Columns > Published on July 20th, 2012

Top 10 Character Cliches That Drive Me Nuts

Archetypes are important, but they're no excuse for lazy writing. These particular archetypes drive me batty because they create a series of characters that are interchangeable and formulaic. Fill in a few blanks and you can generate your own Mary Sue or Reluctant Hero with very little effort. When she was ___ her ___ died. He was unwilling to leave his ordinary life in ___ to journey to ___ and save the ___. It's like People Mad Libs, and that's no way to write a character.

Below are ten examples of stock characters that started their long lives as archetypes and have grown into hoary old clichés.

The Brooding Rebel

He's taciturn, he's despondent, he's tormented. He's from the wrong side of the tracks. He's gorgeous but surly. He disdains company - but he shows an unexpected sensitive side to the woman he loves.

The ultimate example: Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights.


The Femme Fatale

She's mysterious and seductive, and boy, is she dangerous. She has only her own interests at heart, and God help you if you get in her way. She's got wiles and she's not afraid to use them.

The ultimate example: Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair.


The Hooker With A Heart Of Gold

She sells her body but her soul remains pure. She's here to overcome societal expectations and help the protagonist, who often thinks badly of her at first before growing to admire her. She's a tragic character and she often dies tragically.

The ultimate example: Belle Watling from Gone With the Wind.


The Libertine

He's lascivious. He's a lout. He's a rich prince of debauchery and he cares not a whit for your virtue or his own. Occasionally he's hiding a delicate heart underneath that alarming libido, but don't count on it.

The ultimate example: Vicomte de Valmont from Les Liaisons Dangereuses.


The Mad Scientist

His desperate, inexorable search for progress has left him senseless and amoral. His aspirations are always noble but the consequences are always disastrous.

The ultimate example: Victor Frankenstein from Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.


The Mary Sue

She's the ideal woman. She's beautiful but unaware of it, pure of heart and incapable of doing wrong. She suffers from a tragic past that she overcomes when the right man comes along.

The ultimate example: Bella Swan from Twilight.


The Nice Guy Who Finishes Last

He's affable but humble, considerate and self-effacing. He places everyone ahead of himself while single-mindedly pursuing one woman, the woman of his dreams. Therefore, he deserves to get the girl, right? Tough. He won't.

The ultimate example: Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby.


The Plain Jane

She is unassuming, unadorned. She seems a little homely until you get to know her and discover her incomparable wit and kind heart. She blooms under attention and once you've fallen in love with her, you wonder how you ever thought her plain.

The ultimate example: Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre.


The Reluctant Hero

He doesn't want adventure; he eschews grandiose gestures. He's ordinary and he likes it that way. When he is called to a quest, he refuses it until compelled by circumstances bigger than himself and he rises to the occasion with verve.

The ultimate example: Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit.


The Rich Old Bitch

She has all the money in the world but it hasn't made her happy. She lives alone in her cold mansion, bitterly despising those who have less money than she has yet more love than she will ever know. She loathes the young and joyous and will use her considerable resources to destroy their happiness.

The ultimate example: Miss Havisham from Great Expectations.

So what character clichés drive you nuts? Give me an archetype and example - and if you can think of a better example for the clichés listed above, speak up in the comments!

About the author

Meredith is a writer, editor and brewpub owner living in Houston, Texas. Her four most commonly used words are, "The book was better."

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