When writers develop characters, we most often begin with an idea—a sort of shapeless blob that becomes more distinct as we write a first draft or do a pre-writing character study. Over time, they grow physical characteristics and a personality, as well as a goal or desire they want to attain. As these details come into focus, you have to keep a sharp eye on your character development for any clichés.
A cliché is defined as an overused idea that lacks originality. Some of the common character clichés in YA fiction include the brooding loner bad boy, the mean girl who rules the school, and a one-dimensional BFF sidekick. If you’re using one of these character types in your story, don’t panic! You’re about to learn how to transform them.
Here are a few areas to focus on when developing a unique cast of characters for your novel:
Physical Description: Details set people apart, especially when it comes to a character’s physical description. However, it can be easy to forget about details when you already have the character’s type in your head. When the type combines with expected physical characteristics, cliché disasters happen. Examples include: the most popular girl in school has long, lustrous blonde hair and perfect skin, or the male star athlete is tall, hot, and has plenty of muscles. Even these examples can be challenged as stereotypes…what if you have a popular boy character and a female star athlete?
To avoid clichés, start by making a list of character types featured in your work. You might have a queen bee, a cheating boyfriend, an overprotective mother. As you develop them further, challenge stereotypes and write their appearance so it defies expectations. Think about it like casting a movie…would you go with the obvious choice or the surprising actor?
Personality: Humans are complex beings with qualities that are often contradictory. As you craft your characters and define their personalities, use a combination of contrasting traits. Good people aren’t good every second of the day, beautiful people can have deep emotional scars, and wallflowers can be enchanting in their own unique way. Using the same examples as before, your popular character might be really nice, and the star athlete doesn’t have to be an academically challenged meathead. The idea is to balance your characters with traits that make them surprising. When their personality isn’t locked into a stereotype, their actions become all the more compelling.
Actions: Characters must have a desire, then take action to attain this desire, thus moving the plot forward. When it comes to writing character actions and choices, avoiding clichés gets tricky. The reason: there are cliché plots, and then there are story (or genre) conventions. A story convention is what you expect a novel to include. For example, if you’re writing a murder mystery, you expect to have a crime, an investigator (usually your protagonist), a villain, and a red herring. If it’s a love story, then you’d expect to have some sort of misunderstanding or fight that breaks the couple up before they eventually come back together. You know these things are going to happen, so it seems like they are a cliché, but really, they are elements of a story that make the plot rise and fall.
That being said, the line can become blurry. A love triangle, for example, is a cliché, but is used so often, it can be confused as a convention. Other examples of overused tropes include characters who only love themselves after receiving love from a relationship, or characters who are in love instantly, like after one chapter. If you find yourself heading down this road, it will be helpful to do some research into the common clichés in your YA genre. Armed with a list, you’ll be able to avoid as you craft your plot. Furthermore, as you’re writing, ask yourself if the choices your characters makes feel predictable. If you can’t be objective, try asking a beta reader or critique partner if they knew what was going to happen way before it happened.
In reality, it’s actually quite difficult to avoid ALL clichés, which is why I think including one or two is okay, as long as you don’t overwhelm your story with them. Overall, the key is to pay attention to what you’re writing. Your first draft may fall victim to some common tropes, but that’s what revising is for. When you go back and read, keep an eye out for any stereotypes. If you find one, challenge yourself to tweak it.
None of us are immune to writing clichés, but with some thought and revising, your characters will feel as if they’re living, breathing humans.
Are there any clichés you tend to repeat in your work?