I thought we should add to our body count of Character Clichés before moving on. Again, because I write Children’s, I’m focusing on the younger spectrum of the tired, recycled and overused Paris Hiltons—er, character clichés.
Speaking of Paris, let’s start with…
The Dumb Blonde
Blonde, gorgeous…and as useless as a sack of broken hammers. You know, the lights are on, but no one’s home to buy Girl Scout cookies? Heck, some of the Barbie Dolls out there might be dumb enough to think those cookies are made out of Girl Scouts. After all, poor Jessica Simpson sure struggled with the concept of buffalo wings, right?
Please people, if you must have a bimbo in your story, have the decency to make her a brunette. Or, seeing as I’m of the brown-haired variety, go with a tousled black haired hottie or even a radiant redhead. And remember, stupid isn’t a contest. It’s not like you’re trying to create the slowest, wide-eyed (yet heart-stoppingly beautiful) character in the history of characters. Sure, we all know a few people out there who should have never been let out of the womb, but none of them are slow in every aspect of their being. Allow your character a deep insight or two, or an admirable quality. Maybe they have a giving personality, do charity work, or while their people-smarts aren’t the tops, they know more about Saturn or poetry than anyone else in the school. Even people who can’t name their own president probably have a layer or two, and so should our characters. Layers = realistic.
Boy or girl, you know you have a nerd on your hands when they study all night, grouse about being dinged a half-point on an essay because they forgot to put their name on it and care nothing about their looks. Usually they have glasses, hair pulled back to showcase this week’s zit crop and their clothes look like they came straight from the Salvation Army’s reject closet.
Let me ask you a question.
If these Mensa-in-training types are as smart as we writers often make them out to be, then why in the name of zombies don’t they know how to act and behave around other people? Seriously. If popularity was on a test, they’d ace it. So why do they struggle so much in real life?
Some writers just grab the nerdly cliché in their teeth and shake it for all it’s worth. So your nerd’s a social misfit, caught between wanting to strive for excellence and wanting to fit in? Great. But to make me believe it, you need to show me why. Show me the motivation behind their avoidance of the social norms that hold them separate from the rest of the pack. They have the brains to notice styles and keep up with trends. Why not observe the ‘it’ crowd and learn to fit in if that’s what they want so badly?
A little logic goes a long way. Because your smart kid is, well, smart, you have to show us what keeps them from achieving the acceptance they want so much. Do they have controlling parents who suck up all free time to cram more knowledge into their little darling’s grey matter? Does your nerd have a secret or fear that keeps them removed from other people? Maybe he or she has a problem with rage and it’s safer to stick with a trig book that doesn’t hurl insults. Whatever keeps them on the outs, make it compelling and logical. If you take the time to show us why, then we’ll believe it.
Try twisting the appearance cliché by having your nerd be a stylish dresser, knowledgeable in music, sports or have a great sense of humor. A fresh spin will add depth to your character and create distance from the cliché.
The Annoying Sibling/Cousin/Neighbor Kid that Never Leaves
Thant’s right, little Jimmy or Susie who just won’t leave you alone when you’re on the phone with your BFF, playing body twister with your boyfriend during a movie and who always demands you play pirates (cause you promised) when you’re 5 chapters behind in Humanities.
This one is a toughie, I’ll admit. Why? Because siblings can often seem annoying to an impatient and self-absorbed older bro or sis.
The best way to keep this cliché out of your story is to really examine the need for this character. Do you absolutely-must-have-this annoying-kid-in-your-story-or-it-will-ruin-everything? What does this character do for your plot or reveal about your character? Is their another way to show it?
Sometimes this character is necessary. I think most times, though, using this character is simply easier than figuring out a better way to reveal something about your MC or foul up their plans to complicate the plot. If this is the case, you may want to rethink things and look for a fresh circumstance that will allow you to show characterization or plot development without resorting to something that often comes across as (yawn) done, done, done.
This one’s another biggie–literally. Big, beefy and will eat you for breakfast if you don’t hand over that (sigh) lunch money.
Why the sigh? Because with two kiddoes of my own with plenty of bullying to go around, I have yet to see a school shake-down for milk/lunch money. I dunno—maybe this is a Canadian VS. United States thing (I’m Canadian), but the lunch money thing doesn’t seem to happen in my world. And milk money? Do kids actually drink milk at school? Mine don’t—it’s all juices and bottled water and Gatorade. I could be wrong, but these feel a bit like leftovers from the olden days. Sure, I suppose it does happen, but as much as is portrayed in books these days? Me thinks not. Other opinions may vary.
So let’s look at the big beefy thing. Oh, and the sack of hammers angle, because a lot of writers seem to think bullies are stupid.
Not so. Not at all. This cliché really bugs me.
The interesting thing about bullies is that they are so complicated, yet often painted so black and white. They’re big, bad and mean, end of story, right? My youngest had a run in with a kid who was half his size and sneaky-smart. Smart enough to wait for the teacher to turn away before slapping my kid across the face. Smart enough to play innocent cherub when my kid spoke up about it.
Bullies do what they do for a reason. They want power over others because they themselves are powerless in a meaningful way—at home, in their studies, globally. They are mistreated or perceive that they are, and so they pass it on to others.
Bullies are a huge part of growing up and come in all shapes and sizes. They can be guys or girls, teachers or parents. Show some insight as to why they do what they do, and they become credible. Stay away from the big, bad and dumb. They don’t have to be as ugly as Igor either. Try your hand at creating an unlikely bully (a grandmother, a pastor, a disabled kid) and you’ll have an interesting character who commands our attention.
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.