Murder at Cliché Manor 2: Revenge of the Stereotypes

DI Findlater turned to the attractive blonde lolling seductively in the doorway, whose ample chest threatened at any time to burst out of the impeccably tailored, tiny-waisted, blood-red designer jacket stretched to full capacity across it. 

‘Parker, don’t just stand there. Go do something useful.’

DC Denis Parker flashed a sultry look in Findlater’s direction before disappearing into the hallway with a smoky-voiced ‘Right you are then, Sir.’

Sergeant Webster glared after him.  Someone needs to explain the meaning of the word ‘plain’ to that guy,’ he growled, ‘as in plain-clothes detective.’

Maybe the maxim that there are only seven or eight plots in fiction, and everything else is simply a variation on a theme, is true. Likewise, there is a good reason that many of the clichés and stereotypes in genre fiction are so prevalent: they work well. Comedy often works by turning a stereotype or cliché on its head, whereas drama needs conflict. So enter the maverick loner detective with a drinking problem, a bad attitude to authority and a broken marriage. Yes, it’s a cliché, but with built-in conflict from the get-go!

However, accepting the limitations of a genre doesn’t mean a writer can sit back and lounge on their clichéd laurels. Colin Dexter’s detective Morse and Val McDermid’s psychiatrist, Tony Hill, are both loner mavericks, but there is a world of difference and individuality between them. Equally, there are considerable differences between, say, Patricia Cornwell’s pathologist, Kay Scarpetta and Kathy Reichs’s forensic anthropologist, Temperance Brennan.  In each case, the author has given their creation a unique background, setting and voice. The same holds true even when working within the confines of historical events or characters. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are wonderful examples of how an author can use a unique point of view and style to turn a stereotypical Tudor bad guy into a fascinating portrayal of an intelligent and complex man.

The key to avoiding clichés is to make clear choices for your character. What interests you about them? What makes them unique and individual in your view, even if the situation they are in, historical or otherwise, is a seemingly stereotypical one? What is it about their behaviour, their decisions and choices that differentiates them from all the other people in the same situation? Once you’ve decided what it is – that’s the angle to explore in your writing.

The same holds true for linguistic clichés and phrases. Where it is clear that your use of a particular cliché or phrase is intentional and a character choice, a reader is less likely to have a problem with it. You can also get away with more in dialogue because people often use clichés in everyday speech, but, please, always in moderation: you don’t want to over-spice the stew. However, be very wary of randomly sprinkled clichés and well-worn phrases in the actual body of the narrative: you can almost certainly be guaranteed that that’s where they will come across as lazy or unimaginative.

Murder at Cliché Manor

It was a dark and stormy night, and the victim lay sprawled across the library floor like a worn-out phrase. DI Findlater cut an impressive figure: tall, dark and handsome, his aristocratic features silhouetted in the flickering of the gas lamp above his head.  

So, what have we got then, Sergeant?’ he shouted, trying to make himself heard over the whistling wind and rattling windowpanes.

Sergeant Webster pulled a dog-eared notebook out of his shabby coat pocket and grumbled loudly. He was like a bear with a sore head ever since his wife had left him due to his workaholic nature and heavy drinking. And he was not happy to be back in the crumbling old mansion. 

‘It’s the same all over again, Guv,’ he replied. ‘Just like last week’s case: Totally Unimaginative. Only this time, the deceased’s name is Overused. Completely Overused.’  

How do you like the opening section of my new opus? Great, innit? It’s clear, with gothic ambiance and lots of information about the main characters from the offset. So why is everyone sniggering? What do you mean, it’s full of clichés? Of course it is. That’s the whole point.

Or, as Sherlock Holmes might say in one of his more flippant moments, ‘I rest my case.’

As you can see from the above, clichés work on two levels – in the choice of language and in the creative choices such as character, setting and plot.

The problem with linguistic clichés is that they are victims of their own success. They are pithy and precise, leaving no room for ambiguity: perfect shorthand to get meaning across quickly and clearly, which is why they are so useful in everyday speech. The downside is that they are completely unoriginal. And therein, as Hamlet would say, lies the rub. Clarity is vital for communication, but most readers (and writers) are looking for a little more.

