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Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 23: Avoiding the Cliche

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 23: Avoiding the Cliche


Key points: characters need flaws. They need strong, original motivations. Everyone is the hero of their own story -- villains, women, everyone. Show what they want and what they perceive instead of generic archetypal desires and visions.

[Tracy] I'm Tracy.
[Brandon] Yes. We have our guest...
[Tracy] And you can win a new car!
[Brandon] We are recording live at Life, the Universe and Everything, the conference here at BYU. We have Tracy Hickman, multi-best-selling super author. Tracy, is there anything you want to pitch? I mean, tell the audience they should go buy or things like that?
[Tracy] I'd like to pitch the stimulus bill, but that's a whole different subject. We're doing all kinds of things right now. We're working on a series with my wife called Dracus and that should be out sometime. We believe it's being held captive at the publishers currently. Just had a book come out.
[Brandon] Don't we share a publisher? Do you publish some of your stuff with Tor?
[Tracy] Some of it's with Tor, some of it's with Daw. The new books, the Dragonships books, are with Daw -- er, excuse me, with Tor. I'm much happier there. Tor's good, they're doing the new one.
[Brandon] Who's your editor at Tor? Okay, we shouldn't ask these [garble]
[Tracy] My editor at Tor actually died.
[Dan] No wonder you're at Daw now.
[Brandon] Who is it?
[Audience] Awww.
[Brandon] Howard's holding up [garble -- placards?]
[Tracy] Thank you very much. Our editor at Tor who had bought our Dragonships books by Margaret Weis and myself... he finished our book and passed away, tragically.
[Brandon] It's that good.
[Audience] laughter
[Tracy] Yeah, apparently from an oversupply of awesomeness as the saying goes.

[Brandon] We'd better actually talk about writing stuff. Avoiding cliche. We haven't done a podcast on this before and I wanted to ask you guys, "How do you avoid the cliche?" Let's start with characters. How can you avoid making cliched characters? Dan?
[Dan] By...
[Brandon] Come on.
[Dan] I don't know. Don't throw these at me with no preparation.
[Brandon] Howard?
[Howard] Uh... I... Oh, no. Tracy, save us.
[Tracy] How do you avoid writing cliched characters?
[Brandon] Yeah, how do you make your characters three-dimensional?
[Tracy] Well, you can use any number of rendering programs that will make your characters three-dimensional.
[Tracy] You've got to deal with characters that have flaws. Everybody has these paragons of virtue that come into their books, but they've all got to have flaws. And this makes them more real. So you need to find all kinds of strange flaws. I used to do this in my role-playing games. I had a character who decided that he had a dreadful fear of rope. Man, what are you going to do in a dungeon if you have to haul something, right? So he had a dreadful... you'd be surprised at just how many things you can do, with even little simple phobias and problems.
[Brandon] Okay, so what you're saying there... what I'm picking out of that is flaws that don't just do the normal stuff. I mean, if someone was going to pick a phobia, they'd probably pick arachnophobia or one of these normal things. Adding in...
[Howard] Why did it have to be snakes?
[Brandon] Yeah, adding in snakes makes Indiana Jones more three-dimensional.
[Tracy] Exactly. And it's something that you always remember about them, because that's what their problem is. Even in the Da Vinci Code, the Langdon character has this terrible fear of enclosed spaces and it becomes part of the evolution of the book as it moves forward. So you can find these flaws or these quirks in places, but even more than quirks or flaws, just basic fundamental issues, things that are missing in their personalities, some aspect that is missing, that rounds that out really well.

[Howard] Brandon, I think we may need to throw the question back at...
[Brandon] At me? I have no answer.
[Howard] At you and ask what do you mean by cliche? Because, some of what we're describing... if I were to write a character who was afraid of snakes...
[Brandon] it's become a cliche now.
[Howard] it's a cliche.
[Brandon] That's the problem with particularly science fiction and fantasy to a lesser extent. But certainly part of fantasy is this idea that once you do something, it's... the whole genre goes through these waves where things have been done, things get popular and this has been done too much. Right now in horror, they're saying, "No more vampires. Please don't give us more vampires."
[Tracy] I'm all for that actually. No more vampires. I have a real problem with the entire vampire deal since I started in vampires. Now I feel a terrible responsibility for this. Vampires are monsters, and they should be monsters, and they've turned into cute, cuddly hunks. And I object to that. I think that actually ill serves women, because what we've done is, we've taken this monstrous cliche, the idea of the monster man as a warning -- a cautionary tale for women, and turned it into a chick flick. It... I think it serves women badly.

