Tag Archives: cliche

Who Cares What Color Their Eyes Are?

Really – who the hell cares what color their eyes are? Heck, most of us don’t even remember the color of our own spouse’s eyes. I think they are sort of a grey green and mostly I remember that because she told me and it’s important when picking out colors for her to wear. When I meet a person I don’t say “gee, it was nice to meet Bob, he had brown eyes.” I don’t remember people by their eye color or their hair color or their height; unless it’s unusual for some reason. So why is it so many writers write lines like this:

Darkly handsome Antonio, with bronzed biceps and chiseled jaw, gazed deeply into Allura’s violet eyes, so big and moist, fringed with thick luxuriant black lashes.


I’m pretty much done with a book right there, aren’t you? This kind of description tells us nothing except that the characters are artificially good-looking and probably going to be one dimensional. I bet he’s sardonic and prone to misunderstanding the heroine until he takes her roughly, and she’s rebellious and spunky, but she’ll yield in the end.

Writing the introduction for a character that starts with a physical description is, generally, a pretty good signal that whatever follows will be clichéd and hackneyed. Yet I have seen decent young writers make this mistake and follow it with a ripping yarn. They’re going to be fortunate indeed if they can get away with this and expect someone to keep reading. I don’t know about you but nothing about the color of the heroines eyes tell me much about her personality, and eyes simply are not windows on the soul. You can’t see anything in their depths. All the nuances of expression we human beings observe in each other is caused by hundreds of muscles in the face causing the skin around eyes and brows to crinkle and furrow, the turn of a mouth. Body language is a whole body affair and so the tilt of a shoulder, the jut of a hip, or a slouched back is telling us more than a study of an iris.

Here is a great quick sketch of a person:

He is not a guy who cares a lot about how he looks, unless he cares a lot about appearing not to care. He has angular eyebrows, and tousled hair. His disposition was serene, but you could sense a prickly, Jesuitical undercurrent coursing beneath it. He speaks softly with a gentle Texas twang.

No hair color there, no eye color either, but you get a real sense of a living breathing person with personality. I took this quote from a description of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey by Nick Paumgarten in the January 4, 2010, issue of The New Yorker. The writer has picked out some salient features because they stand out and they tell us more about John Mackey than a mere physical description. After reading the article I know a lot about Mackey but not a thing about the color of his eyes. Tousled hair: he’s not fastidious about his appearance. Angular eyebrows: gives him an intense look that accents what the author said about the prickly undercurrent underneath the serene casual appearance. Speaks softly? As Whole Foods CEO he’s knows people are listening. He doesn’t have to shout.

Here is how F. Scott FitzGerald describes his tragic hero Jay Gatsby for the first time:

He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression he that he was picking his words with care.

No idea what color his eyes are – well probably he’s blond and blue-eyed and that’s because he was portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie, old sport. This description, that concentrates so much on the smile and how it affected our narrator, while seeming spare in physical details actually tells us a great deal about Gatsby. He’s self-made, very self-conscious, and yet he has a gift of making someone feel very special. Gatsby himself is very concerned with the external: his appearance, his speech, his house, but at the core there seems to be something empty. This image of Gatsby is then amplified and then drawn to its tragic ending throughout the rest of the book. Even more cunningly FitzGerald doesn’t even introduce Gatsby until he’s fueled our interest in through several chapters of mystery and gossip about the elusive Gatsby.

The fact that the movie version tends to stick in the mind of anyone that has seen and read the book is another good example of what it really shouldn’t matter what color your heroine’s eyes are. Casting Robert Redford as Gatsby was an admirable choice because his boyish good looks, so blond, really mirror FitzGerald’s characterization of his protagonist. Movies are a visual medium that need to make the choice about exactly what a person looks like whereas books do not. But once that choice has been made it becomes fixed in the mind. I cannot read The Great Gatsby without seeing Robert Redford but if I had read the book prior to the movie I might see a dark Gatsby, a small Gatsby, a burly Gatsby. My own mind would add details to the important clues that FitzGerald has drawn me and this internalized version of Gatsby would hold far more meaning to me than one created for me of whole cloth.

