Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 23: Avoiding the Cliché with Tracy Hickman

We took Writing Excuses on the road last month for “Life, The Universe, and Everything,” the symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy at Brigham Young University. The Guests of Honor were Tracy and Laura Hickman, and poor Tracy agreed to join us for a podcast or two, recorded in front of a live audience.

After the initial introductions we dig into clichés, starting with characters – specifically, how to avoid these kinds of problems in our characters. What’s the difference between a cliché and an archetype? Tracy saves us time and again with great answers that beg a dozen or more podcasts. It’s a good thing Tracy and Laura have their own podcast.

This episode has “clipping” problems. We need to buy some good audio gear for Jordan so he can fix problems like this. Or maybe some audio gear that will let him prevent problems like this.  But don’t discuss that in the comments. Discuss clichés, please.

Writing Prompt: Howard gets attacked by monkeys.


27 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 23: Avoiding the Cliché with Tracy Hickman”

  1. Monkeys? What sort of monkeys? I need more detail orangutans, chimps, baboons what? I think that this cast goes quite well with the balance between the new and the familiar mentioned in one of the first season’s episodes. I think it’s also important to remember that cliches are not limited to just major characters and villians though. If you find your mc in front of the “fat inkeeper” or trying to get around an incompetent security guard, then you have already entered the realm of the overdone.

  2. This is a great site. I’m glad that I stumbled upon it. I’ve already generated lots of great ideas after listening to the past few podcasts. Thanks for putting all this information together.

  3. Very helpful podcast. I think it’s definitely a good topic for new writers, and it’s probably something that everyone has to fight with.

    Thanks for the tips!

  4. Jake, only baboons are monkeys from your list.

    This kind of reminds me of recent news where an alpha-male chimp in some Thailand zoo collected rocks early in the morning then threw them at people around noon. Every day. Plotting in the morning and executing his plans at noon. This was an ape though..

  5. Strictly speaking, the only monkeys you mentioned are baboons. Chimps and orangutans are apes (specifically great apes, family hominidae, which also includes gorillas and humans). In general monkeys have tails, apes don’t.

    As for cliche/stereotypical minor characters, you raise a good point but there may also be reasons for the stereotype. Not that that’s a reason to use them, just the opposite. Does your mc trust a skinny innkeeper? Why is he skinny, is there something wrong with the food? And, having been a security guard myself, I can tell you that training isn’t often a high priority most places.

    That said, the discovery of the Watergate break in is an interesting example. The first time the security guard noticed tape on the locks of some of the doors, he just removed the tape and didn’t do anything further. +1 for noticing the tape, -1 for not following up. On his next round an hour later, he noticed that they’d been re-taped. That’s when he called the cops. If the burglars had been a little faster or had aborted the op when they noticed the missing tape, they’d have never been caught — unless the guard had called the cops the first time he noticed the tape. (Mind, the burglars themselves were pretty incompetent.)

  6. You need to go with spider monkeys, as they can hold a knife in with their tails.

    Cliches can be hard to avoid sometimes. I have a female character with blond hair and I’ve been told that’s a cliche but it’s not something I want to change because her father (who hasn’t been introduced to my writing group yet) is also blond.

  7. Personally, I find that a necessary step for myself to avoid cliches is to examine my character’s actions through any vital passage and beg the question : Which does this most serve the needs of – The plot, the character or the reader? In my experience all three can be good answers, but an excellent, original story should not clearly draw from any of the three exclusively. At times, a concession to the plot is vital… at times, the actions of a character become clear exposition and serve to add to their literary vitality (spiffy term huh?) and at times, a passage attempts to do what any good story does – better involve the reader in immersing themselves in the mindset and mood of a story.

    Cliche in my mind relies on chasing a goal, any goal, so fervently that the simple act of telling a good story becomes second to that goal. Whether it be to create a beloved hero(ine) or to reach some climactic scene we’ve fallen in love before its even written… we cut corners to get there. Good writers see this trend emerging and say “Maybe this time, I’ll put that goal on hold and challenge myself to make the story better without it.”

    I think the line between an archetype and a cliche is pretty clear. A well-used archetype whispers itself in the moments where a character shines, while a cliche drones itself monotonously in the moments where a character serves its purpose.

    Oh, and Howard, I just want you to know that the monkeys in my writing exercise have heard the Call of Cthulu, and they have a forgotten god they’d like to introduce you to. He likes plucky sidekicks who dream of surviving to the end.

  8. I acknowledge my error and insert the back-peddling phrase “I was thinking about primates in general” when I confused the the status of the others.

  9. … Given that blonde hair is something that a considerable portion of the population, both male and female, tend to be born with; I am led to wonder how that becomes a cliche.

    Did they just mean the hair, or was there some other aspect of the appearance that somehow led to the cliche feeling? Like, the blonde-haired blue-eyed damsel in distress sort of thing; or…does she just…have…yellow hair?

  10. R3u
    I think they said it because she is the main character and has blond hair? That’s all the details I gave when I was told it was a cliche.
    My group could have just been wrong though.

  11. I think it’s because there’s sort of this perception of a blonde-haired, blue eyed woman as some sort of “ideal” woman (which may not be true for a lot of people, fair enough, but I think the idea is out there) and so it crops up often.

