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Friday, August 6, 2010

Oompa Loompas Who Hate Chocolate- Breaking Stereotypes While Avoiding Cliches

Because of Roald Dahl’s famous children’s novel, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, everyone knows that Oompa Loompas love chocolate—they thrive on it and can’t get enough crammed in their tiny little mouths, right? Well, what if there was a lone Loompa who didn’t crave chocolate day and night…what if, in fact, he despised the stuff? The simple act of not following a trend makes that particular Oompa Loompa more interesting than the others, doesn’t it?

As writers, we know that characters who go against the grain are usually more interesting than the norm. At the same time, we are notoriously guilty of playing into certain characteristics, linguistic devices, and key elements that make our completely unique manuscripts, well...typical. It’s the WIS movement: Writer-Instigated Stereotypes.

Icy/Piercing/Striking/Stormy blue and Emerald/Brilliant/Hypnotic/Glimmering green eyes have been done and overdone (which is a shame, because what if your character does have those things when you imagine him/her? It seems unfair to change your character’s traits simply because other people have the same idea). How about giving your male protagonist an eye patch instead? In my humble opinion, there is a serious shortage of eye patches in young characters today. Throw in a peg-leg and a parrot, and you can make it a pirate book…but wait…are pirates being overdone? Crap, I can’t keep track anymore (although I read a recent blog post about the SCBWI conference in LA that said to query mermaid books IMMEDIATELY).

Here are some Young Adult/Middle Grade stereotypes that I hunted down on Joelle Anthony’s blog (see a link to the post at the top right of this blog). Note that this list was created about three years ago...have things changed? I think that some of these could be replaced by newfound WIS, but some still run rampant in our YA/MG manuscripts. It might be worth looking through your manuscript to you’ve got any of these (not saying you’ve got to change them, it’s just food for thought):

A countdown of 25 things that show up repeatedly in young adult fiction:

#25 – Vegetarian teens with unsympathetic meat-eating parents
#24 – Shy or withdrawn characters that take refuge in the school’s art room/ compassionate art teachers
#23 – A token black friend among a group of white friends – usually it’s a girl, and she’s always gorgeous
#22 – A tiny scar through the eyebrow, sometimes accompanied by an embarrassing story
# 21 – Using the word ‘rents for parents, but not using any other slang
# 20 – A beautiful best friend who gets all the guys but doesn’t want them
#19 – The wicked stepmother who turns out to be simply misunderstood and it’s all cleared up in the climax
#18 – Authors showing their age by naming characters names they grew up with (i.e. Debbie, Lisa, Kimberly, Alice, Linda, etc.)
#17 – Parents who are professional writers or book illustrators
#16 – Using coffee, cappuccino, and café latte to describe black people’s skin
#15 – Main characters named Hannah and making a note of it being a palindrome
#14 – Younger siblings who are geniuses, adored by everyone, and usually run away during the book’s climax, causing dramatic tension
#13 – The mean-spirited cheerleader (and her gang) as the story’s antagonist
#12 – A dead mother
#11 – Heroines who can’t carry a tune, even if it were in a bucket
#10 – Guys with extraordinarily long eyelashes
#9 – The popular boy dating the dorky heroine to make his former girlfriend jealous, and then breaking the heroine’s heart
#8 – The diary, either as the entire format, or the occasional entry
#7 – Fingernail biting
#6 – Characters who chew on their lip or tongue in times of stress – usually until they taste blood
#5 – Raising one eyebrow
#4 – Main characters who want to be writers
#3 – Calling parents by their first names
#2 – Best friends with red hair
#1 – Lists

And finally, just for fun, here are some common stereotypes about writers (any to add?):

1) They drink too much coffee
2) They drink too much alcohol
3) They care too much about the opinion of others
4) They think their writing is brilliant, and ignore the opinion of others
5) They’re all trying to write the great American novel
6) They really need to get out more (that one might be true for me)