If you do end up picking an eye color or hair color for your heroine or hero it should mainly be a detail for your own imagination, and unless there is a pressing reason otherwise, probably isn’t important for your reader. How many times have you heard a person exclaim over the movie version of one of their favorite reads that the director got it all wrong? It clashes with their own internalized version of the story. What the author does is paint enough of a picture to grab their reader’s imagination and desire to know about the character, and then the reader fills in the rest, creating a truly original symbiotic relationship between writer and reader. You need to know more about your characters than you write down, and what you end up giving the reader should be revealing of their inner nature, what makes them unique, not what color their eyes are. Better you should tell us just how they organize their sock drawer.

Everything I Learned About Realistic Characters I Learned from British Telly

I was watching Torchwood last night and thoroughly enjoying it and not for the usual sci-fi adventure reasons but for the reasons that really make Torchwood and the new Doctor Who stand out from the crowd of usual suspects in TV viewing these days. British TV is perhaps not what it used to be (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t lived there in nearly twenty years) but it still remains sharply differentiated from American TV in some very important ways.

One of the things I was particularly enjoying last night was that everyone was just a bit pudgy. No one was spending regular time at the gym, and it looked like the entire cast had been spending too much time in the pub between series. There were no defined abs and impossible bulging calves. I know this because, of course, there was plenty of semi-nudity because the British, in general, are way more casual about the human body in general. Even our most attractive lead characters were only as attractive as people you might meet at work or at the pub, and the rest of the cast were just as ordinary as you or I.

Stereotypes were played with so each character is believable: Gwen, the attractive spunky ex-police officer, has an adorable chunky boyfriend who spends time cooking beans for the team while they’re hiding from the law; Jack the virile action hero with the mysterious past is gay (and wow, not interested in Gwen). This same attention to the human in characters can be seen in the powerfully funny Shaun of the Dead where ordinary blokes and birds combat the horror of the living dead.

I remember when I was first exposed to British television and I commented on the strange almost washed out quality of the lighting in their shows. I was told that this was because they used natural lighting for many of their comedies and dramas. At first I was put off by the coolness of the tones, but over time I have come to see that it is part of the national aesthetic which seems to favor a naturalness over extreme artifice in contrast to American movies and TV shows. In America’s CSI: Miami everyone is glamorous and too cool for their own skin. Even in shows that I enjoy, like Bones, everyone is gorgeous. In Doctor Who the hero is a skinny charming but flawed buffoon, and his female sidekicks run the spectrum from annoying to adorable.

In Torchwood last night Ianto when to the shops to stock up on supplies. He didn’t forget the TP. In the heyday (sadly past now) of HBO the same attention to detail and naturalness was applied to The Sopranos with its bulky, sometime endearing, but threatening hero, and all the ugly duckling henchmen, and of course the realism of Janice. A character dies on the crapper. Life is what happens to ordinary people every day, and even sci-fi fiction can remember that in the details of toilet paper and chunky cuddly teddy boyfriends who like baked beans.

Writing Scumbags and Bimbos

Sometimes you just have to do it.

You have to write about characters you don’t understand, you don’t like, or you even hate. I’m not just talking about the vicarious thrill of writing that demonic bad guy that gets all the women and does all the stuff you wish you could do if only you weren’t a nice law-abiding citizen (i.e. if you had the cajones). I mean the kind of person you just don’t get or want to get. Of course, for me, in collaborative writing there really isn’t any ‘must’ or ‘should’. If I want to I can avoid it, but then I would never grow as a writer, and I would never have a full pantheon of human variation.

Maybe it’s just a supporting character, or a character that walks on once, but there comes a time when you do have to try and get into the head of someone very different than yourself. It’s said that ever character we write (or every portrait we paint) is really just autobiography, but I’m here to challenge you to pull the rabbit out of the hat and write a character so different that it might even make you uncomfortable to put the words to blank virtual page.

It’s an old chestnut that you should write what you know, I have dealt with my feelings on that elsewhere in this blog, but you can use other people you know or have met as a template: the bully in school, the weird guy at your last job that creeped you out, or the shallow ingenue. It’s all too easy, however, to get bogged down in predictability and cliche if you’re not careful. If you watch TV you will all too often see the stock set of character types brought out for every new episode, but if you want to convince your readers that your character is a living breathing human being you need to delve a little deeper than stereotypes.