    I wonder if what our podcasters are trying to get at with that one is a little more general: People projecting their ideas of physical attractiveness onto their characters, and so we end up with a lot of characters – particularly a lot of main characters – who are handsome, beautiful, drop dead gorgeous, etcetera. Not only do we end up with a lot of main characters from a lot of books who are very good looking, a lot of them are probably good looking in similar ways, because society has definite ideas about what’s attractive and what’s not.

  12. I have a female character with blond hair and I’ve been told that’s a cliche

    What the heck?

    There are three possibilities I see:

    1. The readers haven’t learned yet how to respond as readers, i.e. they’re reading, not for effect, which is all that matters, but for infractions to their list of writerly rules. Which means their comments are useless. Because writing well isn’t about conforming to some list of rules or guidelines.

    2. They know how to read as readers, but simply misdiagnosed the real problem. In which case something might be not playing right in the story.

    3. They really do find blonds to be boring for no other reason than that they’re blond. In this case, you rejoice because you’ve found nothing useful for this current story but you HAVE found a weird and potentially interesting eccentric character trait for a future story–the guy who dismisses people because they’re blond, or the guy who thinks everything is a cliche: “I can’t take my car to his shop?” “Why?” “He’s a freaking blond. It’s a cliche, the blond mechanic.” “Blond mechanics are cliche?” “Duh!”

    Here are my two cents. Readers read, in part, because they love the feeling of curiosity. Curiosity is generated by presenting something unexpected. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be unexpected. For example, your trees don’t have to break out into the singing of Christmas carols. They can just sway in the breeze. It’s okay. Some characters can just mill about. But there MUST be parts of the story that are surprising and unexpected.

    A few things I’ve noticed that do this for characters are:

    * Particularities: A Barbie blond with an old Ford pickup that’s rusted out, but she keeps because it was her husband’s who has gone away to make money on a fishing boat in Alaska. She drives it with mudboots on.

    * Eccentricities: A Barbie blond who makes decorations from crab exoskeletons.

    * Flaws and issues: A Barbie blond with bunions or is just dirt poor and lives in a trailer.

    * Against type traits: she’s a Barbie who comes to work with cuts on her face from her boxing with her friend who was raped, or works in a slaughter house with knives.

    * Outside type traings: she’s a Barbie blond who builds bat huts. It’s not really anti-Barbie, it’s just random.

    * Humor: a Barbie with an attitude.

    * Some extraordinary strength or skill: A Barbie who can wrap men around her finger and does, not always for good purposes. A western cow girl Barbie who is very good with a gun.

  13. I only recently discovered this podcast series, and I have to say a huge THANK YOU to Brandon, Howard, and Dan for taking the time to present this material. I have listened to several of the podcasts, and every one has been excellent.

    Sometimes it is great to play with the cliche consciously. Take the skinny innkeeper mentioned by AJWM earlier, Robert Jordan used that in the first WOT novel, where all of the innkeepers were fat except for one. And the one skinny one turned out to be a scoundrel. So he ended up reinforcing the stereotype of the fat innkeeper, but in a very effective way.

  14. I believe the proper name for a collection of monkeys is a troop. I do think the image of Howard beset by a troop of blond monkeys is appealing. Although if they are 13-year-old blondes, then it should be in the privacy of his own house. What’s that line… oh, yes, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors :-)

  15. Given the life span differences between monkeys and humans, wouldn’t a thirteen-year-old monkey be of legal age?

  16. Thank you Tracy for mentioning about the chainmail bikinis… it’s just completely ridiculous whenever I see that in writing or in fantasy art… unless it’s a chainmail bikini for disco wear which might actually make a little bit of sense… but no, I don’t want to see chainmail bikinis ever again, it’s a very poorly thought out idea as any kind of armour – it’s like, yeah, this sword just penetrated into my abdomen, but at least my boobs are okay!

  17. I used this writing prompt as the first one from this website, it was too fun. Thanks for all the podcasts! Its great to learn about writing from such fun people! I also love that you guys set up a forum thread for us to post our prompt writings! i had to post my howard story, hope its enjoyable.

  18. Okay so I just recently found your podcasts and I’m working my way slowly to present day and hopefully gleaning enough from these to help me on the NaNoWriMo this year…writing my first novel.

    First I usually never comment on these things. Second thank you guys so much for this, it has really helped me get a grip on my new hobby/career?

    Finally…the reason I’m posing on this one is the writing prompt gave me such a vivid image in my head. I literally saw this play in my head:

    Howard is bent over his drafting table drawing the monkeys. Suddenly they jump out of the comic strip, starting as a thought bubble and then growing to full size and then attack him!

    Just had to share. Thanks again, and thanks for that visual

  19. I love this site, and these podcasts. I first discovered them maybe three weeks ago and have been working my way back through them, all the way back here to page 17 now. I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed every podcast to one extent or another.

    Saying that, though, I have to say that I clicked this one off about 10 seconds into it, when I heard the anti-stimulus remark that came out of nowhere. I realize these podcasts are coming from BYU, or have something to do with BYU, and therefore there must be Republican politics boiling just beneath the surface. But this was the first time they bubbled to the top, and for no apparent reason other than the guest in this episode was just a typical political fanatic. You can mention “fire hydrant” to a guy like that and he’ll use it as an excuse to rant.

    I love these podcasts, and I’m not blaming Brandon, Dan or Howard. Those guys are great and insightful and fun to listen to. But here’s hoping that future guests (or rather, since I’m working backward through these podcasts, past guests) keep their politics in their pants.

    Looking forward to hearing more podcasts…just not this one.

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