Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for Unexpected

I've discovered it's quite easy to create cliched characters. You know, stereotypes.

stereotype noun a set of inaccurate, simplistic generalizations about a group that allows others to categorize them and treat them accordingly.

Here are some examples (in my mind anyway!):
A librarian is strict, uptight, wears boring clothes and possibly glasses.
A Harley-Davidson rider is a big, muscular, mean man who wears leather and boots and has tattoos.

We don't want cliched characters in our writing. It's boring! Let's show our readers how creative we can be by giving our characters a few UNEXPECTED traits/hobbies/interests.

Taking the above examples:
The librarian, who appears to be all of the above, actually takes pole dancing classes in the evenings.
The Harley-Davidson rider, who appears to be all of the above, is actually a gentle soul and enjoys tending his bonsai plants in his spare time.

I think my most cliched character is the wise mentor (you know, the character who has most of the answers and helps the hero along on his/her quest) and I'm having trouble figuring out how to make her unique and unexpected. Any ideas?


Madeleine said...

Great post. I like the idea of a biker who does pole dancing, loves bonsai and is something of an egg head! :O)

Anonymous said...

A bonsai loving biker. Now that's pretty cool. :) I think a mentor would be hard to make unexpected. Maybe the mentor is someone who can't take their own advice in life? But maybe that just ruins it. That's a tough one!

Laura Josephsen said...

In 2009, my NaNo novel was ALL about cliches. I deliberately wrote them--and mocked them as I did. While telling the story of a girl making her way through her last year of high school. It was SO MUCH FUN, because usually if I'm writing cliches, I'm trying to make them unique and unexpected, and in this case, I was just embracing them all. (And my publisher liked the book and decided to contract it.) One of the cliches I had listed was the Wise Old Mentor, so I grinned when I read your comment about the wise mentor.

Making the wise old mentor unique and unexpected. story that I think did that really, REALLY well was Avatar: The Last Airbender. Have you seen it? It was a kids' cartoon that was on Nickelodeon. (M. Night Shyamalan made a movie adaptation of it, but I hated the movie adaptation.) If you've never seen the original show, I would REALLY recommend it. It might be a cartoon, but when I'm looking at storytelling, this is the story I always look to as an example. It started with this young group of kids who had so much learning to do, and when I started watching it, I expected a silly show that just had shallow characters. It wasn't. The characters grew, they developed, the writers NEVER forgot anything, and by the time you get to the end of the show, you're amazed when you look back and see how much the characters developed. (And if you have seen this, I'm just talking my head off.) My point to all of this is that one of the characters had a "wise old mentor" figure, but he was quirky and fun and probably the best example of a unique wise mentor that I have EVER seen. He was an old general and full of words of wisdom, but he loved tea and his dream was to have his own teashop. (I honestly think that watching this show is an excellent lesson in storytelling, character development, hooks, giving characters strengths and weaknesses, and finding the layers in characters that might not at first seem to be straightforward.)

If you HAVE seen it, then look at Uncle Iroh for a great example of a unique and unexpected wise mentor.

I did a series on my blog last month on developing characters, and there were six aspects that I came up with that go into making any of my characters. I won't expand on them (I did that in my blog) but for me, it came down to motivation, perspective, personality, quirks, speech, and conflict. I think that those six elements would come into play strongly in developing any character, including the mentor character. What does he want? Is it JUST to help the hero on his quest, or does he have another desire/dream for his life? What kind of personality does he have? Could he have an unexpected trait that would surprise the hero? What's his perspective on what's going on? Sometimes even writing a scene from this character's POV might help. You might not be doing his POV in the story, but it might help you understand him a little better. Does he have any quirks? Little gestures that he does, or oddities like collecting old birds' nests or something? How does he talk? Does it tell you anything about where he came from or what he did in his life before he became the wise mentor? How did he get to be so wise? Does he have any conflicts? Is he conflicted by the current quest? Does he have a stake in it? Is he trying to help the character through a hard part in his life because he loves the character? Does it remind him of something that happened to him?

Oookay, I am going to stop rambling now. >_> Maybe some of that will be helpful?

Ellie said...

Fascinating post, which really got me thinking about my own characters.

I agree with everything you've said but we also have to be careful not to produce a cliched un-cliched character i.e. the Harkey-Davidson who has a fluffy cat and loves his mum. Does that make sense?

Ellie Garratt

Rachel Morgan said...

Ellie - yes, absolutely. You don't want too many of these "cliched un-cliched" characters. I think for the main characters you have space to make them interesting with all kinds of quirks that readers may not expect. But one probably wouldn't notice much if the more two-dimensional characters who don't have much "page time" were a tad stereotyped.
I think!

Rachel Morgan said...

Laura - wow, what a LONG comment! But very helpful. I've seen The Last Airbender movie but not the series (my boyfriend keeps telling me how amazing it is and that I should watch it!). I don't remember the name Uncle Iroh... The only uncle I remember in the movie was the uncle of the young fire prince whose father had banished him (or something similar to being banished). Is that the guy?

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Give the wise mentor an area where they are very unwise or naive? Or an irrational fear?

Laura Josephsen said...

Er, yeah...I tend to ramble a lot. >_> Yes, that's the guy from the movie, (uncle of the Fire Nation prince) but he's seriously--if you watch the show you'll see how the movie did not even come close to capturing the characters and nuances and development. I've seen the show countless times. I've seen the movie once.

Kittie Howard said...

Great post! How about a poker-playing mentor? I know lots of people who play because they enjoy the game and not for the money (or on an addicted basis.)

Ann said...

I think a mentor with an exaggerated quirk or two. Be it dress, food or relationships.

Deniz Bevan said...

Happy Easter!

I *like* wise mentors :-)
Hmm, I wonder what my cliched character is? I wonder if my heroes are too good?

Elliot Grace said...

...a pole dancing librarian? Have I died and gone to Heaven?

Great post:)


Cally Jackson said...

Avoiding stereotypes is so important. Who wants to read about a character we've met a hundred times before. Re your mentor, maybe there could be hurt behind closed doors,, like an alcoholic father or similar?

Anonymous said...

My MC is an archivist - who always gets confused for a librarian.

I also have the "wise mentor" for my hero, who's Native American. I'll have to give him some quirk.

Thanks for the reminder!

Richard said...

One of the few things I enjoyed about Spud (sadly, the film. I couldn't get through the book) was the English teacher who managed to be both Spud's mentor and have serious issues of his own. Obviously, being played by John Cleese didn't hurt, but much of what he said appeared more experiential and grounded than if he had been another generic fantasy "wise mentor".

The problem with just adding a "quirk" to a "wise mentor" is you may start to drift dangerously close to Disney territory. Any unusual behaviour or trait needs to be tightly and sensibly wound into the character itself and be a part of who he is, rather than appear tacked on afterward to make him "unique".