Over years of playing role-playing games, I have interacted with a gamut of players and their characters. It let me see vastly different personalities acted out and character backgrounds I would have never conceived on my own. I also saw repeated characters and trope-ridden backgrounds. At one game another player even had the same character background I did. We both had the same secret and were trying to hide who we were.
His character was sneaky personified. Wearing dark colors, hiding his face. He even talked in that raspy rumble à la Christian Bale’s Batman. My character was gregarious. The friendly greeter who acted as the glue in groups. What better way to hide, than to seemingly be open and honest? When Mr. Sneak was asked his name he refused to tell the group. My character promptly introduced him as Guy, and the nickname stuck through the campaign, much to his chagrin.
Mr. Sneak shows up often as a character of inexperienced role-players. It’s a cliché of the RPG world and can be annoying and tiresome to interact with. But should clichés always be avoided?
In writing, we often are told to avoid clichés at all costs, but I believe they should be embraced. (Mr. Sneak’s annoyingness aside.) They are a tool with the ability to convey an entire identity in a couple words. Think about it, when I say brooding loner or Mary Sue, an immediate image materializes. That is powerful and shouldn’t be overlooked.
To cliché or not to cliché
When researching clichés for this post I came across the article wikiHow to Avoid Clichés in Fantasy Writing. It had some good points, but when I hit number 5. Create your own creatures, it rang untrue. The article says to not use fantasy creatures like goblins, faeries, dragons etc. and instead create your own beasts.
Creating unique creatures and concepts is great but comes at a price. It requires significantly more investment from your readers to learn each and every unique thing you describe. And with each new creation, your reader is going to evaluate whether it is worth the effort to learn another thing. Too much new and the piece becomes overly complex and drifts away from relatability. And being relatable is a key to being marketable.
Being relatable is the key to being marketable.
A perfect example of this, which is near and dear to my heart, lays in the history of the massively multiplayer online role-playing video game (MMORPG). The big three that formed the foundation of the genre are Ultima Online (1997), EverQuest (3/1999), and Asheron’s Call (11/1999). My husband was a senior programmer for Asheron’s Call before and during its release.
The designers of Asheron’s Call decided the creatures, races, and world would be unique. A fantasy game without dragons, elves, or dwarves. EverQuest used every cliché in the book, from Tolkienesque races to gods stolen from classic pantheons of ancient cultures. Although both games were successes, most computer gamers have never heard of Acheron’s Call. EverQuest, on the other hand, is well-known among video gamers and has crept into geek culture at large.
Part of EverQuest’s success was that it stood on the shoulders of giants. It embraced what its audience loved about fantasy. It made races and classes that were recognizable and relatable. The player didn’t have to learn anything to appreciate the game. They used a known frame of reference and were able to run headlong into gameplay.
The same is true of worlds and characters you create in your novel. If your reader has a frame of reference to start from they can run headlong into your story. Clichés provide a frame of reference. They heighten relatability. Simply put: Cliché = relatable = marketable. However, clichés by definition are overused and betray a lack of original thought.(Google Dictionary) So how do you get all the power behind the cliché without being dubbed a derivative dud?
Cliché as a Launch Point
From the previous posts, I described how to build a character base concept starting from either a goal, a personality, or a backstory. But where do we go from here? How do we take the infinite options for a character and narrow it down? By using the old adage, “Write what you know.” And something overused and lacking originality is something we know well.
The human brain is built for pattern matching. We thrive on classifying, categorizing, and labeling. It may not always be a pretty aspect of what we are, but it is something we all do. It is the way we learn. We recognize something by how similar or different it is compared with a known quantity. Then we stick a label on it. Even on people. Labels like mom, surgeon, or delinquent.
Clichés combine these labels into a more fleshed out concept. It provides a list of characteristics that have been proven to work together. Because of this, clichés are great jumping off points. They provide something relatable and tangible to work with. Not a nebulous cloud of infinite possibilities. The important thing is to not stay just within the cliche but to take it and make it your own.
So, once you have a base concept worked up, figure out a cliché that fits with it or is close to it. Then list the key traits associated with that cliché, from ones that are always true to the traits that are found in different versions of the cliché. Consider whether each trait works for what you want the character to be and what you need them to do. Strike the ones that don’t work and add what works in their place. Now you have a foundation for your character. Something you can build on and something you can use to describe it to your reader efficiently.
Let’s take the three concepts I created in the previous posts and link them with a cliché.
Personality-based Concept: An insecure girl learned from her father’s abandonment that people stick around when you are who they want you to be. Through her art she pleases the people in her life. When her goal changes to showing at a local gallery, the proprietor wants her to have a collection expressing her voice. She struggles as she realizes she has no voice of her own.
Cliché: Plain Jane
Backstory-based Concept: A prodigy oboist has focused her entire life on getting into an elite music program. Her life was filled with competitions and constant practice until an accident ruins her hand. She must learn to live and to love music all over again.
Goal-oriented Concept: Girl with a natural talent for magic who tried to learn it on her own. She ended up in juvey because of her magic and recently has returned to a normal high school life. Her experiences during her incarceration and the prejudices since she got out have left her jaded.
Cliché: Brooding Loner/ Rebel
Even though none of these is a direct fit, they are a close place to start. The next step is to list the characteristics of the cliché and see whether they apply to the character. I will take the second example, the injured oboist, and build the character’s foundation.
- Socially awkward
- Interested in doing well (usually in school)
- Concerned about good behavior
- Unattractive or quirky appearance
- Quirky (behavior this time)
- Overly intellectual
How they apply to my character:
She isn’t socially awkward, just has never bothered or cared to make friends outside her highly competitive world of music. She is obsessive about her music, and it could be interesting if her obsessiveness shifts to something outside music when she loses her ability to play. Her primary concern was doing well in music, not school. She had been so busy she had no time to behave badly, but without the limitations on her time and with her increased freedom, she may start testing boundaries she never bothered to before. She isn’t bookish except regarding musical knowledge.
I don’t want her appearance to play a huge role. She is average but considers herself below average especially after the damage to her hand. She wasn’t shy before the accident but now struggles with her insecurities. Initially, she may come across shy early on in her healing process. However, I want her to quickly move past this. I don’t see her being pedantic or overly intelligent. I see her having a strong and stubborn personality. It was part of what helped her survive and thrive in a driven environment.
Although it is far from complete. The character is beginning to take shape. The injured oboist is a music nerd. With her reasonable social ability, lack of bookishness, and lack of concern about good behavior she is starting to move out of the cliché and will continue to as she is developed further.
In the next post, we will build on this foundation adding interest and depth to begin the change into a full-fledged character.
Gummy Bears by Ronile
Mustache Girl by Ryan McGuire
Gaming Station by Redd Angelo
File Drawer by Sanwal Deen
Sheet Music by FotoshopTofs