You can start with the exterior action, but you have to find a way to get into the head of your unpleasant or unlikeable character just as much as you do with your main protagonist. What works for me is to start imagining myself as the character, doing the actions in my mind, then maybe running some interior dialogue. Your base might be close to a stereotype (after all they exist for a reason) but as you imagine the character more fully they come alive for you and might do some surprising things. If you only view them from the outside you will find yourself just sticking with cliche – stuff you have seen before elsewhere. We are all natural mimics. But going from the inside out you might achieve some unique insight that allows you to jump out of the stereotypes into a real portrayal of an individual.

One important thing to remember: whether or not a character is the hero or the villian, or a walk on bit part, everyone is the hero in their own life. If your creepy nose-picking bike messenger does something ‘evil’ why are they doing it? Maybe it’s spite because they feel unloved or slighted? Whatever the motivation ends up being it’s something you can relate to. Deep down inside of every thoughtless shallow ingenue is a girl looking for love and validation. The base ingredients of every human being are pretty much the same. Once you get inside your unlikeable character’s heads you’ll probably start to sympathize with them a little, and when you do that you start to bring them to life for your readers.

Eating Cheeze Whiz While You Do Your Nails and Other Character Quirks

Real people have quirks. I recently heard a story about a girl that was a nail artist with inch long fake nails and sprayed on designs that was also totally obsessed with the American flag and Cheeze Wiz. They say you can’t make this stuff up – but you can. Writing believable characters might require you to start grabbing all these crazy anecdotes you’ve heard, filing them away, to bring out later and mix and match in your writing. One of my latest collectibles is about a woman that picked the lock when her guest was taking a shower because she thought someone left the water running.

I recently visited the house of someone that decorated their house with a combination of naive art and antiques, while feeding all of the neighborhood stray cats. They spent a fortune on cat food for animals they didn’t own and couldn’t pet. Or the wonderfully casual comment from the rich guy who has a huge house with multiple bedrooms, swimming pool, and a crew of migrant labor to clean his grounds and when you describe your 650 square feet of living space says “oh that’s plenty big enough for two, what more do you need?”

If you want to be a writer you have to start to develop a strong streak of curiosity, a certain amount of objectivity (i.e. be amused by the comment by the rich guy and file it for later instead of popping him in the face), and a good memory – or a good filing system. Remember to avoid clichés. One person might like to bathe every day and moisturize their skin twice a day while another person might forego bathing for days yet they both are obsessed about beauty and aging. Pick the set of character traits that serves your character best, and preferably the one that is less common if it works. The important thing to remember, regardless of the well-worn adage that “fact is more unbelievable than fiction” is that if you can think of it it’s probably true somewhere so just write it with conviction and you’ll bring your readers with you.

Speaking of aging: older characters tend not to be as popular with collaborative fiction writers. Very often writers go for the young and physically perfect. It’s good to remember that young people simply don’t have as much life experience or cumulative time to pick up wonderful idiosyncrasies as older characters (though my example of the nail artist was a young woman). Older characters can provide a level of depth to your writing that might be lacking from your typical young and nubile. Adding just ten years to a character’s age can result in greater opportunities for peeling back the layers of your character’s personality to keep the reader engaged.

A character doesn’t have to be likeable but they do have to be fascinating to keep a reader’s interest.

Taking a Cliché and Turning It into a Bowerbird

bowerbird1I started reposting a lot of my collaborative fiction writing over at my new fiction blog Wyatt’s Writing (noticed yet that I love alliteration?). It’s an interesting process for me because it’s about the only way I can get myself to reread my work. I can also see how much I have developed. Naturally I often want to start editing and reworking, but because collaborative fiction stories can be constructed for years and years and new posts are always needed I resist the urge to do more than correct obvious typos. I don’t need another distraction from new writing.

What I have reposted so far is only a couple years old at the most – this reminds me I should go back and date them for good OCD archival reasons – and yet I am finding myself mildly chagrinned. To me they seem a little pedestrian and full of clichés or obvious combinations of images. Cliché has always been one of my bugbears when it comes to writing, whether I’m writing for a magazine or whether I’m writing in my collaborative fiction community. Basically my mind collects clichés like a bowerbird collects twigs for the bower. Keeping with this simile if a bowerbird hopes to attract and keep his lady love he needs to make sure that his bower really stands out. On the basic structure of twigs he’ll add bright and shiny objects. He is a connoisseur of the unusual in his little domain. I want to be a Great Bowerbird.

