Harlequin REFRESH: Character cliches

Character clichés. Archetypes. Stock characters. We encounter them in every genre—the mad scientist, the femme fatale, the high school jock, that geek with acne. There are millions of stories out in the world today, so of course we’re going to encounter similar people from time to time.

One thing is certain, though: a reader needs to be captivated by a story’s dynamic characters if they’re going to spend the next 200 pages with them. We know you’re constantly developing unique, fascinating characters; but sometimes it’s easy to fall back on what’s familiar, and what we know works. Creating non-cliché characters that break the mold is part of making your story stand out, and giving it a fresh, contemporary voice.

As you’re writing, keep an eye out for when you might be leaning on a character cliché. Here are some we’d love to see refreshed, flipped or made more complex:

The feisty redhead: How often do you read shy, sweet redheads in romance? This is one case where literature might not be reflecting real life.

The villainous ex: Great external conflict, but if they’re authentic and realistically motivated, they can add much more! After all, your protagonist dated them—what does their ex say about them?

The best friends who only ever talk about the love interest: Personally, we love to see friends bond over things outside the romance.

An underdeveloped tomboy heroine and aspects of the “not like other girls” trope: We love tomboys, but there’s nothing wrong with a girly girl either! And really, what do either of those terms mean? Sometimes this trope suggests femininity is black-and-white, but there are so many ways to understand and express femininity, and we love stories that celebrate that!

The hero who comments on the heroine’s hearty appetite: He’s surprised she’ll eat a burger, or that she’ll eat in front of him at all! Think about how the details inform the characters—is this a unoriginal observation, or is it authentic?

Small-town stock figures to watch for: The wise-cracking diner owner, the Boy Scout deputy, the gruff father, the gutsy grandma, the wise old grandpa. How can you make them unique to your story?

The overweight heroine with self-esteem issues: Maybe she’s confident about her body and living her best life because she’s super awesome! Consider also, the heroine who doesn’t know she’s beautiful (which makes her more beautiful!).

Stereotypes and tokenism: Always something to be mindful of, especially when portraying diverse characters. They should be as multifaceted as everyone else!

The alpha-hole: Possessive, thinks he knows best, maybe a bit insulting? There’s been lots of talk about this hero in romance, and a shift away from it already!

Putting any of these characters in your story is not a bad thing, and it certainly won’t make us set your book aside. Avoiding character clichés, or ones that fall flat, starts with experimentation and developing your characters from the inside out. Giving them clear goals, histories and motivations makes them three-dimensional and helps us understand what drives them. Characters are people, not just symbols. Once they’ve captivated us, we want to get to know them, spend time with them, and understand what makes them tick!

How do you get around archetypes and clichés as you develop characters? What are your character pet peeves? Tell us all about it in the comments!

7 replies on “Harlequin REFRESH: Character cliches”

Sort of clumped in with the Alpha A-hole, but Billionaires or Seriously Rich Heroes who have no other time with their lives but to stalk (poke and prod) their heroines. It’s not only beyond creepy, it’s not sexy and unrealistic. Maybe a billionaire dad would do that with his overacting teen, but with the heroine? Uh, yeah, no. She’s an adult who shouldn’t have to be monitored. (I should mention this precludes romantic suspense where the heroine is in danger and the hero is monitoring her and preventing said danger from getting to her.)

It does give me a good cringe and laugh though. Those OTT wealthy alphas. 😀

Here’s my list of character cliches;
* The virginal heroine. In real life, this went out about 50 years ago. Is it too much to ask for a heroine who knows what she likes in the bedroom and isn’t afraid to ask for it? Not only that, if there’s a significant age difference between the hero and heroine, you introduce a troubling power inbalance into the relationship. Granted, this isn’t an issue in sweeter romances, but age differences are problematic, IMHO.
* Rich young CEOs or lawyers. Unless they are in tech or inherited their position, CEOs and partners at law firms under 50 are quite rare. A young lawyer struggling with a mountain of student loan debt would be a great source of conflict.

Thanks for sharing, Tom! These are great examples of what we’ve seen in romance over the years that might need to be shaken up or changed to make them work today. A balance in power dynamics is something I love to see!

I get around these types of archetypes and cliches as I develop characters by thinking and developing some of the of the most powerful women I personally know. I admittingly use my own characteristics in my stories. I really like myself and my personality and I am quick to point out my own faults as well as my weaknesses. I do not mean for this to sound egotistic by any means, but it’s a fact. I do the same with male characters as well, but I look at those around me and those I know and relate them to stories/movies/musicians/artists etc. This may sound a little “strange”. I think about an alternative universe that we play in and what that life could be like (with children, without children, married, single, different careers, different goals, dream jobs, traveler, loner, etc) then I build from there. Just my two cents! My biggest pet peeve though is when the secret of the character is told to soon. Why keep reading if I already know all the details.

Thanks for sharing, Victoria. Taking inspiration from the men and women around you — including yourself — is wonderful! I think a lot of writers can relate; who wouldn’t want to read about characters based on strong, real-life people?

And agreed, teasing out those hints to the characters’ big secrets is one of the best ways to engage me in a story!

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