Some day I’d like to write a novel with nothing but dollops of these. They’re very seductive. How much fun would it be to write sentences like On a dark and stormy night, it rained cats and dogs as Jemima stumbled on a moose that lay, dead as a doornail on a grass verge by the side of the road less traveled. She avoided the corpse like the plague and knocked her head on some low hanging fruit, thinking only how smart she’d been to take one day at a time. The morning’s events were just the tip of the iceberg. Jemima of course has long flowing locks, gray eyes, and a killer bod with legs up to her armpits (I never quite got that one). Jeremy, her boyfriend has green eyes that snap fire, biceps and a six-pack, and he’s often sullen. But very sensitive.
Stereotypes, caricatures and clichés are familiar to us because they have a long tradition of repeated use. They seem to express exactly what we need them to. They roll off the tongue (let’s play spot the cliché) and slip easily into our oral and written narratives, everyday speech and even our thoughts. The English language is full of idioms, figurative expressions that are also overused, but what we need to realize is that all these depictions are actually dead. Yeah, they’re zombies, and they can kill a good story with just a couple of bites. Sadly, they’re difficult to avoid because they’re so insidious, but that’s our task as writers: to offer fresh, innovative writing that can surprise readers who have seen it all and bought the T-shirt. See? They creep in everywhere, and often a reader will absorb them without having to work, and the writer who resorts to them, doesn’t have to work either.
So without further ado, let’s look these assassins in the eyes and stare them down (that’s three in one sentence):
Stereotypes: These have to do with the assumptions we make about groups of people or certain types of individual. When we subscribe to popular, judgmental beliefs in our writing, we create characters with little room to breathe or grow because the stereotype freezes them in place. The man as strong and silent; the woman as nurturer; porn star as dumb; politician as corrupt. Based on vague, or even specific observations, we group entire cultures, genders or professions together, making conclusions that clump people in often unflattering and rigid groups, for example the dubious perceived qualities of the Irish/Polish/Jews/Blacks/Whites. This assessment can extend to physical attributes as well–you know the ones I mean. And the assumptions can be just as rigid if they’re flattering or complimentary.
Rescue your novel by staying away from them. If that’s not possible, and your character does represent a distinct type, then go for depth. Show what lies beneath the surface, and make it surprising. Depth will often have something to do with the journey a character has taken to get to where s/he is, and no two journeys are identical. They can be similar, but they’re never the same. In a broad sense we share basic similarities because we’re human, but X doesn’t fall in love with the whole alphabet, he falls in love with just Y. Why?
Caricatures: Tricky little buggers because they’re so tempting, especially if you’re feeling snarky. They’re characters who reveal a combination of exaggerated and superficial qualities, and they’re loaded. The exaggeration is less problematic than the shallowness, because a novel needs characters that are rich and vivid if it’s to survive at all. A novel’s characters also need to be malleable in the writer’s mind, and caricaturing tends to fix them in a mold that’s difficult to break. Like stereotypes, caricatures are also informed by preconceptions and/or prejudice.
Rescue your novel by looking beyond the obvious and bringing out distinguishing characteristics: fresh body language that betrays emotional depth, inner worlds that contradict preconceived notions. Here too, go for depth, unpredictable quirks and unexpected motivation, flaws in the perfect protagonist, nuance or pathos in your villains.
Clichés: These show up everywhere, like a rash. Sometimes we don’t even notice them. They’ll creep in on lazy writing days, and we all know those. The days we don’t want to dredge our vocabularies for words we seldom use, metaphors we have to hunt down at twenty minutes a shot, fresh language that no one we’ve encountered to date has used before. And one or two clichés can’t hurt, can they? They can, because they hang around in bunches, like grapes. Or a rash; a rash is good because clichés also spread.
Rescue your novel by reading as much as you can, and writing as much as you can. Know your enemy (hah!). If there’s the slightest suspicion that you might have let one cliché slip in, take it out. If the words were too easy to come by, delete and opt for struggle. This is a bummer, I realize, but your novel will thank you. The only place you might possibly, occasionally, now and then get away with them is in dialogue, because that’s the way we speak.
Recognizing this trio will make it that much harder for them to gain access to your work, and your work is about you, your story that no one else has written. Your insight, your sensibilities and your voice. You don’t want it to look the same as anyone else’s, do you? (Okay, so I wouldn’t go pfffft to Charles Dickens or Flannery O’Connor, but who knows, if you’re authentic and imaginative, they wouldn’t be so quick to huff at you either…)
PS One of the only times to use stereotypes, caricatures and clichés is if you’re an assassin yourself. Meet them on your terms and turn them on their heads. For example, what if it really is raining cats and dogs, and puppies and kitties are landing thunkity thunk on the sidewalk? Now that opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities.