Comedies are full of cliches. Some employ and play with the concepts successfully and others not so much. There are, however, a few unfunny character cliches that just shouldn’t even be considered options anymore. Not only do they hurt the quality of your storytelling, but they can also cause harm to real people.
Characters are one of the two major elements that have the biggest impact on a reader’s experience of a book. Even though reality isn’t necessarily the goal of comedy writing, originality is. So as you evaluate your characters, making sure you’ve avoided relying on stereotypes is paramount.
The Fat Friend
There have been many posts written about sidekick characters and their various problems. But this one, in particular, has stuck around for way too long. I’m not saying not to write funny characters who are overweight, however, their weight should not be what makes them funny. Body shaming is not okay.
For example, in the new episodes of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, there were two squirm-worthy, unnecessary scenes that called on this cliche. In “Summer,” we’re introduced (I use this word lightly, as we never actually see his face) to a character Lorelai and Rory refer to a “Back Fat Pat.” Yeah. He stops to chat with Rory about how nice it is to see her back at home, and she repays him by “accidentally” calling him fat instead of Pat, which is his name. I am a hardcore GG fan, y’all, but even from a fave this shit is not okay and it’s also not funny.
The “Friend Zone”
I have railed against this concept a few times, but it bears repeating: if your character is only friends with someone because they want to sleep with them, they are a shitty friend. I won’t root for someone who feels like they are owed a relationship or sex because they’re so “nice.”
Note: This is not the same thing as a friendship that turns into something more. If your characters start as friends and realize they have deeper feelings, that’s great. But it has to be an honest friendship in which both characters value each other as people, not as prospects.
Gay panic is so ’90s. Seriously, rewatch one episode of FRIENDS and count the number of times the dudes rush to dismiss even the suggestion they might be gay. This used to get big laughs, but these days we know that it only serves to reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with a person who is gay.
These are some of the oldest cliches in the book. Dumb, lazy husbands and nagging wives make for flat, uninteresting characters and often underdeveloped relationships. They also perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes within partnerships.
On a related note: marriage is not the end of your life! Speaking as someone who recently got married and the world didn’t end as I knew it, marriage doesn’t fundamentally change much about the people within the relationship. If your characters have authentic reasons for being wary of marriage, that’s one thing. But I’m talking about those, typically male, characters who are terrified of “being tied down” simply because some men’s magazine said they should be. Boo!
At Least You’re Pretty
Aren’t we all tired of the dumb blonde yet? The idea that a person can either be attractive or smart is ancient, so why play into it with your writing? On the male side, the dumb jock character is just as tired, so let’s just let them rest shall we?
Sassy Black Friend
Sometimes this comes from a place of wanting to diversify your cast of characters, however, the intent isn’t nearly as important as impact. I’ve written before about the importance of authentically portraying diverse characters, so if you’ve got an SBF in your book you’re being lazy and racist.
SBFs started appearing in pop culture around the time of Jim Crow as a way to illustrate that Black people were not actually being oppressed. The “Mammy” character would playfully scold and generally talk back to their employers, the joke being how unexpected that behavior was, and the fact that she got away with it was proof that she was “part of the family.” Since then, the SBF has evolved into an undeveloped sidekick for white characters, the literary equivalent of, “But my best friend is Black!”
It can be hard to avoid cliches these days. But these ones, in particular, will mark you as a lazy and unoriginal writer, which is the kiss of death if you’re trying to write humor. So just don’t do it, promise?
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