SYWTBAW: Anatomy of a Rejection, part 3–Modernize and Tone Down Cliche Characters

Just like a car, sometimes minor fine-tuning will give you that extra boost to your performance. Remove a line here, change a word go from outrageous to subtle with the minutest of changes.

This leads me to another one of Victoria Curran's observations about my work:


It's no secret that the romance genre is full of archetypes: the powerful CEO, the brooding prince, the playboy cowboy, the hardworking single mom, the rich bitch, the overbearing matron, etc. But in Superromances, Victoria told me it's important to make the characters subtle so we sympathize with them and can identify with them to some extent.

In particular, my heroine wasn't entirely sympathetic because she had very strong perceptions about the people around her. She grew to be more likeable, but even then, Victoria wasn't in love with her. (I wouldn't be, either: but I knew where she was coming from.)

Part of the problem was that the heroine's perceptions tainted the other characters, painting them in shades of cliche. Since the story is told through her (and the hero's) eyes, we tend to take the same view through those tinted lens.

As a result, my villainness, the rich bitch, really stood out as cliche. Here's an excerpt:

A figure darted out onto the road and Fiona slammed on the brakes. Rubber squealed on asphalt. The car shuddered to a halt as another figure dashed after the first.

And wouldn’t you know, it was Denise Kirkpatrick and her spawn of Satan, Rene. Fiona honked the horn and pointed at the big redheaded boy, scowling thunderously. He stared blankly back.

Denise slowly straightened and sent her a shit-eating grin. She said something to her son, and he scooted his pudgy butt up to the sidewalk. Denise sauntered over to Fiona’s car and tapped on the driver’s-side window of the old BMW.

Fiona rolled down the glass and glared.

“Morning, Fiona.” The brunette’s wide lips curved in a scythe-like crescent. A stiff gust of wind wafted her overstrong perfume through the window, making Fiona want to gag. “Guess you haven’t had any coffee yet, huh?”

“Excuse me?” Fiona’s fingers curled around the steering wheel. “Your son just ran out into the middle of the road without looking. You should have been keeping an eye on him.” And maybe a leash and a muzzle, while she was at it.

“Boys will be boys, Fiona.” Denise tsked. “You need to remember that. Here in Salmon River, they tend to be a little rambunctious.”

While she was at it, maybe she could have stroked a cat and twirled her mustache, proclaiming, "Muah-ha-ha, I'm EVIL!"

The catch, of course, is that Denise really IS a bitch and Fiona really doesn't like her. Rene has been bullying her son, after all. So how do you frame a character without making her a cliche?

The key is subtlety. Not that that's easy to work with when you have someone as blatantly bitchy as Denise.

So I had to reason it out like this: Fiona is perfectly entitled to think whatever she wants to about other people; but what they say and do and what they actually mean could be completely different things.

Then I had to put myself in Denise's fashionable shoes for a moment as she walked up to Fiona's car. Why is she smiling like that? What is going through her mind? What does she really think of Fiona? And what kind of morning has she just had?

She could be smiling that "shit-eating" smile because she's trying to regain composure after her son was almost hit. She's a pro when it comes to maintaining absolute poise, after all--it's been drilled into her. She isn't normally so snippy, but Fiona is an attractive woman...Denise has noticed that men's heads turn when Fiona walks by, and Denise doesn't like that. She's the cock of the walk in this town and will be damned if she's usurped by a New Hampshire transplant.

That established, I tried to go back to revise the scene...but I didn't want the reader's first exposure to Denise to lose its impact. So as I went along, I tweaked other things...thoughts, feelings, gestures. I had to make it subtle and "tone down the cliche" as Victoria suggested. I had to avoid spelling out just how much enmity existed between these two women.

I'll still have to come back and pare a few things down as I fine-tune Denise and Fiona. But such is the work of a writer.

Concluding piece of advice: archetypes are fine, but use subtle language to describe them to avoid cliche. Walk in their shoes, and figure out who they are and why they act the way they do. And try to see them through other eyes, too. We should be able to identify (or sympathize)--however minutely--with all characters, even villains.

One more blog on this rejection and I can lay myself to rest!

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