The Dangers of Cliche

I find myself thinking a lot about cliche lately.  Cliche is generally something we’re taught to avoid in writing.  We don’t want cliched plot or heroes.  But every now and then, you find a use for them.  In particular, with secondary characters.  See, using cliches or stereotypes allows for instant descriptions.  You give us these parameters and your reader (or watcher, as the case may be) immediately understand what kind of person you’re dealing with.  I don’t advocate this for friends of the heroine or anybody important, but for the random people who dot your setting, like the hopelessly dateless comic book store owner or the stoic, good ol’ boy sheriff, it’s a handy thing to use.

I used this tactic in characterizing the Barbie Squad in Red.

I’ve been regretting it ever since.

I chose to use the Barbie Squad as a quick and dirty example of the kind of crap our heroine had to deal with at school.  I even went so far as to have Elodie call them a stereotype.  And I was fully okay with this because they were not all that important to the overall story.  They were a convenient vehicle to give some information about our heroine. Who is the victim of the bully/mean girls.  It did not matter to me or my heroine why Amber felt the need to be such a bitch.  It wasn’t  relevant to the story.  Given that the story was told in first person, Elodie really had no motivation to look any further than that, so she didn’t and the Barbie Squad remained a cliche.

Reader response to this decision has, frankly, shocked me.  I’ve been blasted in reviews for resorting to the mean girls stereotype.  I was called lazy and, in a few other places, other more insulting terms than that.

WTF?

Leaving aside how utterly unnecessary the motivations of the mean girls were to the crux of the story, where is all this DEFEND THE CHEERLEADER/MEAN GIRLS coming from?  I honestly expected to be earning fans from all the previous mean girl victims who could identify with Elodie.  Because, frankly, mean girls exist.  Everywhere.  They are a stereotype, yes, and certainly they have deeper motivations for their actions in real life, but since when do the victims give a damn what they are?  All we cared about was that they were being bullies to US.  So, in my mind, it was TOTALLY in character for Elodie, mean girl victim, to look at them as a stereotype.

I won’t be making that mistake again.  Ever.

Some of the vitriolic protest to this treatment makes me wonder if the protesters were, themselves, mean girls in their teen years and identified with the wrong character.  Because nobody complained about the stereotypical gossipy busybodies.  Or the assorted other stereotypes I employed for the tertiary characters I sprinkled throughout the town.  Certainly not everyone who had complaints about my use of a stereotype on some unimportant characters do not fit the mold for mean girls.  Some of them just wanted better characterization.  And had I been writing some kind of teen drama where the point of the story was to find out that the mean girls were simply misunderstood human beings with un-dealt-with rage issues, I’d have gone there.  But that wasn’t what the story was about.  The story is what it is, and I stand by what I did with it as sound reasoning.

Still, I caution anybody who decides to use stereotypes in their fiction for any reason.  Be prepared for reader backlash.

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11 comments

  1. It sounds like you struck a nerve for some people. Bullying is such a hot topic these days that I think people go overboard on their reactions. Fact is, this is fiction. And it’s your story to tell, not theirs. If they want one that focuses on the cheerleaders and paints them in a different light, I would challenge them to go write that story. Stereotypes exist for a reason. Like it or not, there is a grain of truth in them. That’s probably what makes people uncomfortable and sparks the outcry of protest. I think if you struck a nerve, then you did a good thing. It made people talk and think.

  2. I agree with Melinda. I think you probably struck a nerve with some people. They recognized themselves in the stereotype, or have been the victims of unfortunate stereotyping before, and therefore spoke up. I wouldn’t think on it too much. Stereotypes exist for a reason: many of them are true. In any case (again, as Melinda said), you certainly prompted interesting discussions! And that’s the really important thing to take away from this.

  3. Er, I can think of only one year in school where the popular girl was actually nice. Usually, she was a witch. And I changed schools every year. Just sayin’.

  4. Oh for crying out loud! It doesn’t matter what you write about, somebody is going to complain. It’s ridiculous to complain that you were “lazy” in creating these characters. They weren’t really the point of the story at all. If we write every character as if they were relevant to the story, digging deep into their psyche, our books would be so long no one would want to read them anyway. I don’t see why these people couldn’t understand the reason for the characters to be there. I’m so glad I don’t pick books apart. This is the kind of crap that happens. IMO, Red is one of the best books I’ve read, and it kept me mesmerized during the whole story. I didn’t have TIME to pick it apart…I was enjoying it too much! 🙂

  5. Lauralynn is right. Someone will always have something negative to say. There are mean girls in every school; I remember them quite well.

  6. Wow, that’s really interesting. I do believe I’ve got a few stereotypical characters myself – token “thieves/robbers/highwaymen”. Because my stories feature people from nationalities all around the Mediterranean, though, I’ve always in the back of mind had this thing where I try to sprinkle good/bad across the characters, so that I don’t accidentally end up with all-one-nationality bad guys.

  7. I am surprised by the reaction you’ve received. I never gave that line of thought any attention when I was reading RED. The Barbie Squad was indeed tertiary, and the details didn’t matter to the crux of the story. I would like to know how someone avoids all stereotypes when writing book after book.

    To be honest, I grow very weary of the stereotype of the uptight, prudish Christian in fiction. But hey, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some uptight, prudish Christians, so there is a smidgeon of truth to the stereotype. (And really, I only fuss when it’s more caricature than character and the person is integral to the story.) But I know that my background makes me sensitive to that issue.

    So maybe you indeed struck a nerve. I wouldn’t sweat it, Kait. RED was terrific.

  8. “We don’t have a minute! Cheerleaders are in danger!” ~Xander

    I’ve been really surprised at the backlash on this little itty bitty part of the story. It’s been interesting to see how many people have been in some way miffed by the inclusion of the mean girl stereotype.

    But what about Barbie???
    It has just occurred to me that, as a longtime fan of Barbie, I should go write an angry review somewhere complaining of how you’ve maligned the spirit of the doll-woman who can do anything by associating her name with spiteful, small-minded, girl bullies.

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