Here’s a great technique to avoid stereotypical characters in your fiction. It’s called reversals and helps you not only identify cliches, but also helps you turn them on their heads to create something unique and compelling. Here’s an example of how it works:
First, choose a character. Let’s go with a car mechanic.
Next, write down at least three things that are true about your character, a car mechanic.
- The car mechanic fixes cars.
- The car mechanic gets paid.
- The car mechanic is skilled.
Now write the opposite of the three things.
- The car mechanic DOES NOT fix cars
- The car mechanic DOES NOT get paid
- The car mechanic IS NOT skilled.
Now the fun part: brainstorming. How could these things still be true about your character?
- He does not fix cars because (1) he is unemployed, (2) he has been injured in some way, (3) he works at a salvage yard where he only takes cars apart.
- He does not get paid because (1) he is independently wealthy and helps people who are down on their luck, (2) he is undocumented and his boss takes advantage of him, (3) he owes someone a great deal of money so they take everything he gets.
- He is not skilled because (1) he went to a terrible fly-by-night school that didn’t teach him anything, (2) he is a regular Joe who is down on his luck so he, out of desperation, starts trying to fix cars, (3) he’s an old-school mechanic who is clueless about new computer-controlled cars.
Some of these are terrible ideas, but there are a few promising ones. Take, for example, the idea that he doesn’t fix cars because he works at a salvage yard where he only takes cars apart to be crushed. Now a character emerges with internal tension. I see a guy who loves classic cars, maybe even grew up restoring them with his father, but now he’s working at a salvage yard where he is paid to destroy the things he loves, things that remind him of his father and his childhood. Not only does this complicate the character and make him more well-rounded, it could easily resonate on a thematic level as well.
The great thing about this technique is that it can work with far more than just character traits. Try it on your settings, your plot points, and virtually anything else in your writing that can slip into stereotypes or cliches.