Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Writing Wednesdays: Cliches - There For a Reason?

A long time ago, I sent the second novel I wrote to an agent I used to know. She gave me some okay feedback (mainly, my book was good, but it needed to be great - how many times have we heard that?), but she also told me that one of my characters was too much of a cliche.

This character was a snooty mother-in-law who carried Louis Vuitton luggage and harbored a certain amount of disdain for her daughter-in-law. Cliche? Sure. We've all seen that character before. She wasn't meant to be original. She was a minor character and a foil for my main character, the kind of character we see in movies and television all the time: the mean cheerleader, the dumb jock, the angry goth, the dirty politician. Of course, in books, you can't get away with nearly as much as you can on screen. A quote that might sound great coming from an actor's mouth might look pretty lame on paper. Or worse, unbelievable.

That's why I know I'll never be able to write the character who sat next to our table at dinner a month or so ago. And he was just so GOOD, I couldn't not share him with you.

This man and woman were clearly on a first or second date. They both looked to be in their early forties. She was a sort of aging hippy: long brown hair, no makeup, velvet dress; and he was equally unimpressive: plaid shirt over spare tire, sandy blond beard and mustache, bald spot, bad complexion. But from the moment we sat down, it was clear they were trying to impress each other with - or bond over - their food snobbery. They had ordered the fried burrata appetizer (burrata is a delicious Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream) and were both terribly unimpressed. The woman was complaining about the fact that it was too runny, and the man was encouraging her to speak to the waiter. Neither wanted to be difficult, of course, but this just wasn't right. So when the waiter came over she worked up the courage and told him what she thought, her pudgy companion nodding his agreement. The waiter apologized profusely (and who knows, maybe he comped them for it later), but after he was gone they just had to keep talking about how bad the burrata had been. Such a disappointment. For the record, John and I ordered the same appetizer, and it was admittedly a little runny. But still delicious. Not something I'd complain about at a busy restaurant in Arlington on a Friday night. At any rate, by the time their entrees arrived our neighbors had moved on to wine. This man couldn't have chosen a better topic to prove to his date just what a complete a-hole he was. They started discussing the best wine they'd ever had, and I tried my best to ignore their conversation. Unfortunately, I happened to tune in just when he uttered the most revolting thing imaginable:

"Ch√Ęteau d'Yquem is the most delicious thing I've ever tasted, including a woman's body parts."

Seriously. He said it. I nearly gagged on my gnocchi. I tell you, if I wrote this man in a book, no one would believe him. But that's the thing about cliches - they focus on one dimension of a character. And one-dimensional characters don't work in literature. Saddle the mean cheerleader with an eating disorder; give the angry goth an abusive father; make the dirty politician a closeted homosexual, and suddenly you've given your character enough depth to be believable.

Unfortunately for my wannabe foodie (and his date), I don't think there was a whole lot of back story there. I think sometimes a creep is just a creep. And a witchy mother-in-law is just a witch. And cliches almost always exist for a reason.

What do you think? Are cliches an immediate turn-off, or do they have their place in writing?


Cacy said...

It's kinda tough because I do think cliches can go either way. It was just thinking about this a little while ago. I came to the conclusion that when I like cliched characters they usual still have something unique about them, maybe not something that "deepens" their character but makes them stand out.

It also depends on how much space they take up in a story, the less space they occupy, the more acceptable it is for them to be less-dimensional. Especially if it's just a "walk on," leaning on quickly recognized characterization is a good idea. But the more time a reader invests reading about a character, the more developed they're expected to be.

Cacy said...

*Maybe unique isn't the word I'm looking for above...but likeable cliched characters for me do have an extra something to them.

Mara Rae said...

well then i guess the guy from the restaurant is doubly screwed - a cliche, and totally unlikeable! :)