“Avoid character clichés.”
Like me, you’ve probably heard this advice many times. It comes in a number of guises, from make your characters unique and interesting, or try to create something different, or don’t create cookie cutter characters.
The rationale behind it is sound. Readers will immediately identify a character they’ve seen before, because movies, books and cartoons are saturated with the same types of characters (and plots, but that’s another topic). They’ll quickly lose interest when they realize there’s nothing new about your evil mage who wants to become the most powerful wizard in the world, or your damsel in distress who is nothing more than…well, a damsel in distress.
When I think of who my favorite characters are, the ones that come to mind have some unique quality that yells out for attention, screaming louder than the thousands of mediocre characters taking up precious ink and paper. Darth Vader. Harry Potter. Merlin. The list goes on. Everyone’s got their favorites and their own reasons for liking them.
The problem is that it’s easy to take this advice too far. By avoiding clichés, you can end up creating bland, uninteresting characters no one will remember.
So I’m going to go out on a limb and argue against the mold. Perhaps I’m feeling particularly rebellious today, or perhaps I have an incurable love for childhood favorites. Whatever the reason, I believe that rather than avoiding character clichés, writers should embrace them to create their own memorable characters.
1. It’s Impossible To Avoid Clichés
One of the reasons why I believe writers shouldn’t be afraid of clichés (provided they are modified–but more on that later) is that it is practically impossible to avoid them. Every character has a cookie cutter element to him or her, although usually this is disguised or modified.
Take my favorites for example. They are all classic characters, and yet I’ve chosen them because they are also good examples of well used clichés.
Let’s start with Merlin. He fits the wise wizard archetype perfectly. He’s a mentor, a guide, a teacher, and a confidant to the protagonist of the story. Sometimes he’s the protagonist himself, although this is less common. There are plenty of other examples of this archetype. Gandalf, Dumbledoor, Belgarath (from The Belgariad), Ogion (A Wizard of Earth Sea), even Morpheus from The Matrix, and Obi-wan Kenobi. The list goes on. This character type has appeared in dozens, if not hundreds, of fantasy and sci-fi stories.
Next is Harry Potter. Actually, I think Harry is a combination of two or more archetypes. Firstly, he’s the apparently-ordinary farm boy with an extraordinary secret. Often this character is raised by an uncle because his parents are dead, or has uncertain parentage. Think Rand from the Wheel of Time series, or Garion from The Belgariad. But he’s also the orphan who turns out to have a great destiny. Think Luke Skywalker (another combination of these two archetypes), Cinderella, and Aladdin. Did I mention that it’s become standard practice for this character to befriend the wise wizard? It’s no surprise George Lucas had Luke Skywalker befriend Obi-wan Kenobi.
Finally, Darth Vader. Again, I think there are a couple of archetypes in play here. The first is the shadow. He represents the darkness within the hero, which must be overcome to triumph against evil. Other examples of this character are Golem, Voldemort and Mr Hyde. But I also think he’s got a bit of the evil sorcerer in him. Think Saruman, Ming the Merciless (from Flash Gordon), Loki (Thor’s brother) and many more.
So why are clichés so prevalent? In my view, it’s simply because people have been writing books and telling stories for a very long time. Practically every character you can imagine has already been written in some shape or form. It’s almost impossible to do something genuinely unique.
2. Characters Become Cliché Because They Work So Well
But there’s another reason why cliché characters are used so often, and that’s because they work so well.
Back to my examples. I think it’s fair to say they are classic characters, with internal conflicts and flaws that make them truly interesting.
Take Harry Potter for example. He’s an orphan raised by relatives who fear and despise him. A product of both the Wizard and Muggle worlds, he never seems to fit in, and can’t call anywhere home. He is courageous and doesn’t give up, yet he fails as often as he succeeds. And the fate of the entire world rests on his young shoulders. Will he be able to cope with the pressure?
Darth Vader. A powerful villain with no compassion or mercy, and yet he was good once. In some ways, it was his desire to do good which lured him to the dark side in the first place. Somewhere in there is a man who has given up all hope of salvation only to find it again when he least expects it in his son. What will he do? Will his good side triumph over his evil side? Is there enough humanity left?
Merlin. In many ways, he’s the opposite of Darth Vader. A wise, powerful wizard dedicated to good. But with power comes responsibility, and sometimes competing responsibilities are not easily balanced. He is constantly faced with tough moral choices. Protecting the people he cares about will drag him into a moral no man’s land. Can he succeed without compromising his integrity?
It’s no surprise that these characters have captured readers’ imaginations. They have internal conflicts which make for an interesting read we can all identify with (well, hopefully we can’t all identify with Darth Vader).
3. How To Use The Cliché
I’m not suggesting that writers should use cookie cutter templates for their characters. That would be disastrous. You can just imagine your readers’ reactions: Another white haired, old wizard. Is he serious?
But you don’t have to follow the template to the letter to benefit from the best these characters have to offer. In my view, it is their internal conflicts that make them inspiring. And once those conflicts are reduced to their general nature (as opposed to being specific to individual circumstances), they can be used to make other characters more interesting.
Take Darth Vader for example. Many villains would be more compelling if the reader could see them struggling with their humanity. And instead of just creating the villain as something for the hero to overcome, wouldn’t it be more interesting if the hero and the villain were connected in some deeply personal way? Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father, and because of that, he also represented fear, temptation, hatred, love and redemption for the hero. Make multiple connections like that in your writing, and the characters will jump off the page!
Try using the Harry Potter example. Could a character become more interesting if he or she struggled to fit in? Does the character have huge responsibilities to cope with? Is he or she happy with the greatness thrown upon them, or do they want to fight against it?
And what about the wise wizard archetype? Powerful characters will always tread on shaky moral ground if they are forced to use those around them to achieve their goals, no matter how pure their intentions. Despair is often the greatest danger to those with the most knowledge.
There’s no doubt that many archetypal characters can teach writers about internal conflict, and how to better use it in their own writing. If writers ignore cliché’s like the plague, then they run the risk of ignoring a rich and important source of information about character formation. Not to mention a veritable treasure trove of ideas.
So don’t take the advice “avoid character clichés” too literally. Just make sure you adapt them enough to come across as unique and refreshing.
What can you learn from some of your favorites about what makes a compelling character?