A few years ago, I was having a conversation with my “aunt” (my mother’s best friend) about her grandson’s performance in a football game. After describing the coach’s reluctance to put in an unproven freshman, she said this:
“Of course once he got on that field, he just shined like a penny shoved up a goat’s ass.”
I’ll just wait while you take a second to ponder that…
Now that you’ve got it rolling around in your head. What do you know about my aunt? Can you guess where she’s lived her entire life? What dinner would be like at her house?
I’ll give you a hint. There’s sweat tea in the fridge, some form of beef on the table, and you better take that hat off before we say grace or you’ll be thanking Jesus for the food in person.
*I went a little cliché-crazy while writing this post. You have been warned.*
Make the cliché match the character
The first time I heard this advice, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was struck by how simple but profound it was. The best way to avoid lazy writing and deepen your characterization is to make the character’s phrasing fit specifically them. Whatever they say or think needs to be tailored to that particular character. Just like the people you know in real life.
How do you do that?
Life experience, age, and location all play into daily language.
My sixteen year-old would never come home and say, “Oh, mother, I have such salacious news to share with you.”
She’s sixteen and we live in Texas. She comes through the door, yelling. “Mama! I got some hot tea for you!”
Tea=gossip (at least around here). “Hot tea” is really good gossip.
The trick is you have to really know your characters. What is their background? What have they experienced? What reaction would they have in a particular situation?
Think about someone you know or have met that is similar to your character. Does your writing ring true with the words he/she would use?
It’s not just what they say
Dialogue is only one side of the coin when creating a character. Hopefully, the readers are also privy to your character’s thoughts. Especially in deep POV, it is important to keep the character’s language and phrasing consistent.
A current-day, street-wise criminal is not going to be thinking, “ That really grinds my gears. I’m gonna punch him into next week. That’ll fix him!”
It can really stick in a reader’s craw* when a character’s dialogue or thoughts become inauthentic.
*For the record, I have no idea what a “craw” is.
An example: When the aforementioned sixteen year-old was three, she got frustrated with her younger sibling at the dinner table, threw down her fork, jumped up in her chair and shouted, “You wanna piece of me?”
Side note: This was when we discovered we needed to monitor the TV viewing at the grandparents’ house a little closer.
It was funny, because it didn’t fit. Good for a story to tell at family reunions. Bad for character development.
Avoid Lazy Language
His words played in her mind like a broken record.
Is your character old enough to have heard a broken record and know what that means?
“Hold your horses, you don’t want to burn that bridge just yet.”
Would this fit a high-powered NYC executive addressing the company board about the firing of an employee?
The big problem with a cliché is that it robs the reader of experiencing the story on a deeper level.
A few more (other than what I’ve already used in this post) that you should avoid like the plague (<—- See what I did there?)
Going a mile a minute
Took off like a shot
Trust (him/her) about as far as I can throw (him/her)
Turn on a dime
Like crazy (run like crazy, love someone like crazy)
Last person she/he wanted to see. Last thing he/she wanted to hear
Open a can of worms
Let the cat out of the bag
Draw the line
Sometimes clichés aren’t so bad
When I edit for clients, I always mark clichés. I don’t expect them to change every single one. They are part of our language and show up in every day life, especially in dialogue. Sometimes it is completely appropriate for a character to use one. But I always want the client to be aware of them and ask the following questions:
Does this phrase fit my character?
Is there a more descriptive way to say this that would provide the reader with a more specific picture?
Can I do better?
So let’s have some fun. Add to my list clichés that you’ve seen overused or tell me a phrase that is specific to your location or upbringing. You can comment below or pop over to my Facebook page.