WRITING KNOWHOW Avoiding Stereotypes and Clichés

You've thought of the perfect plot, the perfect character, a completely brand new, never been thought of before set-up, but suddenly all around you the whole world seems to be doing the same thing. Julie Sullivan considers why.

As a names fan since childhood, I’ve noticed, like everyone else, that names come in generations. (Met any small children lately called Nigel or Joanne?) If you’ve named your young child Elsie or Theodore, thinking that’ll set them apart, well–those are nice names, but those names are coming back into style with a vengeance.

How is it that young parents so often name their child exactly what everyone else thinks is unique too? Sometimes a name is just in the air of the times. Most often, the reasons that you like it are making a lot of other people like it too.

This applies to writing, as well. To avoid stereotypes in your writing, to avoid writing the same characters and plots as everyone else, you need to be wary of your own first impulse. Maybe it’s not all that original. 

Stereotypes and Clichés

One of the reasons stereotypes are so prevalent is the human brain. It’s been demonstrated by decades of scientific studies that when presented with a bunch of random items or facts, humans try to organise them into categories. Our brain wants to categorise everything. 

This means that when you are writing a story, stereotypes may pop into your mind unbidden. Everyone knows about the gay (or red-headed) best friend, the brave cancer patient, and the mean-girl queen of the school. But it can be hard to avoid using stereotypes if you’re not consciously thinking about it. And new clichés are arising all the time, especially from the entertainment business. Feisty heroine anyone? Sensitive dad? Alcoholic mum? Never-the-main-character-but-nobleminded-person-of-an-underrepresented-group? 

'It was a dark and stormy night' became a classic cliché after Edward Bulwer-Lytton used it to begin his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. There is now a bad-writing contest named after him. Photo by Randen Pederson, Flickr

We all know we should be avoiding ethnic, racial and gender stereotypes. This can be easier said than done if you don’t have much real-life experience of something you’re writing about. If you’re worried that something you wrote might be a stereotype or offensive in some other way, it’s a good idea to find readers who will tell you frankly. (You might even decide to abandon the idea.) If you don’t have friends you trust to do this, there are lists of ‘sensitivity readers’ for many different groups and situations. Even the idea of sensitivity readers offends some people; it means that the people being discussed aren't telling their own story. As a writer, you need to decide how far you want to go.
If you are writing about something that is outside your community and controversial, that controversy and the conversation surrounding it will hit all the people in that community. Worse than that, the things you got wrong are probably things that you inherited from a systemic system of oppression, which means that you are reinforcing that oppression in the public consciousness. Mary Robinette Kowal

A different kind of stereotype to watch out for is the ‘Mary Sue’ character. This is a character of either (or any) sex, who is often the author’s would-be alter ego. You can recognise Mary Sues because they are too perfect. If they have a flaw, it is that their expectations are too high, they work too hard, they are too beautiful or athletic or artistic or brilliant to fit in with the rest of the characters. If you’ve ever seen Annie Hall (if you like funny films, do see it! The Writers’ Guild of America named it the funniest screenplay ever written), you may remember how the character played by Woody Allen, Alvy, remakes his romance after a breakup but with himself playing a much more heroic role. He made himself into a Mary Sue.
If he's a brilliant swordsmen, advisor to the king, attractive to the girls, and likes all the same things you like, he might be a Mary Sue.

A manic pixie dreamgirl is a stereotype of a kind that has been common for centuries, actually, in which a beautiful vivacious young woman breathes inspiration into a (usually) young white male. Avoid 
a girl who is a star mainly because she’s ‘not like other girls’. Are you saying 'other girls' must be bad?

In general, be alert to the possibility that the first thing that pops into your head may be a cliché or a stereotype. That’s why it arrived first. Try listing several alternative versions of that person or event to see if one of them is more interesting or real. 

Every genre of fiction has its own specific clichés. If you are prone to using them, or worried about it, you might try making a list of the stereotypes in your preferred genre, so that you can avoid them. Dianna Wynne Jones wrote an entire book devoted to the stereotypes of fantasy, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996). It’s a hilarious glimpse at the multifarious stereotypes of writers who aren’t thinking hard enough about what they are writing. 

Princesses come in two main kinds: 
1 Wimps.2 Spirited and wilful. A spirited Princess will be detectable by the scattering of freckles across the bridge of her somewhat tiptilted nose [Official Management Term]. Spirited princesses often disguise themselves as boys and invariably marry commoners of sterling worth. With surprising frequency these commoners turn out to be long-lost heirs to Kingdoms (see Princes). 

Stereotypes and clichés often have a grain of truth in them–that’s how they got started. But don’t get lazy and let them into your story!

A few more links if you're interested:
A countdown of the 25 most overused things in MG and YA fiction 

Worst YA novel clichés

Five fantasy clichés to avoid

The Fantasy Novelist's Exam

Clichés in your plot?

Twelve clichés to avoid when beginning your story

Ten clichés that make agents roll their eyes

Pete Kalu's top tips for writing non-clichéd multicultural characters


  Julie Sullivan is a SCBWI volunteer who still has a lot to learn.


  Cover picture is by Louis Bavent at Flickr 


  1. Brilliant article! Thanks, Julie!

  2. Thanks for this Julie. I think I am guilty as charged!

  3. Yes, just realized my MC being a rubbish singer is on the countdown list. Oops! Awesome advice, I even noticed while reading some adult novels recently that far too many characters have "caramel" eyes. Really annoying when it's the fifth or sixth book by a totally different author each time!


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