Top 10 Tuesday: Character Clichés That Rip My Undies

Posted: January 10, 2012 in Lists. I love lists...
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I’ve been reading slush.  And sometimes when I read slush, I get grumpy.  To get some of that grumpiness out of my system, here is my highly subjective and by no means exhausted Top 10 list of Clichéd Characters in Short Horror Fiction That Really Rip My Undies.  I’m not saying you should never write these characters.  I’m not even saying that I’ve never written these characters.  Hey, we all know how hard it is to tell your story in 5000 words or less and still come out the other side with well-rounded characters.  Sometimes cliché is called for.  Just make sure, if you are going to use a cliché, disguise it heavily much as you would conceal vegetables in a fussy child’s diet, with elegant prose and an original treatment.

Oh, right.  The List.  Here it is.

  1. The alchoholic parent or stepparent.  The merely neglectful alcoholic parent cliché gets drunk, falls asleep in front of the TV, and forgets to go to work, feed the kids, or get out of bed.  Bonus undie-ripping points: he or she got that way because somebody close to them died or left.
  2. The alcoholic and violent parent or stepparent.  The violent drunk cliché is almost always a man.
  3. A friendship forged in childhood when one kid takes pity on another kid because he’s too fat/too skinny/too weird (I say “he” deliberately because it’s usually a friendship between two males).
  4. The trashily attractive older sister (think Laurie from That 70’s Show).  On film, she usually serves the dual purpose of eye candy and comic relief.  In print, she’s often more sinister but no less annoying for it.
  5. The callously unfaithful partner (usually accompanied by the plot cliché of something really bad happening to the unfaithful one).  Think of another reason why your character needs to be punished.  Or give the poor guy or girl a conscience, at least.
  6. The man (and it is usually a man) who wanders aimlessly through life and wonders why he wakes up one day to realize that nothing has turned out the way he wanted/expected.
  7. The “crazy” person who isn’t crazy at all, just misunderstood because they really are visited by ghosts/demons/angels/aliens.
  8. The serial killer who became a sadistic agent of death because he was horrifically abused in his childhood (and yes, it usually is a “he”…).  Yes, we all know that’s why serial killers become serial killers.  That’s why it’s uninteresting.
  9. The character who is evil for no reason.  No interesting (or even uninteresting) backstory, no other motive for his (and you know what I’m going to say here…) actions other than evil for evil’s sake.
  10. Inbred hillbilly cannibals.  It’s a one trick pony that’s long since taken that last ride to the glue factory.

One last tip for figuring out if your character is a cliché or not – if Stephen King has used that character in a story or novel, it might not have been a cliché when he wrote it, but legions of emulating fans have ensured that it sure as shit is now.

  1. I particularly hate the cheating spouse. I think it has its place, but like you said, it requires the spouse to have some thought process or conscience.
    But I wouldn’t say serial killers become serial killers because of their tortured childhoods. It’s a common feature, but many of them have very good childhoods and simply have no consciences/are pre-disposed to violence without any feelings of remorse.

    • I’d be interested to know which scenario readers find more frightening – the serial killer who is created by a troubled background, or someone who kills, and often, for no apparent reason other than having something seriously wrong with his/her mental wiring.

  2. Mark Louis Baumgart says:

    I watch and read a lot of crime non-fiction and you would be surprised just how many of these cliches are cliches because they are common in real life. The cheating spouse in particular.

    Number eight and nine though seem to be the templets that almost all of Dean Koontz’s novels revolve around. His novels seem to have become interchangable. Number ten is something that both Edward Lee and Richard Laymon seem to specialize in.

    • Yes, that describes nicely how cliches are born – either because they happen often in real life, or because someone else has already had such success using them that everybody else thinks, “So THAT’S what horror is” and they start producing cookie-cutter versions.

  3. admingwyn says:

    Great summary of some cliches that, come to think of it, I’m starting to see more and more of in short fiction, especially.

    • Thanks. It can be hard to draw a line between cliche and commonly used tropes. And you wouldn’t want to make a blanket ban on any cliches, because every now again someone takes one of those cliches and does something surprising and inventive with it.

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