Posts Tagged ‘stereotypes’

We’ve all seen it. The nick-of-time rescue. The bomb diffused with one second left. The suspect bolting when the cops show up, resulting in a parkour-style chase around the city. These, and many others, are standard tropes in film and television. Sadly, they and their ilk show up a lot in fiction writing as well. I’ve even poked fun at some of them before (“Attack of the Killer Clichés”, “Return of the Killer Clichés”).

It’s time for them to die. Really. NOW.

They used to have their place on (rare) occasion. But speaking as someone who watches a lot of streaming video while playing with string, I’m sick of seeing them EVERYWHERE. And, with the crush of indie publishing, fan fic, and writer’s “critique” sites, I’m seeing it more and more in fiction as well.

That’s just lazy writing, people.

Not that I haven’t done my fair share of tropes and stereotypes. Part of my reason for doing this piece is to remind myself of all the bad writing habits I have, and possibly figure out how to fix/avoid them. As opposed to just avoiding my writing all together…


Minion tea[4]

…and dark chocolate…


So, why do we have such tropes in the first place? One word: drama. We’re trying to up the drama quotient. For a story to be successful we need to have tension and consequences and challenges for our characters to wade through. If there’s no risk for the character(s), there’s no reward for the reader(s).

But there’s a bazillion ways to cause trouble for our characters. It’s time to get inventive. We writers are really evil geniuses channeling our Dr. No selves onto the page, so let loose your inner demons and give the world you’ve created something to REALLY worry about. And I don’t mean turning that bomb they’ll need to diffuse at the last second into a dirty bomb, or a bio-bomb. Been there, done that, played the video game.

No, if you need to blow shit up, do it metaphorically instead of literally. If your characters are well developed (see “It’s Made of People”), it should be easy to come up with stuff to throw in their way. What’s the worse possible thing (or person) that could happen to them? Why does it need to happen? How will it advance the story or the character’s development? Everything you do on the page needs to keep things moving forward, in some fashion, for the overall arc of your writing.

That doesn’t mean leaving out things that can add depth to the world you’re creating, though, just because it doesn’t directly affect what’s happening. Black-clad mercenaries are a dime-a-dozen. But mercenaries who collect butterflies and read Harry Potter are something else again. Now you have some depth you can dive into. Will any of that be pertinent to your story later? Maybe. Maybe not. Right now, though, it gives me-the-reader something interesting about your character I can latch on to. There’s more there than black leather and a gun. That could mean there’s more to your story than the usual revenge/redemption/killer rampage most mercenaries inhabit.


Dominatrix Minion

That’s not the kind of black leather I meant. Now I need the eye bleach…


But what if I REALLY want to blow something up?

Then blow it the fuck up. Make it spectacular. Make it a surprise. Make it heart-rending. Make it anything but the usual. I don’t want to see your hero rushing in at the last second, huffing about how the bomb squad won’t get there in time and is it the red wire or the blue wire as he bites through both with his teeth to save the day. I want to see him crushed by defeat because he DIDN’T get there in time. Or horrified because he didn’t know the bomb even existed. Or secretly elated because now he has the perfect excuse to go on a murderous rampage.

Okay, yeah, that’s another trope, too. Sorry.

The point is, do something DIFFERENT. If you’re finding yourself falling into the same old comfortable ruts for plot points and character development, get out. Pretend it’s Opposite Day and you’re playing a game of Calvinball. Be wicked. Be absurd. Be outrageous. Kill the hero, because he’s not really the hero, his female sidekick is – psych! Don’t kill anybody, because the bomb was really a dud! The bomb DOES go off, but the entire city is coated in glitter! Anything but the usual.

And how do you know if it’s the usual? Just ask yourself: have I seen/read/heard this before? If you have, how important is it to keep it “normal?” What happens if you do THIS instead? If the ticking time bomb is integral to your story, what are you doing around that to make your characters and story different?



