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.

Irish Crime Fiction Festival at Trinity College, Dublin – 22-23 November 2013: Review

Trinity Crime Fiction Weekend Nov 2013 002Yes, it’s true. Book Nanny is basking in a crime-writerly glow following a fantastic day-and-a-bit of Irish crime fiction discussions at Trinity College, Dublin last weekend. On offer was a veritable feast of top-class, bestselling Irish crime writers spanning a wide range of crime fiction. The Friday evening panel discussed how and why we write and read crime fiction and provided a taster of some of the topics to come. There was a lot of talk about ‘justice’ and ‘law’ (surprisingly little about ‘good’ and ‘evil’, I thought) and the allure of the outsider or maverick battling against a corrupt system. 

First up on Saturday was the historical crime fiction panel. Conor Brady told us how he set out to write a historical novel and wrote crime fiction instead (at least according to his publisher). Stuart Neville was less concerned about being boxed in by genres by pointing out that most readers don’t limit themselves to one genre, and that despite his publisher’s fears, his latest crime novel set in 1963 had won him both crime and historical fiction readers – a win-win by all standards. The panellists also discussed how crime fiction can get at the ‘underbelly’ of an society, why they were drawn to certain historical periods and places, how they generally set their novels in places they either know or have a connection to and how research is the key to confident characterisation.

In the Irish crime fiction abroad discussion, while Jane Casey declared herself inspired primarily by the traditions UK crime fiction, John Connolly spoke passionately about how American crime fiction had inspired him to write his US-based supernatural crime fiction as an escape from the drabness and limitations of 1980’s Ireland. Arlene Hunt gave a more practical explanation for the setting of her US-based novel – the necessity of finding a geographical location that would leave her killer undisturbed by hikers and dog walkers as he goes about his murderous business. This panel also spoke about the Irish sense and use of language and what part this plays in their identity as Irish writers even when their novels are set in another country – a topic also discussed by the historical crime fiction authors. But then as one of the writers pointed out – the past is another country.

The crime fiction and contemporary Ireland panel talked about the relationship between the crime fiction writer and true crime in Ireland, and, in this context, elaborated on the discussion begun in the Friday evening session: did the shadow of the Troubles in Northern Ireland keep Irish authors away from crime fiction in the past? Louise Phillips explained that she had set her novel in Ireland despite being told it wasn’t ‘sexy’, and how her first novel was inspired by her fears for her daughters, thereby providing a possible answer to the question from the earlier panel as to why women write about such horrible things being done to women. Are they perhaps exploring their own darkest fears?

Then to the highlight of the evening  – John Connolly’s interview with US crime author, Michael Connelly, creator of the Harry Bosch crime series. Michael talked about how he had progressed long-standing characters over a period of more than 20 years, how he had given is lawyer character, Mickey Haller a connection to Harry Bosch because he liked character and wanted to keep him. He spoke about choosing the actor to play Harry Bosch in the TV pilot, which had just finished filming, and how his decision to age Harry Bosch in real time impacted on the novels. As Harry is nearing retirement in the books, they changed his age and other background stuff for the TV pilot, but the good news is that Michael Connelly intends writing as much about him before he (Harry) retires, so fans like myself can hopefully look forward to one or two more Bosch novels in the next year or so. Can’t wait.

Congratulations to Trinity College and all involved  (sponsors included Glucksman Irish House at New York University and the Gathering) for organising this festival, which, by the way was free of charge for all discussions, apart from the Michael Connelly interview, where a small fee was charged. Hopefully this will be the first of many such festivals to come.

Full list of panellists: Conor Brady, Declan Burke, Jane Casey, Paul Charles, John Connolly, Conor Fitzgerald, Alan Glynn, Declan Hughes, Arlene Hunt, Gene Kerrigan, Kevin McCarthy, Brian McGilloway, Eoin McNamee, Stuart Neville, Niamh O’Connor, Louise Phillips and Michael Russell.