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!

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Comments

Colin Andrew MacDougall's picture
Colin Andrew Ma... from Suburbia is reading The Brothers Karamazov July 21, 2012 - 7:57am

I think you have been mislead to believe that archetypes and clichés are somehow able to be seperate. Name me an archetype that isn't a cliché... The devils (or gods) are in the details.

Stacy_R_Haynes's picture
Stacy_R_Haynes from North Charleston, SC is reading Coffee Break Screenwriter July 21, 2012 - 12:28pm

I used to study film history. Some of those archetypes hold up as staples in screenplays. Several books on the topic of screenwriting mention the reluctant hero as a mainstay. I immediately thought of Neo from the Matrix, and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) in the last Star Trek film. They didn't annoy me, but I notice it's a repeated standard for films.

I liked femme fatales from old noir films. Double Indemnity comes to mind. Barbara Stanwyck played a wicked, yet seductive and bored housewife. Fred McMurray played a nice guy in that film, who does wrong, and doesn't get the woman.

A cliche and possible archetype I didn't like came from films too: the black character in a horror film didn't last too long. I don't know if that's changed. It happens outside of horror genres, but that's one that bugged me for years.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated July 22, 2012 - 7:31pm

The evil wasp male corporate executive! The kind hearted small business owner! 

lspieller's picture
lspieller from Los Angeles is reading LEVIATHAN July 22, 2012 - 11:11pm

The manic pixie dream girl...zoey deschanel!

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list July 23, 2012 - 1:02am

Some of the characters mentioned were the first of their kind. They became a staple, because people studied the classics to the point of absorbing the ideas and adopting them. It drives me a little nuts when I see re-imaginings of classics, because you get the long cast of overdone characters who never change. Then you have the books where the author tried to do something unique with the characters, but ended up being too heavily influenced by the original characters and ended up creating stereotypes of them.

I like when writers play with characters and make them unpredictable, because real people are unpredictable :-)

Thomas Derry's picture
Thomas Derry from Bonanza, Colorado is reading Rand McNally World Atlas July 23, 2012 - 10:43am

How about the hideously-misfigured-yet-strangely-tender giant of a man? The Hound in The Game of Thrones comes to mind. (Of course Frankenstein's monster is the ur-character.)

MD Cain's picture
MD Cain July 23, 2012 - 7:24pm

The reluctant hero is definitely an archetype, a basic for the 'hero's journey'. I've never thought about it being an overdone cliche, but I guess it can definitely apply. 

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies July 26, 2012 - 7:30am

I hate sitcoms/movies where the guy is a bumbling buffoon and the girl is a relentless, conniving bitch. Men are so poorly portrayed in modern film/tv, specifically the comedies. See also: King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, Modern Family, Knocked Up, Ted, nearly every TV commercial, etc...

mgoldenwest's picture
mgoldenwest December 23, 2012 - 12:58pm

The supercilious intellectual (male) or beauty (female) who has no true friends and doesn't understand why...or seemingly care. This character may righteously disregard prevailing cultural barriers a generation or more before they fall and suffer unjust consequences, such as Oscar Wilde or Baby Doe Tabor.

 

Dan Roberts's picture
Dan Roberts December 24, 2012 - 7:22am

Technically though Bilbo Baggins wasn't "compelled by circumstances bigger than himself". One of the keys to the story is that he goes on the adventure in order to have an adventure, it may be forced on him at first but he goes willingly and for no reason other than to satisfy his unhobbitlike urge for excitement.

TexasGirl's picture
TexasGirl from Texas is reading Castle and Bone January 6, 2014 - 4:50pm

I hate the girl unaware of two boys in love with her.

Miah Allsman's picture
Miah Allsman February 4, 2015 - 12:08am

Many of these are archetypes, the basic building blocks for all characters. These archetypes go back to ancient Greek and Roman mythology. The reason they appear cliche is just because they have not yet been properly developed into interesting and dynamic characters. 

Miah Allsman's picture
Miah Allsman February 4, 2015 - 12:09am

Even some of the best characters from the best shows still boil down to these basic concepts. For example - The Mad Scientist archetype listed is Walter White from Breaking Bad. 

qwertyuiop123's picture
qwertyuiop123 February 6, 2015 - 1:05pm

In defence of the author Walter White isn't quite the archetype of the Mad Scientist. Reading the description in the original post it is reasonable to make such an assumption but I feel that the scientist usually is not quite right in the head and seeks to fulfil his research to 'change the world' while Walter was about dealing with his health issues and securing the future of his family.

ADolan's picture
ADolan December 10, 2016 - 2:34pm

Can I just say its a crime that Bella Swan is mentioned as an example amongst increadibly thought out and classic characters.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated December 11, 2016 - 2:42am

Well it kind of is, even though we hate it.