Clichés and stereotypes such as the maverick cop, the tall, dark, handsome stranger, the mysterious gothic mansion  and the flashy Manhattan penthouse, turn up regularly in fiction and film and, as with their linguistic cousins, it is usually a case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’.

The worst effect of the cliché is that it deadens originality and spoils a writer’s unique voice. Everything you write should be uniquely yours – readers will clamour time and time again for your maverick cop as long as she or he doesn’t sound and look the same as fifty others. So, use clichés and genre tropes sparingly, if at all. Don’t allow your prose become boring and unimaginative. Give your characters an original voice and keep your readers hooked.

Building a Character: What kind of animal am I?

No, I’m not going crazy. Figuring out what kind of animal your character might be is a basic acting exercise familiar to theatre actors, and it can be a useful character building tool for authors also. Basically, actors use ‘animal work’ to explore the essence of a character. The trick is to progress beyond the simple representation of roaring, mewing or squeaking, beyond even the clichés – ‘wily as a fox’, ‘quiet as a mouse’ or ‘greedy as a pig’ – to an internalization which will give a fully rounded and nuanced physicality recognizable (albeit often on a subconscious level) by an audience.

So using an animal reference can be a great way of getting a quick handle on a character, either in your own mind or in the mind of your reader.  Like a form of visual shorthand.

With his dull brown hair, large eyes and perpetually twitching nose, Mr Doulton resembled a rather dim-witted mouse, but Hannah soon found to her cost that his personality was pure ferret, and nasty, bad-tempered ferret at that.’

Two sides to every animal 

References to animals have powerful connotations and it is these connotations (for good or bad) that can be utilized by writers and actors alike.

Take the pig, for example.  Even when used positively, there is an underlying sense of uncontrolled appetite about them that can be exploited.

‘Hannah could barely hide her laughter. The fact was that Mr Blower had all the appearance of a rather jolly pig stuffed into an expensively-tailored suit.’ 

Of course, you don’t necessarily need the full animal – you can still work from the basic pig image, but highlight certain aspects with equally powerful effect.

Mr Blower was a short, rotund man with little, piggy eyes and ludicrously tiny feet.’ 

or

‘Mr Blower’s hair was coarse and blonde, bristling to a peak on top of his head. His nose was snub and the corners of his mouth turned upwards in a perpetual porcine grin.’

Obviously, you need to use animal references wisely and sparingly, otherwise your play or novel will begin to resemble some form of bizarre humanoid barnyard or an exotic zoo with an Orwellian theme. The whole point is, of course, to get the writer or actor’s imagination working beyond the obvious: to look for and think about physical nuances which not only set each character apart from the others, but also give an indication of what makes them tick.

Point of View 4: POV shifts – Working Examples

Let’s look at POV shifts within paragraphs and some possible solutions:

Version 1:  

autumn leaves 0034Julia smiled to  herself at happy memories of children tumbling amongst the fallen leaves in autumns long past. Now the only thing tumbling about in the garden was her husband, Simon. He vigorously rubbed the grit from his eyes with his hands, having accidentally hit himself in the face with the grubby roots of a particularly stubborn dandelion.

Julia’s cat stared at Simon curiously with her bright green eyes from the edge of the flowerbed. She wondered what he was doing and hoped that all that strange pulling and tugging on his part might be the prelude to a tasty morsel or perhaps an interesting game. Realising it was neither, she gave a loud yawn and stretched herself to her full length, before sauntering back in the direction of the house.

In the living room, Julia laughed. Poor Simon, she thought, even Puss thinks he’s boring.

Simon groaned. He hated this place. 

Version 2: 

autumn leaves 002Julia smiled to herself at happy memories of children tumbling amongst the fallen leaves in autumns long past. Now the only thing tumbling about in the garden was her husband, Simon.

Simon rubbed the grit from his eyes, having accidentally hit himself in the face with the grubby roots of a particularly stubborn dandelion. The pair of green feline eyes gazing curiously at him from the edge of flowerbed unnerved him. That cat – Julia’s cat – didn’t like him, he was sure of that. As if to prove his point, the animal gave a sudden loud yawn, stretched herself to her full length and sauntered in the direction of the house. Simon groaned. He hated this place.

