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You're Better Than That. Avoiding Clichés in Your Characters and Plot Devices

’Ello, loves! We’re back for the final Stay-Away-from-Cliché-Installment. We’ve covered phrases and idioms, overused gestures and descriptions. Today we bring you… 

Story and character clichés.

You can’t come up with a truly unique plot, because only ten exist (depending on whose list of tropes you use). But you can put a unique spin on the pieces of the puzzle. 

First, character clichés. Stay away from stereotypes in general, but there are several character clichés that creep into otherwise good stories. Watch out for these guys when you're crafting your main characters. (If you want to write REALLY well, keep them out of your supporting cast too).

You know who I mean: 

  •  The Big Oaf

  • The Cheerleader/Athlete

  • The Warrior Princess

  • The New Girl

  • The Bad Boy

  • The Geek

  • The Sage

  • The Chauvinist

  • The Mustache-Twirling Villain

  • The list goes on…

If you want to use a variation on any of these characters, give them a paradoxical quality. Otherwise, they’re about as interesting as…anything you’ve already seen a million times before. 

Surprise people. 

I saw a novel once about a narcoleptic detective. What the what? 

There’s NOTHING cliché about that possibility. 

Take the normal, and brainstorm like mad.

  • Gregory House, MD. The brilliant medical-puzzle-solver...and egocentric drug addict.

  • Jason Bourne. Robert Ludlum’s CIA-programmed black-ops human weapon who is capable of love and regret.

  • Valkyrie. Steven James’s villain genius who values both “the game” and the sanctity of life.

  • Ron Swanson. The steak-devouring man’s man who hates the government but works a government job—and who’s as loyal a friend as you could ever need.

  • Samwise Gamgee. A quiet gardener and trustworthy friend with more courage and faith than Sauron sees coming.

  • Miss Skeeter. Kathryn Stockett’s spunky red-headed writer who cares more about befriending the help than finding a husband in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi.

  • Abbey Sciuto. Ridiculously kind and naïve Goth who lives with nuns, sleeps in a coffin, and is both artistic and science-minded.

  • Rogue. X-Men’s compassionate and insecure mutant who has the power to suck life from anyone.

  • Bones (Temperance Brennan). Brilliant, socially awkward, intensely rational FBI consultant, majorly lacking people skills--but close with her co-workers and capable of strong emotional connection.

  • Angela. Christopher Paolini’s quirky herbalist who follows no one’s rules but her own and is FAR more important than anyone thinks. With a weapon cache Chuck Norris would envy.

Let’s go in a different direction now. There are plot devices that have become cliché, too. They pop up all over, but they honestly amount to lazy writing. You’ll recognize them, I’m sure.

  • The moment of waking. Sure, your main character will have to wake up sometimes (every morning, no doubt), but don’t feel like you need us to begin every day with her. And if you can, have her wake up in a different setting. Once or two "wake-ups" are more than enough. Choose wisely.

  • Introspection while looking in the mirror. I get it. I do. What better moment for your character to take stock of her life? I mean, if she’s already scrutinizing her outward self, why not gaze into the depths of her own soul and analyze who she’s become? (Easy answer: Because someone has to stop the madness.) Let her pick up an old photo or a keepsake. Or use dialogue to trigger her inward journey.

  • It was all a dream. Please. Just, no. ESPECIALLY not in the first chapter. Your readers will feel like they've been lied to …because they have. The characters, the world, the motivations—everything they’ve latched onto wasn’t even the real story. You can occasionally use a dream sequence later in the novel, but do it well, and for the Pete of Sake, make it worthwhile.

  •  Literally bumping into the love interest. He, of course, helps pick up the items she dropped in the debacle. Your couple-to-be can meet a million other ways. Be creative.

  • Finding a bomb with only seconds to spare. As soon as you read this, you're picturing the big, red, digital numbers showing the countdown. Am I right? Whether the bomb gets defused or everyone dives for cover, it's been done so many times that even Bruce Willis would have a hard time making it unique. (Which makes me wonder, how many times has he acted this scenario out?) Maybe that also explains why I gave up on his movies long ago. Too much the same...

  •  The prologue. It used to be new and intriguing. A hint of back story in the beginning. These days, it's rarely necessary. Ask yourself whether you can weave in the same details bit by bit as the story progresses. If you can, then the prologue is just lazy. If there is no other way to make the audience aware of something crucial, then go for it. Perhaps a character who has no other POV opportunity wants a moment to speak.

  • Flashback. Remember what I said about the prologue? Same deal. Weave in what you can organically, using dialogue, deep POV, or internal thought. And if you must, make sure your transitions to and from are clear and un-clunkified.*
*New word for the day.

You want to be a writer. You ARE a writer. Have fun coming up with your OWN nuances, gestures, and descriptions. Be creative. 

We do this because we love words, right? So even when it's daunting, tackle it. Sculpt your words into a work of art.

This week, we've got another free-edit contest--but this time I'm the one doing the editing. Anyone who comments with another character or plot cliché will be entered to win a five-page edit! 

Looking forward to hearing from you! Thanks for swinging by.

                           Thanks to Rileyroxx and Jusben for the pics.


  1. Funeral in the rain. Murder during a storm. The beautiful orphan whose father lost all their money and she's faced with marrying a senile old man or going West where she meets a wealthy rancher and falls in love. The nosy, matchmaking church ladies.

  2. The hopeless victim - Daphne from Scooby Doo. Just found out I kind of have one of those, or at any rate she keeps getting kidnapped. Had to go back and fix some plot stuff to make that better.

    1. Ruh-roh. I'm glad you spotted her and worked it out. The hopeless victim is a biggie.

  3. The prim and proper school teacher goes out west for a new life. The recent widower who needs a wife to raise his kids. The snobby socialite who finds true love with the blue collar man. Please make their lives more interesting than just this!

  4. The single reclusive writer girl who lives with her cat. Oh wait, that's me :o)

    Great post, Bethany! I'm off to un-clunkify some writing.

    1. Do it, Tammie. Thanks for commenting. Scratch Wilson behind the ears for me. :)

  5. Good-looking 20-somethings in romance novels. The gorgeous girl who doesn't realize she's beautiful. I'm also really tired of stories (especially in Hallmark movies) where the main character is in a relationship at the beginning but - oh no! he's not the right one! Will she realize she's better off with the handsome, charming, too-good-to-be-true new guy than the work-obsessed loser before it's too late? Gee, I wonder. :-)

    1. Sharyn, that last bit is hilarious. You're so right. I do have to say, I would like to see even more 20-somethings in novels, though. There's such a deluge in the YA market and in 30-somethings...but I spend a lot of time with New Adults and they've got some really unique circumstances as they hit the real world. More books in that time-frame could be great--as long as they're not all good-looking, eh?

    2. I have to read craft books to help me steer away from cliches. Otherwise, they're the first thing that pops into my mind!

    3. Julie, I write a lot of cliches in my first version, because I do my darndest to shut off the internal editor. What's the most helpful book you've found?

  6. The loner orphan with awkward social tendencies. The cheating mother and devoted father. The male villain with a mound of money and resources. The damsel in distress. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Great ones! Especially the loaded male villain. Thank YOU for joining the conversation.

  7. The 20 year old counter-culture computer genius who can hack into any system. The martial arts expert with the body of a supermodel who wears high heels and skin-tight latex pants in combat.

    1. Yes! Neo and Charlie's Angels. Perfect examples. Thanks for playing!


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