Sunday, April 01, 2007

Going Against Cliché

I have a writing rule I borrowed from one of the books I’ve read on screenwriting (sorry; I don’t remember which one). The basic concept is that whatever idea first pops into a writer’s head—whether it’s for a character, a setting, or the direction a scene will take—is usually the cliché. A wise writer will ignore that easy answer and keep looking. I’ve found it to be a useful rule to follow. Recently, I had a good example of just how useful it can be.

In THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, one of the protagonists has a next-door neighbor. When it came time to create him, my first thought was to make him gay. Bzzzz. Cliché, right? So I kept searching. The result was a character named Ambrose King.

Now, the funny thing is that both my agent and editor raved about Ambrose King. They both said, What a great character! Can’t we see more of him? My first reaction was, huh? This guy is little more than a walk on, a hole filler: I needed someone to take care of the heroine’s cat. He appears in person in exactly one scene. There is another brief scene where the heroine calls him and asks him to take care of the cat, and a two-line paragraph where the bad guys mention his name and what he does for a living (he plays the sax at a tourist dive down in the French Quarter).

I was puzzled. What was it about this character that touched such a chord with both my agent and editor? So I asked my agent exactly what she liked about Ambrose King. Her answer? “I think every woman would love to have a male next door neighbor like that. The kind of guy friend she can ask to take care of her cat.”

Her answer made me think about the genesis of Ambrose King, and how he started life as a stereotypic heroine’s gay friend. Instead, he turned into a scraggly musician with long hair and a beard. I had a lot of friends like Ambrose when I was young--irreverent rebels with a built-in antagonism to the forces of the law. The role Ambrose plays is still that of a nonsexual male friend. The only difference is, he isn't gay. That’s what makes him unique, and that’s what makes him memorable.


Steve Malley said...

Great advice. The same old stock characters running around creating the same old commotion is fine for comedia del arte, not literature.

Charles Gramlich said...

who'd have thought that him being gay or not would have made such a difference. Very interesting.

Kate S said...

Interesting. I'd never heard this before and will try to remember it.

Farrah Rochon said...

Wow. I'm definitely storing this bit of advice.

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