Monday, September 13, 2010

On My Soapbox: Character Traits

Those of you who know me really well know that one of my biggest peeves... is when people try pointing out everything wrong in YA. The cliches, the overused, the washed out and dried. And in talking with some bloggerly friends recently, in which character traits were brought up... I decided to bring it here for others to see my view on this.

Are there character traits, both physical and habitual, that are cliche and overused and a turn off? Honestly, I don't think so. Mainly because when you only have a few eye colors to pick from, hair colors, even types of hair and skin tones... it is pretty easy, when you consider the huge number of YA books on the shelves, for there to be overlap throughout a lot. Now granted, I read a majority of contemporary, and maybe things like hair and eye color just isn't mentioned as much, but I honestly cannot sit here and give you a list off the top of my head of what eye colors are used too much, what hair styles come up way too often... The only eye color that stands out is Edward Cullen, both the gold and the green. Why? Because it played into the story in a big way (and because face it, gold eyes are creepy... and since his were the first eyes to be described as emeralds... yeah, I pictured vampire boy with actual emeralds in his eye sockets. That sticks with a girl....) But if you ask most anyone else, I would probably give you a dumb look and wonder why I was supposed to remember that character's eye and hair color. Oh, wait, Evie from Paranormalcy is blonde. But the book cover stays in mind, thus I know.

I will admit, there are a lot of male love interests with green eyes. (The main reason I even remember this? Most books are in the girl's POV so frankly, her eye color doesn't come up often. When she sees the guy though, it does. Which is logical, when she's staring into his eyes....) I couldn't tell you for sure why this is, but I kind of think the primary reason is probably trends. A few years ago, when a lot of the books coming out now were being written, there wasn't an overrun of green eyes. Now that those things which were unique and new at the time are being released, all within a pretty close time... it seems cliche and overused. But that was never the intent. It's timing and coincidence. If all the authors run out now and do, say, brown eyes... well, we're going to be missing the green eyes in a few years, aren't we?

I also think the green eye thing (which I am focusing on, to make my points, and because as I said, it's the main one I can think of) might be because generally, blue is considered the cliche, and brown is often considered boring. Personally, I love brown eyes and with every major boy character I write into my books, even if I tell you his eyes are blue or green... in my head, they will always be brown. Deep, dark brown that I could just fall into and get lost. Trust me, that is damn sexy... and damn beautiful and sweet when needed (Just like their hair will always be brown in my head). I would say that's besides the point, but I also often wonder if this abundance of green eyed boys comes from the fact that there are just a lot of authors who like green eyes in their males. When they imagine the boy, he has green eyes, they go with it. Simple as that.

When you think of the limited number of physical traits that are really available (and sure, you can have more options in paranormal, but even then, it's still pretty limited- face it, there are really only SO many colors you can have before you run out. Basic physics)... I think there isn't much point in trying to see what comes up the most, what is becoming cliche, and what is just annoying. That, to me, would be like sampling the population and getting upset with all the brunettes out there for being born with brown hair.

Even with kinds of hair... while there are a million ways you can style your hair, there isn't a huge range of types of hair. If you've got curly hair, it's going to be frizzy and unruly. It's a cruel fact of the curls. Even those with wavy hair? Take it from someone with thick, wavy hair. It isn't as awesome as it sounds. Frizzy and poofy is not that exciting. It's annoying. Then there's the thin, stringy, lifeless hair. I think that covers it. Thick or thin. Curly, wavy or straight. Oh, wait. I forgot. The thick, healthy, voluminous down to your lower back hair. Yeah. That? It isn't that common. And it doesn't happen on it's own. Work goes into it. Thus, a style.

I know there are also many characters that seem to have the same nervous habits. Twisting their hair. Biting their lip. Running a hand through their hair. But if you observe people, that's where these are coming from. I chew the inside of my lower lip when I'm frustrated or nervous (not my lip itself, the skin right in front of my teeth. Oohhh I'm different! Or not.) Crack my knuckles. Bounce my leg. My best friend rubs her ear. Plays with her hair. Plays with her shirt. My other best friend is incredibly eyebrow expressive. Rubs her arms. I can probably name more than one book where at least one character does at least one of each of these. Does that make them trite and cliche? No. Honestly, I think it makes it real. I would find it distracting for an author to say someone picks their nose or scratches their butt or plays with themself instead of something above. That's trying to be different, and it would fall flat.