Watching from the living room, Julia laughed. Poor Simon, she thought, even Puss thinks he’s boring.

Commentary: 

  • In Version 1, the POV shift from Julia’s point of view to Simon’s is unnerving. One sentence on, we get a further shift: we are now viewing Simon from the cat’s POV. Then we are back to Julia, then Simon again. The end result is confusion and irritation for the reader as they try to figure out on exactly who or what they should they be focussing, no doubt also asking themselves at the same time why they are having to work so hard.

  • Misc 2009010In Version 2, the shift from Julia’s POV is more clearly signposted (although still a little disconcerting). We’ve also lost Puss’s POV. This may be quirky, but it is distracting and makes the cat more significant than is warranted in the overall scheme of things. In addition, we are setting up reader expectations only to cruelly dash them, if this is the only instance of her POV. Cutting her out allows us to focus more clearly on Simon’s feelings, which is more useful for the story, and gives the reader a better sense of his and Julia’s relationship and the physical and emotional distance between them.

Whose story is it anyway? 

Of course, all of the above assumes that Julia and Simon are the two viewpoint characters in the story, but the tale could just as well be told solely from Julia’s POV or Simon’s POV, or indeed, entirely from Puss’s POV. Or you could use the cat yawning at Simon as the pivotal event in which the same story is told from three different points of view. To be honest, the possibilities are endless and the joy of being a writer is you get to try out as many as you wish. So, please, go explore and enjoy!

Point of View 3: Split personalities

You are perfectly at liberty to have more than one viewpoint character if you think it will serve your story best. Think fantasy epics such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. Lots of books. Lots of characters. Lots of viewpoints.

Harry Potter 004The main problem with multiple viewpoints is how to manage the POV shifts between characters. Again, consistency is the order of the day. You need to set up a structure for the POV shifts and signpost them clearly, because shifting POV without warning is like speaking to someone without first catching their eye. The first time, they may be merely taken by surprise, but if it happens more than once, they will become irritated very quickly.

Most common is a pattern of alternating narrators, with POV shifts usually occurring between chapters or larger book divisions. There are no limits on the number of viewpoints, but be aware that if your readers are fully engaged with a particular character, they may be unhappy at a POV shift regardless of how well you manage it. The way around this problem, of course, is to make the next viewpoint character every bit as fascinating as the last (something to keep in mind if you are planning a large number of them). Beware also random minor characters who pop up to grab their fifteen minutes of POV fame. Unless they have some piece of information absolutely vital to the story which cannot be imparted any other way, remove them from the premises quietly and quickly. Don’t forget, the more viewpoints you have, the more goodwill required from your readers.

Dracula 003A good example of the use of multiple viewpoints is Bram Stoker’s classic vampire tale, Dracula. The story weaves between major and minor character narrations via letters, journals, interviews, ship’s logs and newspaper reports. The clever thing about the way the novel is structured is that each narration moves the plot forward in time and place, linked by and chronologically following Dracula’s physical journey from Transylvania to England and back again. Indeed, it is the reader’s awareness of this sinister thread of Dracula’s evil presence underlying the narrated events (and mostly unbeknownst to the other protagonists) which pulls the disparate sections of narrative into a cohesive whole and gives the story its overwhelming sense of menace and urgency.

A note of caution – one of the most common mistakes in early draft manuscripts is the unintentional POV shift within chapters or even paragraphs. We’ll look at this in more detail in the next post, but here’s a quick taster:

autumn leaves 0034‘Julia  smiled at happy memories of children tumbling amongst the fallen leaves in autumns long past. Now the only thing tumbling about in the garden was her husband, Simon. He vigorously rubbed the grit from his eyes with his dirty hands, having accidentally hit himself in the face with the grubby roots of a particularly stubborn dandelion. 

The POV shift from Julia to Simon may be subtle, but is unnerving nonetheless. Let’s face it, if readers have to work too hard to get the sense or atmosphere of a story, they may end up thinking less kindly of you as a writer. So keep an eye out for errant POV shifts to ensure you don’t end up with lots of  VARs (that is, Very Annoyed Readers).

