There are certain writing rules I see brought up…constantly. They were pounded into my head in college. They’re reiterated all over the Net in numerous blog posts by numerous writers, readers, and industry professionals. But I have to say..some of these ‘rules’ killed my creativity as a new writer. In fact, back when I was in college I gave up writing all together because these so-called rules of ‘good writing’ made me question if I even LIKED writing. I believe my best writing comes from my head AND my heart. And sometimes…my heart just doesn’t want to follow the rules.
Now I’m not saying these rules have no validity or they are wrong. I think all of these rules are valid, actually. And they mean well, kind of like the grandmother who says ‘don’t go outside after dark or the Boogie Man will get ya!’ It’s great advice when we’re five, but if we followed Grandma’s advice for the rest of our lives…well, you’d be missing out on a lot.
So who says rules can’t be challenged or perhaps looked at from a different perspective? I know part of my joy in writing comes from pushing boundaries. Being true to my characters, regardless of the ‘rules’.
Writing Rule #1: Cliches are the devil. Avoid any and all cliches!
If I had a penny for every time someone pointed out a ‘cliche’ in a book, I’d be… Oh, there I go with the cliches again. But—hey—it’s a phrase I use a lot. Because I’m, well, ME and I like it. I could make up my own phrase….but it would probably offend you (because I’m a rockstar at being crass) or make you go—huh? Just trust me on that.
Here’s the thing about the No Cliches rule….It has become a cliche (maybe it’s always been). Of all the advice I’ve been given, the ‘no cliches’ deal has been the most heavy-handed. The thing I see writers stress over more than anything else. But they aren’t really stressing over things that MATTER—like plot, character development, etc.
Instead they’re stressing over…
What do I name my characters? This name is far too common, and naming them something unusual is such a cliche.
My answer: Every name has probably been done before—this is NOT something to stress over. What name fits your character? What would they WANT to be named? Regardless of what you pick, someone will hate it or take issue with it. Accept that and move on.
What hair color should my MC’s best friend have? I can’t give her red hair! I read a blog that said it’s a cliche to have a redheaded best friend.
My answer: Well, I feel sorry for all you redheads out there who have a best friend. Because..guess what? You’re a damn cliche. Here’s the thing, dear writer. Do you ENJOY stressing/obsessing over hair color? Are you having fun? If the answer is no, then stop. Back away. A character’s hair color does not determine the quality of your book. How well you develop that character, on the other hand, is what MATTERS. Think of ways to make that best friend her own unique person. If you’ve done that and people still can’t overlook the best friend’s hair color (and trust me—there will always be ONE), that’s their issue. Let THEM stress over it
Oh, this line is so cliche. It’s ruining my book. How do I fix it?? Help!
My answer: Is the line coming from your character’s POV? Is your character a writer who knows NEVER EVER to use cliches? Unless every character is well versed in the ‘rules’ of writing, they’re going to use a cliche from time to time. Now I’m not suggesting you use that as an excuse to have a cliche phrase on every page. I’m just saying…once in awhile, it’s okay. Especially if it’s in a line of dialog or it says something about who the character is or how they think.
I really want to write a riches-to-rags story, but I can’t. It’s such a cliche
My answer: Haven’t you heard? Every story has been done before—that’s what ‘they’ say, anyway. And don’t ask me who ‘they’ is, because I don’t know. Does anyone know? Look, if you want to write a story about a girl who loses everything, if that’s what calls to you and what you’re passionate about—DO IT. Focus on what will make this riches-to-rags story YOURS. Use your voice. Your characters. Your special flav-ah. The thing about originality is…it can’t be forced. It has to be natural. And it’s usually that thought that comes to you at the most inconvenient of times.
Writing Rule #2: Oh, your character is a stereotype. Naughty, naughty!
I’m not saying this is bad advice. Characters NEED to be well developed. They shouldn’t always be who we expect them to be. But (you knew that was coming, right?)…what constitutes a stereotype or a ‘stock character’ is SO subjective. And doing everything you can to avoid ‘the stereotype’ isn’t necessarily the best solution.
Let’s take the mean, blond cheerleader. You know the one who picks on our significantly less popular MC for no good reason. She’s almost always rich. Has a perfect boyfriend the MC lusts after.
Yeah..that’s pretty tired. BUT you can still have a mean, blond cheerleader in your story, if that’s what does it for you. Just turn that stock description on its ass and make her a real person. Give her compelling and realistic reasons to hate the MC. Give her insecurities, even if SHE’S not even aware of them. You don’t even have to tell the reader these things..just knowing them yourself and showing them through the narrative should be enough. Don’t give the cheerleader green hair, a tail, and a stutter to ‘avoid’ making her a stereotype. Just make her a realistic and believable human being.