[Brandon] I think in answer to your question, Howard, what do I mean... it really is one of these reader response things. What you want is the readers to read this and not feel that it's cliche. That's what I want. Now define what it is... that's harder to do because everybody who's going to read is going to bring something different to it. What they've read before. For me, Aragon was terribly cliche. For the 13-year-old boy who's picking that up as their first fantasy novel, it was not cliche. So your audience will have an effect on what is cliche, what isn't. But there are certain standards of film, of storytelling, that have just been used so many times that... it's just... it's weak.
[Tracy] Yeah, but there are certain archetypes. There are archetypes. And the wonderful thing about an archetype is that if you see the guy in the white hat on the horse, you know he's a good guy and you don't have to spend a lot of time defining it.
[Brandon] And that's useful. The archetypes are useful.
[Tracy] That's useful. But at the same time, it's a cliche. He's the guy in the white hat.
[Howard] How do you deliver the archetype? We need the archetype. How do you deliver it without being cliche?
[Dan] The reason, I think, that a lot of characters seem cliche is because they are archetypes. They have to character elements or three. And when you compare that to another character that has the same three, he's gonna seem identical. If you make your characters as round as possible, give them as many different character elements as you can, make them full people, then you can't compare them point for point to any other character out there.
[Tracy] There's a theory of story called Dramatica that actually deals with character archetypes and making them into complex characters. The whole point of that is that a full set of characters -- and they list eight archetypes in their structure -- a full set of characters makes a complete argument. And if you're missing different perspectives from within that structure, then you're missing some part of a great argument. And so in that particular structure, what they want you to do is to shuffle elements around. You take one quality of one character and give it to a different character, and switch things and move things around. I've actually found that to be very effective as a model. You can't just put stuff on the dart board and start throwing darts and expect to come up with characters that you're going to like and work with, but at the same time, I think that it's an element that people can use in their writing to build a whole structures and get interesting characters.

[Brandon] Okay. As I think about what you just said and the question here, what comes to me to make a character non-cliched would be good motivations. In fact, unique and original motivations. You can throw in this archetype character, but if you can come up with reasons that they're doing what they're doing without making them the same old things... the villains are a good example. Villains always seem to want to destroy the world for no good reason. They're either insane or they don't give motivations. That's your cliched villain. The villain becomes less cliched not when... they still want to destroy the world, you can still have that. That can be the archetype. But when you add a motivation that makes sense, that makes rational sense, which is still a motivation you haven't seen before or you haven't seen explored before, you round the character.
[Tracy] Someone once called me the vice president of evil.
[Brandon] How do I get elected to that?
[Tracy] My response to that was one, who's the president? and two, what do I have to do? And that's because the antagonists in my stories are always very strong. I try to... we try to make very strong antagonists because they have to drive things. They have to be there to provide motivation, and they also have to make sense. They absolutely must make sense. If you look at some of the best evil characters are those who are absolutely certain that they are right.
[Brandon] And when you are reading them, you almost feel that they are right, if you have viewpoints from that character.
[Tracy] Absolutely. You have to be convinced of their argument in order for any of it to make sense. Sometimes they can even be a problem for you. We have a character, Lord Soth, in our Dragonlance books and when we came up with him, he just exploded into the scene. He made such sense, he had such drama to him, and such power and romance to this character, that any time he walked onto the stage in the book he took everything over. And he'd grab the story by its throat and start dragging it off someplace. And Margaret Weis and I would have to say, "No, no, that's not where the story is supposed to go. Please let go of the story." We'd have to put him in a closet someplace and then we'd have to go on and to get the story back, and then he'd walk back in and he'd grab the story again and he'd drag it off someplace else.
[Brandon] I have a friend, just as a sidenote, who loves that character so much that he makes an appearance in every role-playing campaign he does even if it's irrational for the campaign. He always shows up. Your character. Thank you very much for that. I've had to fight him. So thank you very much, Tracy. He killed me.
[Tracy] Apparently he has this way on a lot of people because Wizards of the Coast have had him make special guest appearances in Ravenloft that made no sense whatsoever but... it's just like those horrible television shows that have jumped the shark [1] and they're trying to get their audience back and so they have a special guest star appearance that comes from some other television show...
[Dan] And now, Loren Greene as...
[Brandon] Okay. So when Lord Soth shows up in my books, then you'll know that I'm [garbled]
[Tracy] I don't know, that sounds really cliche to me.
[Howard] Wait for Lord Soth to show up on CSI.
[Tracy] In a very special appearance, Lord Soth on CSI. Yeah, I like it.

