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How to avoid using the WRONG cliché

Well, yes sir, here we have a famous optical illusion, we sure do. Some people look at it and see the Maid in profile, some see the sad Crone. Both are present -- it wouldn't be much of an illusion otherwise, now would it?

Obviously enough, when writers create stories, they open them up to reader interpretation, and while this is generally a good thing, sometimes it can lead to disaster.

Recently, I had my first readers fly through draft 2 of my novel, Eat the Drink. The protagonist is a young lady enslaved (literally) to a vicious, nasty detective. He is trying to solve a crime while she just wants to survive her life in the presence of the monster who owns her.

At least, that's what *I* thought was happening in the story.

One of my readers, however, saw something totally different. She saw a male and a female, constantly bickering, hating each other, but forced to work together for survival and for the greater good. Naturally enough, my reader thought this meant romance was on the cards. "Why else", as she put it, "did I make my two leading characters male and female?" In the end, when they don't get together, my reader was very disappointed. Even worse, the more she read of the detective, the more despicable she found him. "He needed to be less ugly, less brutal" -- not because it made him unbelievable as a character, but because "the reader would never believe him attractive otherwise"...

You see where this is going? Or where it went? I disappointed my reader by leading her on. By making setting her up (accidentally!) to think I was writing the Maid, when all along I was writing the Crone. And this, I say again, is a bad thing.

There are three ways I could avoid this problem for draft 3:

1) Go with the romance. Ease up on my detective's nasty side etc.
2) Go with the romance and, in some unambiguous fashion, subvert the cliché -- "What, slave, all along you thought I would marry you? Ha! I prefer puppies..."
3) Make it more obvious that he is not a suitable match for anyone. The easiest way to do this, I think, is to accentuate how much older he is than she is. He could be her grandfather, after all, and this should be enough to make most of the natural romantics veer away from the idea. In other words, make it impossible to look at the picture and see anybody in there other than the Crone.

Sometimes, maybe even usually, ambiguity is a blessing, but it can be a terrible curse too. People may throw your book at the wall because they *think* you're being clichéd, or, as in this case, because you're ruining a cliché you inadvertently led them to expect. It's something to be aware of and I'm really, really grateful to my first reader for sniffing this one out for me.


( 64 comments — Leave a comment )
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Dec. 23rd, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I think perhaps people are conditioned to expect detectives - no matter how curmudgeonly or unpleasant they seem - to be "good guys" deep down. So in a sense you are already perverting that cliche, and then adding to it by, yes, having a male/female lead pairing.

Actually, your description makes it sound like a delightfully twisted version of Laurie King's ever-more-Mary-Sue-ish Holmes/Russell books...
Dec. 23rd, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC)
I haven't heard of those. Mary-Sues are not something I like usually, but your implication is that they started out less so...
(no subject) - tchernabyelo - Dec. 23rd, 2009 06:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 23rd, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
If you make the two main characters male and female, there HAS to be romance? Where is that rule written? I think if you have to do ANY of the above, go with #2.

And you have to decide if he actually needs to be less ugly, less brutal...is that what you are trying to do with the character? Isn't the world ugly and mean sometimes. Would "the Hound" be who he was if he was less "ugly?" Seriously...

I give you one last quote, from Dante Hicks in the movie Clerks: "Empire" had the better ending. I mean, Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader's his father, Han gets frozen and taken away by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean, that's what life is, a series of down endings. All "Jedi" had was a bunch of Muppets.

Rambled a bit, hope it makes sense.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 03:27 pm (UTC)
It does make sense. But you ask where the rule is written -- well, in a hundred thousand novels and movies and plays. And possibly, In our DNA as a species -- same as with all the Major Story Lines.
(no subject) - a_r_williams - Dec. 23rd, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 24th, 2009 10:02 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 23rd, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC)
Yep, there is no explicit rule about male-female romance, but it is implicit. The bookstores and movie theatres are littered with such plots. . .I'm a sucker for them. ;)

I think if your character is supposed to be mean, keep him mean. But make sure the reader can relate to him in some way. I think accentuating the issues that make him less attractive as a partner is a good way to go. But hopefully some kindo of positive relationship turn can take place with them (a smile, even if forced).

