Typically, main characters tend to be original enough, perhaps because writers put all their creative efforts into their central figures. That then leaves secondary characters a mess, and often a clichéd one.
Because of this, Writing Rule #17 needs to be stated and restated again:
Secondary characters deserve your writing respect just as much as main characters do.
By this, I mean that they should be more than a cliché or a convenience (unless your whole point is to make fun of clichés and conveniences).
Give them real personalities with believable actions and dialogues.
Let’s start out with villains.
They don’t always need longwinded, tragic backstories. Yes, everyone has a tale to tell, but do we need to know every twist and turn along their highway to heathendom? And please, whatever you do, don’t make them chortle with glee or rub their hands together like demented maniacs.
Then there’s the best friend. If your character is a perfect little good girl, you probably want to stay away from making her bestie an all-around bad-booty rebel. How many times in real life do such extreme opposites actually hang out together?
No. Really. When does that honestly happen?
Moving on to the love interest. Is he a hottie hoodlum who miraculously changes in the end? Please say no. Because as that old Amy Dalley song goes, “Shoes don’t stretch, and men don’t change” – not even for the sweetest, nicest, most beautiful women ever.
Or if you have a female love interest, consider how very clichéd it would be to make her the head cheerleader who’s currently dating a jerk. She just needs to see her own worth and how well the main character would treat her, right?
Wrong. Definitely wrong.
Unless you’re going to have said protagonist – or someone else in the story – acknowledge how very clichéd his crush is, then it’s not worth writing about.
Those particular secondary character archetypes aren’t realistic. Sure, they’re convenient, but so are those Hot Pockets I keep buying for lunch. It doesn’t mean they’re a healthy life choice.
As for some other clichés like the damsel in distress or the angsty teenager, they do happen. I distinctly remember feeling like an anxious Annie once upon a time in a large and potentially dangerous crowd – right before I was rescued by a boy who thought I was cute.
And I just read an honest-to-goodness historical account of a Spanish girl who was accosted by British soldiers, only to be saved by a British officer who came upon the scene. They got married shortly after, by the way.
It’s also relevant to point out here that I’m half-Italian. So believe me, I get stereotypes.
Do you know how to shut an Italian up? Just tie their hands behind their back.
If you don’t get that one, it’s because you don’t know any Italians. We gesture like crazy.
I’m sure there are also stereotypes about Germans, the French, the Japanese, the Kenyans, etc. And after studying abroad for a semester, I know there are accurate stereotypes about the English. (Love you guys anyway!)
The fact is that stereotypes usually exist in the first place because so many of some particular group do some particular thing.
But those kinds of typecasts and pigeonholes play out a lot more naturally in person than on the page. I know I’ve said this before, so please forgive the repetition, but fiction needs to be non-fiction 2.0.
It has to be better: smarter, funnier, edgier and more fast-paced.
Clichés that aren’t handled with proper care have a bad habit of slowing all that down. So if you’re going to employ them, do so with extreme caution.
Except if we’re talking about the three specific ones I listed in this blog post. You want to avoid those completely.