[Brandon] One question, we were asking the audience things that they were curious about, that fits into this. I think that one tendency that people have a lot is when they are writing people of the opposite gender as themselves to push that character into more of a cliche than the characters who are the same gender as themselves. I've noticed this in my own early writing and in other people's writing. Tracy, how do you write characters that are female and make them... I was going to say well-rounded but that has...
[audience laughter]
[Brandon] make them three-dimensional?
[Dan] complete?
[Audience applause]
[Brandon] I'll just pitch that to you.
[Tracy] Thanks. I think I might drop it. It's interesting because... very often, men when they write women tend to write those characters as though they were just men with breasts. They were just... not only that, but this is where we get chainmail bikinis from, is men writing about women. Chainmail bikinis make no sense whatsoever in any kind of martial arts sense. Nevertheless, here we have this archetype. Why? Because men are writing women the way men think women are supposed to be. And this is completely... this does no service to anybody. This perpetuates bad myths for men, for one. And it means that we have no understanding whatsoever about the female experience. And the female experience is a fantastic thing and a wonderful thing to explore in literature. But it's very difficult for men to do that. They... to be able to understand the feminine perspective, to get outside of our little male compartmentalized world and to understand how women perceive our existence is something that men have to work at.
[Brandon] Some of the same things that we've been talking about here... it's something to be aware of, when you're going to write someone of the other gender. You tend to immediately fall back on cliches. Men tend to fall back on the three female archetypes -- the damsel in distress, or the Amazon woman, or... there's a third one that I can't remember. Oh, the mother figure...
[Howard] The mother-in-law?
[Brandon] Yeah, the mother figure.
[Tracy] I'm going to go with crazy woman, because men write crazy women all the time, too. What I find is really helpful in that is to give what I write to my wife, because she will read that and she will say, "You know what, a woman would never say this. This is what a guy would have a woman say." And then it's much easier for me to get an understanding of that if I can get a female perspective on what's going on within the context of the story.
[Howard] I actually do the same thing with my wife. She pre-reads all of the Schlock Mercenary scripts and if I'm getting the women wrong, she lets me know in no uncertain terms that that needs to be rewritten.

[Brandon] Is there anything specific you do, Howard, when you're working with the female characters to make them feel realistic? That you don't do with the men, or do you just treat them the same? How do you approach it?
[Howard] Sometimes, because of the way... because of the context in which the women appear in my strip, I write them a lot like men with breasts. Because they're in the military, they've got that sort of mindset, but that's sort of women exists. And I have to be careful...
[uncertain] You're cheating.
[Howard] Yes, I am. [Garbled]
[Dan] [garble] choose to write about the women who are easy to write about.
[Howard] I recently introduced a character, Para Ventura, who is nothing like that. And in order to draw her correctly, in order to... everything from facial expression and movement and especially voice and all that, I paid attention to my 13-year-old daughter and her friends when they came over. And wrote from there.
[Brandon] So, you're stalking 13-year-old girls?
[Howard] They came to my house.
[Dan] That's even worse, Howard.
[Howard] I'm not on that list.
[Dan] Yet.
[Audience laughter]

[Brandon] We've talked about this a little bit on the podcast before, but my philosophy on it, I'll just reiterate. Character first. If you're looking to just fill a role, your character is gonna feel flat, no matter what. If they're just in there to do one thing, then you're not going to have a well-rounded character. People have to be... people exist to do more than one thing. People... their lives are pulled this way and that, and they have complex motivations, and they are going to be motivated by a lot of different things, and they are going to have things that are important to them that are not as important to the other characters. So if you jump into another character viewpoint and their entire life focuses around the main character, then you're doing something wrong. Because that's going to make them feel like just an attachment to the main character.
[Howard] We talked about this in the podcast of villains, and it applies to any character you write. Write them as if they are... they believe themselves to be the hero in their own story.
[Dan] We're in a room here with 50 some people, they all think they are the hero of the story. Really, they're just the background to my story, but...
[Brandon] Did you count? Did you count how many people...
[Dan] I am just a genius.
[Howard] I'm the plucky sidekick who lives all the way to the end, right, Dan? Right?
[Dan] Um. I make no promises.

[Brandon] This is been Writing Excuses.
[Howard] I don't get attacked by monkeys?
[Audience whooping]
[Brandon] Writing prompt. Your writing prompt this week is Howard gets attacked by monkeys. Write that story. This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you very much.

[1] according to Wikipedia, jumping the shark is a reference to a Happy Days episode where Fonzie jumped a shark on waterskis
Tags: archetypes, cliche, flaws, hero, monkeys, motivations, phobia, villians, writing excuses
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