I know what you mean about readers seeing stuff you don't intend. One of my betas talked about the commentary my book was making on adoscence, sexuality, and the Christianity. HUH? My comment, "You got all of that from two charaters who have known each other for 10 years, and decide after 10 yrs to date and share their first kiss three days after dating?" My other betas thought she was crazy. I thought she was crazy, but she had a point. Some people are going to see the budding love as commenting on teens and sex. Mind you, my teenagers never have sex in the book. They don't even take their clothes off. But I did review the scenes in question and made adjustments because it was warranted for character development. They still kiss, a hot steamy kiss.

I refuse to let 10,000 billion I don't know into my living to dictate to me what my 16 year old character can and can't do with her 16 year old boyfriend she has known since she was 5. Nope! So I think at the end of the day, make adjustments, but you know your characters best. Some people will disagree with what you do with them. That's why there is fanfiction. :)
Dec. 23rd, 2009 05:09 pm (UTC)
I agree with every word you have said. And I have nothing against the Great Archetypal Stories at all.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC)
I see a large white lion on the right side of the image attempting to swallow the maid's head. Better not send me your novel... I might have a little too much fun with it!
Dec. 23rd, 2009 05:10 pm (UTC)
Ah, for a moment there, I thought I was crazy. But you see it too?
(no subject) - bondo_ba - Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 23rd, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC)
She's literally enslaved to him? I'm having trouble establishing where the ambiguity could exist in that. Apart from a case of Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps?

I'm thinking that if you really feel this is a problem, 2) or 3) is the way to go. Largely because I really like the sound of this as a story concept and so don't want you to do 1). :p
Dec. 23rd, 2009 05:11 pm (UTC)
For the moment I'm doing 3. I wouldn't rule out 1 completely, although it would make for a *very* different concept than the one I am currently trying for.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC)
Often I find when a reader raises a question like this it's a result of an absence I've left in the narrative which impels them to create a narrative I hadn't intended or considered. Perhaps the question that needs more exploration is what is the romantic life of these characters that results in it not being with each other? If she's his slave, why hasn't he slept with her? If she's not attracted to him, what is she attracted to?

Of course your story may well already contain such info, in which case I happily admit myself as doofus giving unneeded/obvious feedback.

P.S. Finally got a copy of The Inferior. Looking forward to reading it sometiem in the next month.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)
Hey, thanks for getting my (earlier) book :-)

I *do* give her a romantic life that is well removed from him, but on the other hand you're right about an absence. I left one on his part with a gap I actually wanted the readers to fill themselves -- just not in that way. I may have to be more specific than I wanted to be... But really well-spotted for someone who hasn't read it!
(no subject) - williamjm - Dec. 23rd, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 23rd, 2009 05:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 23rd, 2009 04:55 pm (UTC)
I - personally - don't see the problem with leaving things as they are. I mean, if you added in a romance I'd just be rolling my eyes and going, "God, not another bloody romance thrown in just for the sake of it..."

There's a subcurrent that says the male and female lead "!have to!" have a romance. Ignore it; it's one of the most annoying and pitiable cliches possible - pitiable because it almost always reduces at least one partner (usually the woman) and often both to the worth of their genitalia. Please, please, give us a split-gender lead pair with no romance, I'm begging you.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)
Please, please, give us a split-gender lead pair with no romance, I'm begging you.

That's pretty much what I expect to be there at the end of all of this, but nor do I want to mislead my readers that it is a romance. For example, you yourself hate this particular story-line. What if you thought that was what you were getting right up until the last few chapters? Would you even finish the book? Many, I suspect, wouldn't.
(no subject) - zoeiona - Dec. 23rd, 2009 05:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 23rd, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 23rd, 2009 06:14 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I think it's wildly refreshing to read of a male and female protagonist in a story in which they don't have a romance by the end. Not every couple thrown together ends up with "Chemistry." So I say good work in avoiding a trite cliché.

Make it more obvious that he is not a suitable match for anyone. The easiest way to do this, I think, is to accentuate how much older he is than she is. He could be her grandfather, after all, and this should be enough to make most of the natural romantics veer away from the idea.

