And while Holli is hosting Terry's Place for me, it's my day at The Blood-Red Pencil, where the theme is "love" and my topic is "Men Aren't Women With Chest Hair."
I have three things on my mind today. The first is that today is Mardi Gras, and once again I am spending it inside of my house, away from the crazy crowds, loud bands, and elaborate floats that most locals have come to cherish. How they can overlook the occasional nudity, fist fights and gunshots I’m not quite sure. Not that I’m the Grinch who Stole Carnival, but as middle age approaches I’m a lot more comfortable watching the revelry on my TV from the comfort of my sofa, with a cup of coffee and my pets– a sweet dog and a deaf cat– nuzzled against me.
But sitting here watching the typical Mardi Gras day on TV brings to mind two other things, cliches and settings, and what can happen when you juxtapose the two.
One thing I learned in writing classes in college is that stereotypes and cliches are bad. It was drilled into nearly every lesson. (Hollywood has obviously not taken Fiction Writing One from Professor Stelly, because they keep insisting on putting really bad Mardi Gras scenes in nearly every movie set in New Orleans.) The thing about stereotypes, though, is that the only reason they are stereotypes in the first place is because most of them are based in truth.
Here’s an easy one from New Orleans, since it’s Mardi Gras and all–the teenage drug dealer. You know him. He has a certain talk, a certain walk. He has gold teeth and little braids. He holds a gun sideways. He wears a plain t-shirt, jeans pulled so low his boxers show, and ultra-expensive tennis shoes. He has a few odd tattoos in strange places, things like the name of his child intertwined with a snake, right next to a tattoo of the name of a friend who was shot and killed. Above that, his mom’s name.
But while he may be a stereotype, he’s also very real, on many street corners in the city, in mostly bad neighborhoods. He’s also very scary. And I was always led to believe I can’t write about him exactly as he is, because he’s a cliche, and cliches are always bad.
Or are they? If he’s a part of the scenery, something the character sees while riding the bus or driving down the street, the stereotype or cliche is probably fine as an element of the setting. My cliche of a young man can help establish the type of neighborhood my characters are in, or even set the mood if he speaks to my character in passing. Is my drug dealer still a stereotype? Probably. Does it matter? Probably not.
Cliches come in different sexes, sizes, and professions. The doughnut eating cop. The hooker with a heart of gold. The Cat Lady. Just because these people really do exist and tend to be thought of as stereotypes doesn’t mean we can’t effectively write about them, cliche and all.
If my character is going to have more of a role than being part of the setting, tone, or mood, I’m going to work really hard making sure he has a distinct personality, some quirks or traits that distinguish him from others just like him, and make sure he’s a fleshed-out, real human being and not just a stereotype.
But if he’s there to serve another purpose, and he serves his purpose well, such as establishing setting, mood, tone, or upping the tension, writing him as a cliche can actually help the story.
Sometimes, knowing when and how to break the rules is just as important as knowing the rules in the first place.
For more information about Holli, visit her website at www.hollicastillo.com, or visit her on Facebook; Gumbo Justice and Jambalaya Justice, by Oak Tree Press, can be purchased on Amazon in paper version or at www.gumbojustice.net
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