If you think about it, just about every character can be reduced to a stock character description. A supportive best friend. A bad boy love interest. A jealous ex-girlfriend. Take me, for example. I’m a real person (I think) But if you reduce me to a basic description, you might say something like… angsty artistic chick. It’s true. I can be angsty. I’m artistic. And I’m definitely a chick. I’m also extremely linear, not terribly emotional, and…I’ve been known to be hyper-rational at times. Not really qualities you ‘expect’ in an artist, right? So do the same for your characters—give them qualities that defy expectations rather than making them as ‘weird’ or as ‘quirky’ as possible.
That said, some people will reduce your characters to stereotypes…because they can. Or because it makes them happy. Or for whatever reason, your characters didn’t ring true to them. Or..you know..maybe they just hate you. It doesn’t really matter.
The point IS….did you take the time to develop your characters? Does the protagonist have flaws and insecurities? Do they have inconsistencies (this is actually important—human beings are inconsistent creatures)? Does the ‘villain’ have positive qualities and organic reasons to be in conflict with the MC? Then IMHO you’ve done your job. Pat yourself on the back.
Writing Rule#3: Protagonists should be sympathetic
It’s true—a sympathetic main character is going to win a lot more hearts. I mean, why would we want to spend 300+ pages with someone we hate? We have to be able to root for or relate to these people on SOME level.
On the other hand, I think—if taken too literally–this rule can be rather limiting. I think it encourages writers to make their protagonists too nice or too down on their luck or…just downright boring. Why does sympathetic have to mean ‘nice’, ‘moral’, ‘brave,’ etc?
Okay, so maybe I’m a wee bit biased when it comes to this rule. I’m a big fan of dark, conflicted main characters. I’m intrigued by characters who don’t always do the right thing. My favorite TV shows at the moment are Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Revenge. See a pattern here? I think these types of protagonists are far more difficult to write than your typical ‘nice guy’, but I also have a LOT more fun writing them….and reading and watching them, obviously.
Take my character Jasmine in Amplified, for example. She is a very FLAWED protagonist. I mean, the girl is book smart. But she knows nothing about the real world. Why would she? She was never taught ‘life’ skills. Her dad has always been distant. She has no siblings. She’s never gotten much affection or support. This is a girl who has a LOT of shit to figure out, to put it mildly.
Now I could’ve tried to make her more ‘sympathetic’. Have her NOT lie her way into the band. Or NOT make so many mistakes. But that wouldn’t have been true to her character. And at the end of the day, I go with my gut. What I feel is right. Most importantly—I follow the character’s lead. I don’t try and force them into a box because they might be more digestible to readers that way.
Does that have consequences? Most definitely. A lot of people relate to and like Jasmine, but she also has a lot of haters. And that’s okay with me. It might not be okay for YOU. Writing a highly flawed MC is NOT an easy thing to do. A lot of people are simply not going to ‘get’ your character. In fact, a lot of people will want to cause your character bodily harm
But…I’ve also seen people react negatively to ‘nice’ protagonists. Because they’re too nice or too perfect or too watered down…or whatever. At the end of the day, you have to decide what sympathetic is to YOU. Whose story YOU want to tell. Lovers are gonna love and haters are gonna hate. That’s just the way it goes.
Writing Rule#4: Plots should not be predictable
Okay. I agree with this ‘rule’ on the surface. For example, the ‘who done it’ should NOT be obvious from the first chapter. Readers should not be unraveling the mystery before the protagonist does.
But what about a romance or coming of age story? Take it from me—people get PISSED when the lovebirds don’t end up together in the end. I know I don’t read or watch a romcom for a twisty/turny plot full of surprises. I pretty much expect them to end up together in the end. The fun part is ‘how’. My enjoyment of it is dependent on the characters. Who are these people? What makes them addicting? Do they do things we don’t expect along the way?
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great when you can take a typical love story and make it unpredictable. But if the lovebirds end up together HEA in the end? It’s predictable on SOME level. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. It depends on what you want in a book. Some people must have a HEA to enjoy a book. Others really love a dark, gut punch of an ending.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of straight-up HEA. I like a a good mix. The protagonist gets some of what she wants, but she has to make some compromises. I like endings that offer hope, even if the rest of the book is really dark.
The bottom line is…depending on the genre/type of book, some people LIKE predictable. Sometimes a book is more about character growth than what actually happens. And…I think that’s okay.
Now it’s your turn. Share your thoughts. Debate. Discuss. Just be civil