What Killed It For Me #4: Clichéd Characters

It’s hard to come up with characters who are believable yet don’t sound like every other character out there. It’s especially easy to fall into this trap with certain archetypes, like witty sidekicks or wise old mentors. Unfortunately, a recent book that I started had a whole cast of clichés: the jaded, super-sarcastic teen girl hero; the loving but confused single parent; a villain in the form of a Queen Bee Mean Girl. As for the love interest and sidekick…I didn’t stick around long enough to meet them.

thumbs downBut even one clichéd character may be too much; you don’t want to give readers a reason to lose interest or roll their eyes when they’re introduced to a character they’ve seen a dozen times. Character creation is one of our passions at Writers Helping Writers, thanks to the research and practice we put in while writing our negative trait and positive trait thesaurus books. Here are some tips we’ve learned on how to write believable and interesting characters without repeating the stereotypes:

Explore the character’s backstory to discover her wounds. It’s easy to throw together a bunch of attributes and flaws when creating characters. But traits develop organically out a combination of factors: upbringing, environment, basic needs, morals, past wounds, personal values, etc. It is this unique combination of elements that results in a truly unique character. To avoid recreating a character who already exists, delve deeply into her backstory. Doing so will give you the information you need to figure out exactly who she is today.

Once you’ve explored the character’s backstory, use that information to choose a combination a flaws and attributes that make sense, but are unique. For example, it makes sense for a character who was once the victim of a home invasion to be over-protective and paranoid. For me, the mention of those flaws instantly brings to mind an image—a stereotype that I’ve seen a million times. Paranoia is a logical result of this kind of traumatizing experience, but what if you combined it with other flaws or attributes to turn the stereotype on its ear? Maybe your character was raised in a very proper household where any kind of emotional extreme was taboo. So now you’ve got a genteel, mannerly character who’s scared of her own shadow—but has to hide her fears out of a desire to maintain the right image.

Creating unique characters is really just a matter of digging into their history and coming up with traits that make sense for them. For help in this area, we created a number of related resources on our Tools for Writers page, including the Reverse Backstory Tool, the Attribute Target Tool, and the Character Pyramid Tool.

Explore the positive side of negative traits, and vice versa. Clichéd characters are seen as clichés because they’re easy to read. They’re cardboard. One-dimensional. Which is ironic because character traits are anything but.

Look at John Bender, from the movie The Breakfast Club. He’s hostile, and embodies many of the expected negative associations that go with that trait: he’s volatile, verbally abusive, and has trouble connecting with others. But hostility also has some positive aspects that John exhibits. He’s fearless and uninhibited, often saying what other people are too timid to say themselves. The positive sides of this flaw make him more than just an angry character. They make him interesting and somewhat endearing because people value fearlessness and admire those who speak their minds. We want to evoke those endearing feelings in our readers, so make sure to explore both sides of your character’s defining traits and you’re sure to come up with someone unique and compelling.

Don’t forget the quirks and idiosyncrasies. Certain character types—like adventure heroes and detectives—easily fall into stereotypes. If you want your hero to be different, give him something interesting that will make him stand out from the crowd. Indiana Jones? Afraid of snakes. Captain Jack Sparrow is a cowardly pirate. And for those of you who remember Kojak, what comes to mind when you hear that name? Bald guys and lollipops, right? Mission accomplished.

A word of caution regarding quirks, though: if they’re thrown in off-handedly, they can feel clumsy and contrived. Find something that makes sense for your character based on his backstory and personality and you’ll have something that is believable rather than gimmicky.

Add an inner goal. Another reason detectives and adventurers tend to resemble each other is because they all have the same goal: to find the treasure or solve the case. But what if your character also has an internal goal—something he needs to overcome or wants to achieve that will result in personal growth?

In The Bone Collector, Lincoln Rhyme is an ex-forensics specialist on the trail of a serial killer in New York City. This is his outer goal: to find the killer. Just like any other detective story, eh? Except that Lincoln Rhyme is a paraplegic. That’s enough to make him interesting, but there’s more: it’s made clear from the beginning of the story that the thing Rhyme wants more than anything is to die. He’s made plans for his “final transition” and is seemingly at peace with it because he thinks this will make him more happy and fulfilled. 

By adding an internal goal, Deaver adds a dimension to his main character that makes him different from other detectives. Keep this in mind for your own heroes. For more information about internal goals and motivations, check out Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell.

Character creation is tricky, but with a little extra backstory digging and these tips, there’s no limit to the number of unique and resonant characters that we can create. Happy writing!

This post is the fourth in a series entitled “What Killed It For Me,” where Becca Puglisi explores the reasons she stopped reading certain books and shares techniques to help writers avoid these pitfalls. The rest of the series can be found at her website.

Thumbs Down Image: Geralt @ Pixabay


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. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Character Traits, Characters, Uncategorized, What Killed it For Me. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to What Killed It For Me #4: Clichéd Characters

  1. Pingback: What Killed It For Me, #7: Issues with Sequels | WRITERS HELPING WRITERSWRITERS HELPING WRITERS

  2. karla says:

    wow! I’m glad I read this! I am in the middle of revising and editing and this has given me new insight. I definitely don’t want my characters to be cliche, especially my mc, so I will have to dig deep and see what needs changing. Thank you!

  3. Pingback: Friday Link Pack 04-04-14 | I make stories.

  4. I loved the movie Cabin in the Woods for the way it gave cliched characters their comeuppances.

  5. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 04-03-2014 | The Author Chronicles

  6. This has been immediately favorited and I will be adding all these worksheets into my to-do list. Thank you!

  7. Julie Musil says:

    I’ve used your worksheets. They are sooo helpful! I also use a character worksheet from Jody Hedlund’s blog. Thanks for another great post!