Well, Octavia Butler made it convincing for a teenager to end up with a man old enough to be her grandfather in Parable of the Sower. I wasn't "squicked" once! But if you don't ease up on his meanness (hey, not everyone in the world has a heart of gold somewhere underneath it all), and underscore the fact he's essentially a slaveowner and she's the slave (that should do it right there, I would think), I'd put my bets on Option 3.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:11 pm (UTC)
Yeah, option 3 is where I'm going for draft 3 at least...
Dec. 23rd, 2009 06:39 pm (UTC)
Are you sure you need to change it?

I mean, some (respected otherwise) people figured Sauron was Hitler ,the Ring was the atomic bomb and Frodo and Sam closet gays.

Y'know. Take it all with a pinch of salt. Get second advice, all that stuff.
Criticism might be valid, it might not, either.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:12 pm (UTC)
Oh, I will get other opinions, of course, but I wouldn't have brought it up here if a) I didn't greatly respect her opinion and instincts and b) recognise that she had a point.
(no subject) - niamhotoole - Dec. 23rd, 2009 11:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - niamhotoole - Dec. 23rd, 2009 11:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 24th, 2009 10:03 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 24th, 2009 10:06 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 23rd, 2009 06:40 pm (UTC)
I'm also more optimistic than I thought. Took me a while to see the crone, and not the first time I see the drawing, either.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:13 pm (UTC)
I see the Crone right away -- even worse, she always sees me :-0
Dec. 23rd, 2009 07:04 pm (UTC)
See what your other betas say before you worry overly much. If this particular reader came to the story with preconcieved notions that were not dispelled, be careful you don't mistake her preferences for what you are actually going for.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:14 pm (UTC)
Oh, no, I intend to be careful, but the fact is, the Maid is in the picture and this -- very experienced, clever -- reader won't be the last to see her. So, I have to be careful...
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 24th, 2009 10:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 24th, 2009 10:01 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 23rd, 2009 08:10 pm (UTC)
How do you pick your beta readers by the way?
Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:15 pm (UTC)
Oh, we were in the same writing group for many years and have been critiquing each other's work for years. She is extremely perceptive, but even more importantly, is the fact that our skills tend to complement each other rather well.
(no subject) - niamhotoole - Dec. 23rd, 2009 11:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 24th, 2009 10:08 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - niamhotoole - Dec. 24th, 2009 09:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Dec. 25th, 2009 05:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 23rd, 2009 08:51 pm (UTC)
Don't sell out!

That's all I have to say. :-)
Dec. 23rd, 2009 10:16 pm (UTC)
It's not about selling out! It's about seeing what's in the picture and comparing it to what I had intended to be in the picture, if you get me...
Dec. 23rd, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC)
Although I made the Harry Met Sally reference above, I'm not quite sure a relationship would be the ideal thing.

The main problems being that she's a slave ( literally ) and he's a monster.

The best adivce I can give without reading the story is to consider what the story is about. Is this a story about "relationships" or is it a story about solving the crime?

What genre will this story belong to? Is it a strict mystery or some type of mixture of different elements?

What do readers of this type of genre want? Expect?

Where do the personalities of the characters lead the story?

Will creating a relationship be true to the characters? Or will it be something you have to force on them in order to make it work?
Dec. 24th, 2009 10:17 am (UTC)
All good advice, of course. The story in this case is heavily based around the (non-romantic) relationship of these two characters. Think of it as a Holmes/Watson dynamic where Watson hates Holmes, but can't leave him :)
Dec. 24th, 2009 04:36 am (UTC)
Wow, that must have been a bit of a shock. While a *possible* romance may be implied by the characters genders, unless you've been deliberately leaving such clues in the text, I don't see the problem. Seems more like your reader might be bringing too many assumptions.

If you think it'll be a real problem, I'd go with #2 or 3. Of course, it is your novel and can do whatever you want with it. :)

Btw, I saw the Maid in the picture. Maybe it's my own perceptions or maybe it's just how white and black were used in the image.
Dec. 24th, 2009 10:18 am (UTC)
I generally see the Crone :-)

Currently, I'm trying out option #3 to see where it leads me.
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