Hi, frieeeeends! I am about neck deep in trouble this month, barely bobbing along with my head above water. I’m keeping up with the deadlines so far (which is good since I really want that desk plant), but a hiccup (or a cough, you might say, thanks COVID) at work means that instead of doing my job in September and October, I have to do it now now NOW RIGHT NOW to be ready for remote delivery in the fall instead of our regular in-person delivery, which is going to make for a cramped end of the month when Camp NaNo and my work are both due, with two book revisions hot on their heels in the two weeks that follow. Not to mention that things at my summer job have amped up, with three big orders coming in for the fall season and another six major orders due for next spring’s goods within the next two-and-a-half weeks, and my manager is going out of town for a week and has basically put me in charge of a horde of good-natured but highly distractable and benignly lazy teenagers. Send help now.
That said, instead of writing you more blog post, you get a reblog of 5 Ways to Subvert Character Cliches and Archetypes, from the ever fine Casimir Stone of Reedsy, writing for Now Novel. Enjoy!
5 ways to subvert character clichés and archetypes
Creating the next Harry Potter or Holden Caulfield is no easy feat! When writing secondary characters in particular, it’s easy to fall back on clichéd archetypes and stock characters. Yet this isn’t necessarily bad. Embracing stock characters can be more effective than making your character over-complicated. You can turn common or overused character tropes on their head, too.
Here are five easy ways to inject life into familiar character types:
1. Subvert archetypes to avoid character clichés
The most common means of subversion, of making something other than what it first appears, is to introduce a cliché before revealing things aren’t what they appear.
In other words it’s still okay to introduce a valiant knight in the mold of Sir Lancelot… So long as he eventually reveals himself to be more than just an obvious symbol.
Lev Grossman — the author of The Magicians (often referred to as “Harry Potter for adults”) gives us an example.
Example of subverting a character cliché
In The Magicians, Grossman’s character Henry Fogg is a Master Magician and Dean of Students at a school for magic. The author surely knew his character’s type and function could invite comparisons to another fictional wizard: Dumbledore.
However, unlike the wise, benevolent leader of Hogwarts, Fogg quickly shows himself to be cowardly, selfish, and severe. He ultimately fills an adversarial role opposite Quentin, the protagonist, Fogg’s would-be mentee.
This serves a narrative purpose. It turns a secondary character into a source of conflict.
But it also works rhetorically, similarly to a ‘red herring’: it surprises the reader and makes them question their own intuition.
Subversion can also be used as a means of character or plot development.
In Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel series, the authors turn many superhero tropes on their heads. The character Ozymandias is set up as the typical “smartest man in the world”. This is a stock or clichéd comic book character who is overshadowed by brawnier counterparts in strength but not smarts.
However, Ozymandias’ non-threatening appearance makes him a ruthlessly efficient and undetectable villain. The revelation of the character’s malevolent power packs all the more punch since, up until this point in the story, readers may see him as little more than a forgotten sidekick. [Use the ‘Character’ section of the Now Novel dashboard to brainstorm characters and their purpose – Ed’s note.]
To subvert your own characters:
- Identify a list of character clichés usually associated with their type (e.g. ‘warrior’ equals ‘strong’).
- Think of how stock character types (such as “mentors”) have typical behavioural features. Dumbledore or Charlotte the Spider will always be wise and cautious.
- Then create a character to fit that mold perfectly… before revealing that, say, their “wisdom” is just stolen from a book of idioms. Subversion such as these add surprise complexity to your characters and story.
2. Parody the clichéd character archetype
If you prefer to introduce a character who isn’t any deeper than a cliché, there are ways to make this interesting too. It’s a classic approach of comedy. You can take this character and their development in the opposite direction to the first approach and parody this type…
Ready to read some more? Head on over to Novel Now for the full article! And until next week, happy writing!