On Writing

Writing Pitfall #11: Stereotypes and Clichés

It seems as though every writing website out there has something to say about stereotypes and clichés, but what’s the big deal? When stereotypes and clichés are used, authors simply have to define a character as a dumb jock or a nerdy bookworm, and they can get away without having to establish characterization because the stereotype has done all the work for them. Stereotypes and clichés are used all the time in literature. Think of how long books would be if we didn’t use stereotypes to a certain extent? The nosy neighbor, dumb jock, and mousy librarian are all stereotypes that need no introduction or a lot of description because the reader already knows what to expect. So if authors use a cliché to describe women’s figures as having all the right curves in all the right places, it frees them up from having to actually describe their characters. I mean, really… It’s not like doing this is going to hurt anyone, right?


When authors use these tropes in their writing, it labels them as inexperienced and it hurts their image. Will using stereotypes and clichés ruin a book? No, but these elements will make a book sound worn-out and unoriginal, and the author could very likely be described as unimaginative.

Let’s look at stereotypes, also known as stock characters. If authors use these, they will almost guarantee that their readers will apply a preconceived notion of that character’s personality. They might also dismiss their role as not important or will read with prejudice against that character. Why? Let’s look at the definition of stereotype in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Something conforming to a fixed or general pattern; especially a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.

By using stereotypes, characters will be viewed a one-dimensional, simple, flat, and lacking any real development. Reviewers will have no problem letting authors know when a book disappoints because of the lack of character development. Below is a list of common stereotypes seen in books. Wikipedia has a more complete List of Stock Characters that can be used as a quick reference. Please note that this is not a complete list, but a quick place to start.

Common Stereotypes

  • orphans
  • queen bee
  • dumb blonde
  • dumb or super macho jock
  • out of touch parents
  • nerdy brunettes
  • redheads with a temper
  • Mary Sue / Marty Stu
  • bad boy male protagonist
  • dishonest politician
  • girl/boy next door
  • evil or ugly step parents
  • mousy librarian
  • fat comic
  • damsel in distress
  • gay best friend (always a guy)

The temptation to use clichés is great. We use them in everyday speech all the time. These phrases convey an idea in a few short words that would take longer to explain or sound boring. For example, an arm and a leg is a colorful way to saying something costs more than it’s worth. The formal explanation is a tad dry, while the use of the cliché sounds more exciting.  So why not when we write? Look at the definition of a cliché in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

A trite phrase or expression; also the idea expressed by it; a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation; something (as a menu item) that has become overly familiar or commonplace.

The use of clichés will contribute to the unoriginal feel of a story because clichés are phrases that someone else coined and everyone else used over and over.

Common Clichés

  • instant connection or pull
  • tall, dark, and handsome
  • legs that go all the way up
  • love triangles in young adult fiction
  • all the right curves in all the right places
  • undesirable characters are ugly, overweight, balding, or middle-aged
  • emotional broken characters who miraculously heal each other
  • characters who were abused as children engage in BDSM to cope
  • ordinary people who solve huge problems that experts can’t
  • every woman wants to be with him and every man wants to be him
  • only beautiful thin characters are successful in the boardroom and bedroom
  • characters who are naturally talented at things they’ve never done before
  • male and female protagonists who are at each other’s throats but are hot for each other
  • what I call the Scooby-Doo moment when the villain confesses everything to “The Gang”
  • hot male protagonists who are jerks and happen to be gazillionaires who fall in love with naïve virgins who are plain
  • The spy movie moment when the villain reveals his entire plan to the protagonist who then conveniently escapes and thwarts the evil plot

Comedies and parodies are the two types of genres most authors can use stereotypes and clichés without the fear of reprisal or the retaliation of an angry mob. These are used as tools to increase the humor of the story.

The Princess and the Dragon, Paolo Uccello, c. 1470, a classic image of a damsel in distress.

The Princess and the Dragon, Paolo Uccello, c. 1470, a classic image of a damsel in distress.

Are there other ways to use these tropes in your writing? Sure, but it takes practice to put a twist on a stereotype so it feels fresh again. For example, re-imagined fairy tales are very popular right now and have done a nice job taking a stories full of stale stereotypes that have become a clichés of the happily ever after. May authors have turned these into something original and fresh. However the market is now flooded with these types of stories so that even the reboot of an old story has lost some of its luster because the re-imagined fairy tale isn’t that unique anymore.

As an editor I often wonder why authors would rather use someone else’s words or ideas in their stories instead of their own. The recommendation is for authors to write a story that is all theirs. If authors continue to use the same old stereotypes and clichés, their work will not stand out in the marketplace and will feel tired.

Write something original people will talk about.

Next Article in the Writing Pitfalls Series: Writing Pitfall #12: How to Create Backstory

Previous Article in the Writing Pitfalls Series: Writing Pitfall #10: Rushed or Slow Pacing


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