Author Toolbox: Character Creation- Building from Clichés

Girl wearing a black fuzzy mustache.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.

Computer on desk lit in a purple light.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.

Small drawer file systemThe 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.

Example:

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.

Cliché: Nerd

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.

Nerd Cliché

Sheet music Key traits

  • Socially awkward
  • Obsessive
  • Interested in doing well (usually in school)
  • Concerned about good behavior
  • Bookish

Other traits

  • Unattractive or quirky appearance
  • Shy
  • Quirky (behavior this time)
  • Pedantic
  • Intelligent
  • 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.

Moving Forward

In the next post, we will build on this foundation adding interest and depth to begin the change into a full-fledged character.


Photo Credits

Gummy Bears by Ronile

Mustache Girl by Ryan McGuire

Gaming Station by Redd Angelo

File Drawer by Sanwal Deen

Sheet Music by FotoshopTofs

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By | 2017-09-20T02:50:45+00:00 September 18th, 2017|Writing|20 Comments

About the Author:

Writer, Software Engineer, modern-day Renaissance woman and eternal student

20 Comments

  1. Kristina Stanley September 20, 2017 at 9:09 am - Reply

    Thanks for the tips. Sometimes I don’t recognize a cliche when I’ve used one.

    • Erika Timar September 20, 2017 at 10:09 pm - Reply

      I think this can happen to us all. That is why it is so vital to have others read your work so they can tell you when you miss it.

  2. Michele Keller September 20, 2017 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    I like the idea of using a cliche’ as a starting point, but then adding a twist characteristic. i.e a biker who loves kittens. These can be a fun way to play on the cliche’ and make a character memorable. Archetypes can also help for unimportant secondary characters where an author doesn’t want to spend large amounts of time drawing a complete character, i.e. a crooked cop, or a sleazy lawyer.

    Thanks for sharing

    • Erika Timar September 20, 2017 at 10:11 pm - Reply

      Exactly, in the end, you have to make it your own. But I believe cliches give you the clay to start molding into something that is uniquely yours and provide a common language to communicate with your readers.

  3. Anna September 20, 2017 at 1:02 pm - Reply

    To me cliche means the same old thing. However, we can use the same thought and use different words to revitalize something. I wrote about a dragon that had camouflage skin. Not commando greens but of crystal and mirrors. Its fire melted everything it touch and behaved more like lava. Just saying…. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  4. Raimey Gallant September 20, 2017 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    I don’t write fantasy, but I have happened upon articles where authors advise against using cliched characters, and I have wondered how, if modern fantasy writers are all creating brand new creatures, I would ever understand one of these books. Great post, Erika! I promise, my upcoming cliche post is from an entirely different angle. 🙂

    • Erika Timar September 20, 2017 at 10:19 pm - Reply

      Fantasy provides a more intense lens to magnify the concept I am discussing, but I think that the fundamental point carries over to all genres. Cliches by their nature are relatable so why not build off of them to start the connection between you and your reader. Plus, editing a cliche to make it your own can be easier than creating something that works from scratch. I can’t wait to hear your take on cliches.

  5. Erika Beebe September 20, 2017 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    Hi Erika. I LOVE fantasy. I agree with you. We want to give our readers a foundation for fairies, vampires etc. I am still drawn to these sorts of creatures but am also interested in a new and exciting twist. Point 5 needs to be scratched Lol. I also think the cliche in character development is critical. To me, our characters should relate to others and many of us see ourselves fitting in with these broad cliche descriptions. Great post 🙂

    • Erika Timar September 20, 2017 at 10:21 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Erika! I agree wholeheartedly the twist to the foundation of a creature is one of the best parts of reading fantasy. You get to see how the writer took something you know and made it their own.

  6. Victoria Marie Lees September 20, 2017 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    Now Michelle’s right, Erika. Starting with a cliché in fantasy helps to define what you need in your particular character. Then you need to create a unique character to your story. That’s the important part. This character needs to be relevant to YOUR particular story and what goes on and what needs to happen in your story.

    You’ve got great info here. Thanks so much for sharing this with Author Toolbox followers. All best to you.

    • Erika Timar September 20, 2017 at 10:24 pm - Reply

      Very true, the cliche is just a launching point, a place to get you started. You have to shift and alter it to fit your stories need and make it your own, but it can be a tool to use. Thanks Victoria.

  7. Mica Kole September 20, 2017 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    I never thought about it in terms of creature creation, and that really puts this into perspective! I also like cliches when they are presented and then shattered into a million pieces. For example, a story where the star oboist breaks her hand – but it’s going to heal. The story takes place during the healing period when she can’t do what she loves, but when she can still expect to get there. Will something change to make her not want to be an oboist anymore by the time her hand heals up, eg? Just as an example. Or the heroine with a x2 male love triangle turns out to be a lesbian at the end 😉

    Free Writing Events Blog: http://micascottikole.com/2017/09/19/wdc17-creating-character-web-authortoolbox/

    • Erika Timar September 20, 2017 at 10:27 pm - Reply

      Shattering them is a great idea especially within the scope of the story. Love the love triangle idea. Thanks!

  8. Caroliena C September 20, 2017 at 7:46 pm - Reply

    Great post! The story about EverQuest and Acheron’s Call is super interesting. I hadn’t heard of either one since I’m not much of a gamer, but it’s interesting to see how the more immediately recognizable world was more successful. Thanks for a really informative post!

    • Erika Timar September 20, 2017 at 10:30 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Caroliena. It is surprising how similar the video game industry and writing industry are. Glad I could teach you about something new.

  9. Adam September 20, 2017 at 7:50 pm - Reply

    Clichés have always struck me as an interesting conundrum. On the one hand by definition they are overused, and yet there’s a reason for that; they work.
    As you say, audiences are familiar with goblins, fearies, and dragons, but in many cases that’s what audiences want, something familiar.
    It’s all a question of what kind of story you’re trying to tell.

    Cliches can be a useful shortcut, either for the audience, when a character needs to be easily understood and then forgotten, or the author can use a cliché to set the audience up and then defy expectations by revealing how unique and complex the character really is.

    I also like to start my character creation with clichés, using archetypes, zodiac profiles, and other personality types used by tests like Myers Briggs. I may wander quite far from where I start, but they give me a place to start, something to react to.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Erika Timar September 20, 2017 at 10:38 pm - Reply

      Yes, exactly on the cliche conundrum. As I have been spending more time in the writing community I think cliches are often pushed off to pariah status. However, they strike a chord which is why they end up being used so often. I think avoiding them entirely is overlooking a valuable resource. Like you, I use them as a place to start and work from and frequently venture far from that starting point. I usually step to the zodiac profiles in the next phase of my character development or if I am struggling to find a cliche to fit as another jumping off point. Although I have never used the Myers Briggs tests for my character gen. Do you have any favorite sites you reference?

  10. Joan Curtis September 21, 2017 at 10:15 am - Reply

    This is the first time I’ve heard of a positive use of cliches. One thing I’ve learned is we talk in cliches. Our characters do so and so do we. It sounds stilted when we try to change that. Thank you for sharing the positive use of cliches but also warning about overuse.

  11. Charity Rau September 21, 2017 at 9:16 pm - Reply

    Great advice. Cliches can be helpful is they are used properly. Thanks for sharing!

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