people in real life who seems to have little conscience, but in writing, characters depicted as ‘blanket evil’ can feel under characterized or cliché. If your Mean Girl is your antagonist, put the effort she deserves into developing her. If her personality is vindictive or masochistic, show us what makes her that way. Knowing why she feels power at hurting others gives her layers and makes her a more credible character.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.