    • Oh, I’m so glad the worksheets are working for you, Julie. I used them, too, when planning characters for my WIP, so I know that they do work. But it’s reassuring to hear from other writers that they’re effective.

  8. Rosi says:

    This is simply a fantastic post. Thanks so much for this. I’ll be posting the link on my blog and printing this out to hang in my office.

  9. great article, I have so much to think about now. I’ll be checking out your author tools- it makes sense to map things out. Lori up-thread had a great point, you often know your main character inside-and-out, and they are easily multidimensional but our outlying characters are easy to stereotype.

  10. You mean my “Queen Bee Mean Girl” is a cliche’!! Help!! I have two of them (one for each POV character.

    SUch an excellent blog with great resources embedded inside. Thanks so much for all you offer the writing world.

    Back to work. Obviously.

  11. If I start out with a cliche character, I like to turn what the reader thinks of them completely around. For instance a cheerleader, the peppy, perfect, snob, right? I’ve made reasons for my character to seem like that but then pull the mat out from under them and show a side you can’t believe: like an abusive childhood. The character aspires to hide who she really is by pretending to be all the things she’s not.

  12. You guys really know how to “rock” the writing world! Great post! I’m so glad I found this site. I actually discovered you guys from Kristi Knoll who used to be with the Institute of Children’s Lit. So glad she mentioned you guys!

  13. I SO needed to be reminded of this. When I wrote the first draft of my novel during NaNoWriMo last year, I needed to get people on the page. I didn’t have time to think about them being one and half dimensional, let alone three dimensional. So when I read through my finished “masterpiece” I realized I could have named them all Cliche. So now, in revisions, I’m beefing them up, which first entails shaving off their thick, cliche skin. I can’t wait to see what they look like when I’m done.

  14. Jade champion says:

    I love how helpful this is, I’ve always had troubles with this one character. He just seems forced and un-natural or at worst a Sue. Thanks so much ladies you have no idea how much this insprises me, and helps:). And I live the Breakfast club, great use!

  15. C. Lee McKenzie says:

    I liked how you explained that characters could have both internal and external goals as one way to 1) diferrentiate popular and standard characters 2) avoid making character cliches.

  16. Insightful and useful advice on developing non-clichéd characters. Also, I’m glad I clicked on the resources at the end of the article: Reverse Backstory Tool, the Attribute Target Tool, and the Character Pyramid Tool. GREAT helps! I’ll be using these.

  17. I was all set to disagree with you (I love the sarcastic ones), but then I read on, and saw what you mean. I’m reminded of one of my favorite video game characters: Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins (Check it out if you can. The story is brilliant). He snarks his way through the story, but it’s also aimed at himself. As the story progresses, we find out that it’s a defense mechanism. I don’t want to go further, because if you haven’t experienced it for yourself, you’ll be spoiled.

    What do you think of a villain who is blatantly evil (commits war crimes), yet is suave, and persuasive (convinces you that what he’s doing is just) on the outside, yet in private, is a a sadistic torturer who eats the flesh of sentient both because he wasn’t to, and because his god demands it?

    • Well, he definitely sounds complex, which I think is good—not just an evil-for-evil’s-sake villain. He kind of reminds me of one of my favorite villains, from Tad Williams’ Otherland series. He was a sadistic serial killer who somehow managed to be really really interesting. 🙂

  18. Lori Schafer says:

    Stereotyping (or not stereotyping) is something I try to be very conscientious about. With main characters it’s typically not a problem because you know them on so many levels that the complexity is built in, but it’s very easy to throw together a minor character possessing oft-used and ultimately boring traits. You don’t want to make the big guy tough and gruff, but gentle and sensitive doesn’t work anymore either because that, too, has been done to death. I really like your idea of delving into backstory to create characters who are more than their surface traits suggest. It might even be interesting to take a character who looks like a stereotype and explore all the ways in which they’re not. Thanks for the great article!

    • Yes, this is a great point, that the secondary characters run the higher risk of becoming cliché because we spend less time on them. Realistically, I can’t go into such great detail with all my characters, but we definitely need to put in the time to make sure that each character is unique and makes sense.

  19. :Donna Marie says:

    With every additional post I am falling more and more in love with the work you ladies put out there. Thanks for all the tools, too! 😀 😀 😀

    • Donna, you are such a sweetheart! So glad we caught up on Twitter and you came by to check us out. 🙂

      • :Donna Marie says:

        Angela, trust me—I’M the one who is SOoooo grateful for having found you on Twitter and made it to this wonderful blog. Seriously—priceless! What cracks me up is I already owned your “Emotion Thesaurus,” but having not put it to use just yet (oh, but that is changing soon—beginnging my novel writing finally on the cusp!), hadn’t connected the dots ’til I came here! lol And am anxious to be purchasing the other 2 in a day or two, once I have dinero en el “banko” 😀

    • Thanks for the kind words, Donna. We’re glad you found us!

  20. Bish Denham says:

    I love how you connect your observations to characters most of us are familiar with. John Bender, from The Breakfast Club is a great example!

    • The classic characters are often the best examples, aren’t they? Thanks Bish!

    • I love that movie. And Bender’s such a classic character. I recently saw a show on the making of the movie, and they said that originally they’d cast John Cusack in that role. I’m soooo glad they didn’t. Cusack’s a really good actor, but Judd Nelson’s perfect, imo.

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