Point of View 2: Limitation or opportunity?

You might think that choosing one character as the viewpoint character and sticking to them would solve any POV problems. Not necessarily. For example, if your first person or third person limited narrator doesn’t actually witness an important event in the story, then he or she can’t describe it.

Of course, in theory, you could use another character to tell that part of the story, but one of the main rules for POV is that it should be consistent. So if most of your story so far has been seen only through the eyes of one character, switching POV at this late stage may seriously disturb your reader. At the very least it will break their connection with the first character which has been building for most of the book and, once broken, there is no guarantee you will get it back again.

Jane 003Imagine, for example, if Jane Austen had discarded Elizabeth Bennett’s POV following Lydia’s elopement with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice and sent us galloping off to London with Mr Darcy instead. Apart from the consternation of finding ourselves suddenly flung into the intimate company of a man seen to this point only through Lizzie’s eyes, we would miss all the tension, irritation, anxiety and feelings of helplessness that our heroine goes through during her long wait for news in Longbourn. The advantage of all this soul-searching not only adds considerably to the reader’s experience of Elizabeth Bennett’s character, but also ups the ante for the moment when she learns the truth about Darcy’s role in rescuing her sister. And who better to tell Lizzie about Darcy’s involvement, but silly, indiscreet Lydia? A delicious combination of plot point and character moment.

If your narrator finds themselves in a similar situation, you do what writers have done for centuries: you get creative. You have your viewpoint character talk to people, overhear conversations, read letters, newspaper reports, books, secret diaries or files (or their modern-day technological equivalents), basically whatever it takes to get the information the reader needs.

Sun 001But no Deus ex machina, please. This Latin term meaning ‘god from a machine’, refers primarily to the Greek tragedy penchant for having gods ascend or descend miraculously in mechanical stage devices (hence the ‘machina’) at the end of plays to provide improbably contrived resolutions to unsolvable situations. Please do keep your POV solutions within the context and internal logic of your viewpoint character and the world of your story.

Most of all, you should view the limitations of a narrator choice not as a downside, but as a virtue and a truly wonderful opportunity to build up oodles of character, atmosphere, tension and plot. What’s not to like?

Point of View 1: Whose story is it, anyway?

Choosing a point of view (POV) for your book is probably one of the most important decisions you will make as a writer. Why? Because in choosing to tell the story through the eyes of a particular character, you are also determining the reader’s journey through the book.

Harry Potter 002Think about it. The Harry Potter series of books would have been very different had they been told from the point of view of Hermione, Dumbledore or even Lord Voldemort. Well, they wouldn’t be Harry Potter books for a start!

Of course, choosing your viewpoint character is only first step. You will also have to decide the narration point of view. Second person narrative (you) is very rare, so the most common choice is between first person (I, we) or third person (he, she, it) narrative. Next, you will need to choose between subjective narration (inside a character’s head and describing their feelings or thoughts), or objective narration (staying out of people’s heads and reporting only what you see)? Finally, you will need to decide whether your narrator’s point of view is limited (knowing everything there is to know from that character’s POV, but limited to that character) or are they omniscient (with an all encompassing knowledge of all characters, times and places).

What effect does a particular narrative point of view have on the reader’s experience of your novel?

Viewing a story through the eyes of a first person narrator, either observing or participating in the action, connects the reader directly with the narrator and imbues the narrative with the immediacy and energy of an eyewitness account (for example, Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep).

A third person narrative puts more distance between the narrator and the story. The Harry Potter series is told from Harry’s point of view (third person narration limited). This still allows the reader to engage with the character, but allows the author to manipulate the narrative without interfering with the character’s viewpoint. An omniscient narrator is a not a character in the story but provides a bridge between the character and the reader.

So whose point of view is best for your story? That is a question only you can answer and exploring points of view can sometimes be what your first (and possibly second, third and fourth) draft is all about, as you try to figure out who is telling your story and why. So, if your novel is stuck in a rut and is refusing to go where you want it to go, maybe you should look at who’s telling the story. Just as in life itself, a completely new point of view or perspective can sometimes transform an old tale into a wholly new experience.