Writing Tips – Ten Stock Characters to Avoid

Through television and film some people have become stock characters. That means that everybody knows them and will recognise them.

Unfortunately that also makes them almost unusable in written fiction unless you’re being post-modern and ironic. Here, with tongue occasionally in cheek, are some to avoid.

– The square-jawed man of action with stone-chips for eyes
Think Doc Savage, Superman or Tarzan. This one was very popular in times gone by, but modern readers look for a bit of depth and vulnerability in their heroes. If you’re going to introduce a strong, silent type, try to give him a weakness, like fainting at the sight of blood, or a hobby that emphasises his feminine side, like needlework.

– The bespectacled, unkempt scientist in the white coat
This fellow is more common in the movies, the best recent example being Brent Spinner in Independence Day. But they sometimes show up in fiction, either as a madman bent on world domination, or a nerd spouting gibberish. The main reason people create stereotypical scientists is because they know next to nothing about science. or what scientists do. Take some time to learn about science. Meet some scientists. Then you can write about a bespectacled, unkempt person in a white coat and know that you’re writing about a real person.

– The tart-with-a-heart
A role once monopolised by Shirley McLaine, and very popular in pulp detective stories. They still turn up in Hollywood, but less so in print. These days if you write in a prostitute, it generally means there’s some heavy sex on the way, or some extreme violence. If you can’t deliver anything beyond the stereotype, the editor won’t be interested. Take some time to learn about prostitution. Meet some… on second thoughts, it might not be wise to take your research too far in this case.

– The struggling writer
Long beloved of writers themselves, the “portrait of the struggling artist” is a perennial favourite. Writers are good in that they don’t go to work like normal folks, so you can get them out of the house and into action quickly. But if you have them agonising over their work and developing drink/drugs/mental problems, then all you’re showing is your own angst. Don’t bore an editor with your psychological hang-ups.

– The University lecturer who sleeps with his students
Not surprisingly, very popular with university lecturers and students. This character has a long pedigree, but most of the plots involving him have been played out. Once upon a time he appeared in books that won literary prizes. Now he’s more likely to be a murder suspect in a lazy crime novel based on a beer-drinking Chief Inspector in Oxford.

– The bored housewife who runs off with the handsome stranger
Or Shirley Valentine as she is better known. She turns up in romantic ficion all the time. Good escapism for other bored housewifes, but unless you can bring a unique twist to the plot, you’ll never sell the story, even to a woman’s magazine. And why are there no bored husbands running off with beautiful strangers? The answer is probably that it happens too often in real life for it to work in fiction.

– The man of God who’s lost his faith
He’s a staple of both soap operas and horror movies. Either he finds his faith again just in time to avoid committing adultery, commits adultery, or gets chomped by the monster. A similar character is the man of God blinded by his faith, a fine example of which gets zapped by the invading aliens in George Pal’s 1955 Sci-Fi classic the War of the Worlds.

– The intelligent kid who gets bullied.
Or, if you’re being post-modern and ironic, the geeky Stephen King kid. They are most often used in revenge plots, or in boy-gets-girl-in-the-end teenage fantasies. Either way they tend to say more about the writer’s own childhood desires than anything else, and an editor will see hundreds of them in a year.

– The overworked doctor
This one turns up all over the place – in medical dramas where he makes a fatal mistake in a dosage, in war stories struggling against mounting casualties and in murder cases telling policeman that they can’t speak to the sedated figure on the bed. With the popularity of hospital dramas, and ER in particular, he’ll be around for a long time yet. But do try to give him something more to say than “The next few hours will be crucial.”

– The world-weary crime-fighter
Why is it that all cops are cynical, smoke or drink too much, and have continual relationship problems? Recently the search has been on for different police departments to use, resulting in a slew of pathologists, crime scene investigators and psychiatrists. The obvious outcome of all this was Denzel Washington’s paraplegic crime scene investigator in “The Bone Collector”. And yes, he was cynical, overbearing, and had continual relationship problems.

So there you have it. Ten people who turn up time after time in fiction, just with different names. Use them at your peril.

And finally, I’ll let you into a secret. Seven of them have appeared at some time in my fiction, so I don’t always practice what I preach.

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