Cliched characters

I saw this via S F Signal blogger John De Nardo’s Facebook feed today and it made me laugh.

The 10 Most Clichéd Character Types in Sci-Fi:

10. The Robot Who Wants To Be Human

9. The May-Or May-Not Be the Devil Guy

8. Pure Energy Beings

7. The Accidental Time-Tourist

6. Genetically Superior Smug Humans

5. The Monocultural Alien

4. The Captain Ahab

3. The Bumbling Robot

2. The Evil Twin

1. The Over-Obsessed Scientist

Click on the title link above to have a breakdown and examples of each of the ten – very amusing. But it also got me thinking. I’ve been working pretty hard on a story recently for a particular market and one of the real issues is making well-rounded, believable characters. And that doesn’t just count for my most recent story, it counts for all stories.

Not only do characters have to seem real, they have avoid being cliches like the examples above and they also have to avoid being Mary Sues. I don’t have so much of a problem in longer fiction when it comes to building characters, but creating solid characters that the reader cares about in short fiction is really, really hard. Definitely planning your characters as much as you plan your story is a good start. I need to apply the same methods in my short fiction that I apply in my novel length work and really get inside the character’s heads. Just because the story is shorter, the characters are no less important.

I think it’s one of the things that really sets apart great short fiction writers from good writers. The other things that set them apart are expert storytelling and excellent writing, naturally. All of which I aspire to. Ever onwards. For the writers out there, what are you methods for building good characters? For the readers, what do you like to learn about your characters?

Anyway, go and read the list of ten cliches linked above. It’s funny.


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6 thoughts on “Cliched characters

  1. I tend to write from the point of view of the character. This is especially true when I’m writing in first person, because then every observation is tinted by that character’s view on things, their history, their past interactions with other characters, their tastes, and how much they like to sass the reader. When I’m writing in first person it forces me to think with the character’s mind as I write, and thus give the character a mind of their own to begin with. When I’m writing about characters that are not the narrator, then I think of them only from the narrator’s angle until I possibly switch narrators. (I pull a lot of that tomfoolery.) Even without switching narrators, though, it’s easy enough to test if a character is believable. If I’m looking through the eyes of the character narrator, every person they meet has to seem like a real person to them. This works in most cases, though if I’m writing from the perspective of someone very haughty, then other down-to-earth characters actions might seem ‘preposterous’ to them even though those characters are acting completely normal.

    Sometimes I’ll do some writing exercises from a character’s point of view even if they’re never going to narrate in the story. It gives them a platform to speak from, and I can use that to weigh just how real they seem yet.

    If they don’t seem real enough I try to dig and dig and see if I can find something in their background that fleshes them out and breaks the ice. This means that sometimes characters shift over time and after the first draft I have to correct some details, but that’s par for course for first drafts. It’s a lot more nerve-jangling with serials, where all those previous chapters have already been read and I can’t just go back and tweak ’em.

    I like to mimic how people speak and write, style-wise, and that affects a lot of my characterization. Sometimes it’s not just the actions or the habits of a character, it’s the fact that instead of saying “all of us”, someone might say “the whole shootin’ match”. How people communicate really defines them to everyone else who interacts with them.

  2. Good points, Irk. You absolutely have to get into your characters heads. There are characters in both RealmShift and MageSign that had me questioning myself! I would often write scenes with them and then have to go out for a walk or something because I suddenly felt like I really was a blood soaked murderer!

  3. Methods of building good characters. Mmmm. Probably the moment it turns into a method- the good character becomes cliche’.
    Some advice that really helped me was to write your first instinct for a character- then change it. The writer’s first thought is usually lazy and cliche’- we all travel the path of least resistance.
    So now I write down what I think my character will do/say/be, then step back and change it in some way.
    I don’t know about any method- besides work your butt off until they shine true.
    I really like this subject because characters come hard for me. I really need tips. Plots sprout from my brain like dandelions (and occasionally morning glories), but I have to plant, fertilize, and pray and fast to get any good characters to grow.

  4. Ellie – you said, “So now I write down what I think my character will do/say/be, then step back and change it in some way.”

    That’s your method right there.

    I find it helps to think about a character’s past and motivation. Not only what they’re doing in the story you’re writing, but what might have happened to them in the past to shape their response in the now. You don’t necessarily have to include any of that in the story (though it can help to flesh out a character) but knowing that as the writer certainly helps your characters seem real.

  5. Aurgh. You caught me with a method. You’ve got a good eye for catching those buggers.

    Good tip about fleshing out past and motivation- thanks!

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