So, that's just my view on the physical cliches in YA. There isn't a lot of options... and with as many books as there are out there, lots of overlap is inevitable. Besides, cliches are cliche for a reason. Even great plot devices that are called cliche... that's because they work. Because they are great. Because they add so much. So if reading that a character has dirty blond, unruly curls, waxed eyebrows, lightly tanned skinned and bright blue eyes is cliche and overused, then I honestly don't know what to tell you. Because to me, that gives me a picture and lets me move on to the actual story.

And that... is another round of Kari's soapbox. Which, coincidentally, is still green in color.


  1. Great post! You make some excellent points, especially with the examples you used. Personally, my favorite characters always have brown eyes and hair in my imagination. :-)

  2. Green eyes - emerald green - always reminds me of Harry Potter. He will always be the quintessential green-eyed character in my books.
    Gold is really creepy too, I have to agree.
    But you're right about the rest; there's only so many combinations to be had. But have you ever noticed that redheads are fewer than blonde and brunette?

  3. *round of applause*

    Excellent post and something that needed to be said ... one particularly irritating complaint is the one about how there are too many red-headed characters in books ... jeez, I went to an all-girls High School and there were 4 red-headed girls in my class of 22 ... and I'm not talking reddish-brown, I'm talking orange!! It's not that unusual, just because you don't know a lot of red-heads doesn't mean they aren't out there! :P Also, just because an author gives a character red hair, doesn't mean he or she is saying there are zillions of them in the world ... uh, no ... it's just one character ... and the fact that a lot of authors do so is - like you said - a matter of COINCIDENCE!!! :o

  4. Ah! I love this post! I think physical traits are only cliche' s when paired with a stereotype personality, i.e. the stuck up blonde blue-eyed cheerleader, the dark haired dark eyed mousey bookworm, the uber fierce eccentric red-head with no handle on her temper, etc. Or if the physical description of the romantic lead is exactly like Edward Cullen - sadly, Steph Meyer took that combo away as an option for everyone else. You're totally right - there are only so many combinations of the basic physical traits out there.

    I'd be curious to do this survey in adult literature. Maybe in adult literature there's less emphasis placed on physical descriptions of people, but I doubt it. The observations may be less intense, but when you're 13-18 you're body is changing a lot so you can't help but focus on physical aspects of other people, comparing them to yourself or figuring out what you're attracted to. It just comes with the territory.

  5. Fabulous post, Kari! You are so right, how many options are there for eye color, hair color, ect.? And I like when the character's traits are described. I like to have an image of how they look.

    There is plenty of room in my heart for sexy characters with gold eyes, green eyes, blue eyes, ect.! =)

  6. BRAVO Kari! :) Completely agree with you. If you look at the sheer number of books in YA alone, how can there not be any overlap? It's inevitable! Pardon the pun but honestly, the word cliche is so...well cliche!

    Brown eyes all the way baby! :)

  7. So you'd be a fan of MY deep dark brown eyes? :D

    (Sorry. You know that I like to crack corny jokes!) Anyways, this is a great post. I saw some people discussing this on twitter but I didn't think much of it because asking for writers to be more "creative" with characters' physical traits is just silly! We're people, not clay. You can't mold people into strange shapes or give them features that make them vastly different from everyone else (unless we're talking aliens or whatever. It's acceptable in sci-fi, lol). Besides... the way characters look isn't nearly as important as the story they're giving us! And you're right about trends--blue eyes used to be considered beautiful but now they've become boring? Say what?! If a boy with blue eyes is staring intentely into MY eyes...well...

    ...Er, I digress. Point is, I agree with you completely. (and Megan's comment about doing a survey about this on adult literature would be VERY interesting. You could do that... *hint, hint*)

  8. That was a great read and you're right that we do the things humans are supposed to naturally do.

    We are also human and don't come really in a lot of variety when it comes to hair color or eye color. So, continue on with the "cliches," and don't care what anyone else says.

    Write on!