Read a book, they said. It’ll be fun, they said…


There are occasions when we depend on tropes and stereotypes as a kind of shorthand for the reader. It can make for less explanation/exposition, and allow us to get on with the real reason this story needs to be told. But we should never depend on them. The world is comforted by formula – the tried and true (see Hollywood) – but we writers need to constantly rail against the expected, the normal, the usual, and really dig into exploring our worlds to the fullest. Whatever your genre, whether fiction or non-fiction, we want the reader to be entertained, enthralled, surprised – not bored or disappointed. Give them predictable and they’ll give you the cold shoulder. Writing is lonely enough – we don’t need to chase off any readers in the process.

Turn the formulae on their heads. Find the peculiar, the wretched, the dangerous, and let us have it. Always challenge yourself. You’ll be a better writer, and I’ll have more cool things to read.

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They say writing is a lonely job. Everything is dependent upon one person: you. You make the schedule, you make the tea, you do the research, you create the product, you maintain the equipment, you do the marketing. You are the CEO, the administrative assistant and the sales manager of your career. The up sides are that your commute consists of walking down stairs to your home office, the office politics involve the two cats fighting over who gets your lap first, the boss doesn’t care how much time you spend on the internet and the dress code is sweats and bunny slippers. The down side is that you only have yourself to blame if nothing gets done.

You have to be disciplined enough to actually work everyday for a reasonable amount of time, toward definitive goals, whether it be words or pages per day, fleshing out a character, or researching just how much C4 it takes to blow up a bank vault. There are no co-workers to bounce ideas off of, no supervisors to take your problems to, no bosses to pat you on the back for a job well done. It’s just you, your head and whatever medium you chose to work in.

In reality, while you may be physically on your own, you are hardly lonely. Your head is full of an entire office’s worth of people. You have the office nag who is always on you about the budget, expenses or deadlines. There’s the office gossip who runs around blathering about the latest celebrity news. And then there’s the office schlub, who never bathes nearly as often as preferable, and can waste an entire day playing Free Cell. And that’s just what you might expect in a “normal” office. Trying adding those to the characters you’re writing about: the gunslinger, the Federal agent, the crusty side kick, the eccentric scientist. Just imagine what some of those conversations might entail. Sometimes I just wish the gunslinger would shoot the nag and be done with it.

You can spend entire days looking at blank pages while the voices in your head argue about who’s in charge. Or you write something for one of your characters, who then promptly complains that he/she/it wouldn’t do whatever it was you wrote, or at least not with so much angst. They torment you about getting more word time in, how they speak, how they dress, how they interact with their world. They make fun of you when you get them mixed up, and they haunt you when you kill them off. You recall the days when there was just an echoing emptiness between your ears. Or at least you try, because the truth is, you were never alone.

Which is probably a good thing, when all is said and done. Because all those people in your head make sure you do the job you were meant to do. Externally, you may be wondering if you’re on the right track, because most days you have no idea if anybody in the real world is paying attention. Sort of like a struggling comedian allowed up for open mike just before closing time Tuesday morning. Yeah, his stuff is good, but who’s there to notice? The bored stiff bartender who’s seen a hundred just like him come and go? The drunk who hasn’t seen much of anything beyond the bottom of a glass? The manager who only cares about how much money is coming in? Oh, wait, those are characters, too, because what’s a scene without some stereotypes? But then there’s the guy who came in out of the rain because his car broke down and he just turns out to be the one person who sees what the comedian can do, and, better yet, give him the break he needs to get out of the dead end slot. That may be a stereotype, too, but it is that hope that keeps the comedian going back to open mike night, and the same kind of hope that keeps writers writing. The voices in your head are convinced that somewhere out there is somebody paying attention, and you will get your rescue from the mediocrity of your life, because their stories just have to be told. In the mean time, you keep listening to their arguments, keep herding the cats, keep sitting down with your tea and your notes and your writing implement of choice and try to sort through the cacophony for that one gem that will keep you in bunny slippers and out of cubicle hell.

Those people who say writing is a lonely job obviously don’t know what they’re talking about.

© 2009 Cheri K. Endsley. All rights reserved.

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