There are some very interesting discussions going on in the comments of this post at Dear Author on “Slut Shaming” in novels written by women. (I’ll get to my actual topic soon, I promise; wait for it!) I recommend that if you write romance or stories with female characters you take a look at that post. It’s thought provoking and some of the comments are even more so, but it’s not what I want to talk about. Rather it prompted me to think, as she was describing some of the things that bother her in romance novels – misogynistic or not, that’s lazy writing.
The characters Jane of Dear Author was describing felt like cliches to me: the hero’s ex-wife who we know is unworthy of him because she sleeps around; the female antagonist who we know not to trust because she flirts with anything in trousers; the co-worker we know is bad at her job because her skirt is too short and she shows too much cleavage to be professional.
Why was my first thought to label those characters with the pejorative “cliche” rather than the more neutral “archetype”? All characters fall, essentially, into archetypes, and really these are just archetypes I’ve seen a lot and don’t particularly enjoy. That doesn’t mean these characters are unrealistic, I’ve met all three of them in real life, but it does mean I roll my eyes when I meet them on the page. A good writer can still make me enjoy those characters, however it takes something special to get me past my initial distaste.
But … I don’t roll my eyes when I read another uber-competent tight-lipped hero – though lord knows that is a character that has been done to death. I just LIKE that cliche. That particular archetype doesn’t immediately raise my feminist hackles in the ways that the characters in the previous paragraph do.
As a new writer it’s really easy to write in shorthand, especially for secondary characters. A minor, but crucial, character in the first chapter in my WIP is a greedy, sexually harassing partner at a law firm. I’ve known people just like him in real life, but will that save him from a reader labeling him a cliche instead of an archetype? I don’t think so. I think it will depend on how well I write him and what baggage and preferences a reader brings to the experience. I can’t control the latter, but I can write the hell out of him and make sure that I’ve thought carefully about the pros and cons of every character trait I put on the page.
What about you? Are there archetypes you just can’t stand (or can’t get enough of)? Do you carefully interrogate every trait you give your characters for its cliche potential?