One of my tricks lately is when the cliché leaps into my mind a red flag goes up and I stop and consider. For instance in my bower bird simile becomes a useful analogy in the previous paragraph. My first thought had been ‘magpie’ because, of course, that’s the first thought we all have when we think of acquisitiveness. In this instance coming up with an alternative bird created a more startling and original simile which then fed into an analogy which I could use to illuminate my point in a playful way. It might not be the most awe-inspiring example, but it’s a good start in thinking about clichés. When I’m writing fiction I might diverge even farther from the original thought, traveling along interesting little pathways to find something a little less trite or common. At the same time it is important not to get too clever and yank your reader right out of the story because of the surprise, shock, or complexity of an image. It’s also tempting to pepper your work liberally with similes and metaphors to spice it up, but just like putting too much oregano in marinara sauce less is often more.

Seven Basic Plots and Other Story Tropes

Christopher Booker asserts in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories that there are (can you guess where I’m going with this yet?) only seven basic plots:

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. A journey – the quest
  4. A journey – the voyage and return
  5. Comedies
  6. Tragedies
  7. Rebirth

His rather large tome asserts that all stories can be boiled down to these seven and that they all contain Jungian archetypes. I’m curious how he settled on the number seven.
I’m not sure that I believe that all the stories that ever have been written can be reduced to just seven, but I agree that there are limited plots, and many variations on just a few themes. I’m sure Booker could have picked almost any number and then made a sound argument for it. Looking at his list you can see that the bones of his plots are very spare indeed, which means quite a lot of meat can be added to that bone to make each one look very different from one another, much as one human looks very different from any other while sharing a basic biological blueprint.

Even allowing for the great variation and apparent complexity of most stories we will get quite a short list of plot devices, and then within these plot devices there will always be a set of stock character types as well as a set of recognized tropes. I could, like Booker, spend thirty-for years analyzing all the books and movies I have enjoyed (or not as the case may be) and dissect these for you, but I think everyone understands story tropes. For example the hero and heroine get into a misunderstanding and so much comedy and action ensues: in Mr. & Mrs. Smith from 2005 they are assassins that get sent on the same hit and each thinks the other is out to get them and so they battle each other with guns, knives, and incendiary devices, but they end up back together again in the end, in love stronger than ever. In the 1941 version, one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, a loving couple with decidedly oddball rules of engagement gets into a Battle Royale of loyalties and deceptions until they make up again at the end, more in love than they started. It’s the same basic storyline (though the 2005 version is not technically a remake of the 1941 version), but they vary in important details from what the couples do for a living, how they relate to each other, even the genre of the movies themselves.

It’s the details that make each one a unique experience, but at the same time our recurring themes are important in our storytelling experience. As a writer you are going to be confronted with telling the same story over and over again (there are only seven or eight or whatever after all) but it’s how you tell it – if you avoid the pitfalls of cliché and over-used tropes. Looking at another form of storytelling let’s consider briefly the Legend of Zelda franchise for the Nintendo gaming systems. In each episode there are at least some of the same features: the boy hero Link, the princess Zelda, the villain Ganondorf, the Master Sword, the Kingdom of Hyrule, the Triforce, etc. While each adventure seems to be an open-ended exploration of the setting with various dungeons, monsters to defeat, treasures, and side games to divert, the basic storyline is pushed through with a series of recognizable tropes such as can be found in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. These same recurring themes, or markers, can be found in such successful stories such as the Star Wars movies, or the ancient myths, or tales like King Arthur. These archetypes disguised can be discerned on analysis in many contemporary tales, movie or on the page.

On examination of the best loved stories of all time it is the combination of familiarity and archetypes that help to make a story engaging and universal so that many people can relate. It’s the details, the flesh you put on the bone that makes your story unique and fresh. You can never hope to avoid tropes – they are as essential to storytelling as having a beginning, middle, and end (even if you like to mess up the order you tell them in) – but you can make sure that your tropes aren’t clichés.