The challenge in genre fiction is always to balance the tried and true (including "stock figures") with the new, interesting, or exciting. Too much tried and true = boring and formulaic; too much new, interesting, or exciting = nerve-wracking to publishers, who can't easily classify it and/or don't dare push the envelope too much for fear of unsold books sitting in the warehouse and getting remaindered or destroyed.
While I recognize that certain types of characters are a staple of our genre (sassy heroine, sexy-and-stoic noncommunicative cop), it seems that a lot of the manuscripts I've been reading lately -- as well as published works -- are using the same characters over and over again, and I'm getting a bit tired of them. So, herewith, the top 10 characters I'd like to see retired.
1. The pill-popping, alcoholic, cold society woman. Yes, it's an easy stereotype because there are a lot of them in reality. (I see them not infrequently in life.) But aren't there any society matrons who don't drink a fifth of gin each day, who don't treat their daughters cruelly, and don't spread vicious gossip?
2. The overly garrulous neighbor. This character is the lazy novelist's dream come true. He or she, by virtue of being a true busybody, gives the investigator a true information dump, making the sleuth's job much, much easier. I like my P.I.'s to have to work a little harder for their information.
3. The bitchy teenage girl. Somehow our society seems to have fallen in love with the positively evil alpha high school girl who ruins the reputations of rivals and leads smear campaigns against those who look at her the wrong way. While my own daughter certainly had her moments of ill temper as a teenager, neither she nor her friends ever behaved remotely like a character in Mean Girls. I really think the proliferation of this type of character is doing young women a disservice.
4. The sleazy male boss. Men have made some progress since 1952. Not all of us look on our female employees as idiotic incompetents who would still make good bedmates. Certainly there are ways of doing a Machiavellian, selfish boss other than as a sexist slimeball?
5. The precocious and wise-beyond-his-or-her years niece or nephew. A niece or nephew lets our ferociously independent hero(ine) have some unqualified love in his/her life. I don't mind a younger person who teaches the narrator a thing or two about how to lighten up, but sapient life lessons springing from the lips of unformed 17-year-olds make my eyes roll back in my head.
6. The cub reporter and her hard-as-nails-but-secretly-sensitive editor. Yes, the newsroom is a frenetic place, and yes, editors tend to be hard on younger staff. But can't a newspaper editor occasionally NOT be blustery and foul-mouthed? And can't a young reporter be anything beyond willful and stubborn? (With all the problems today's newspapers are facing, it will be interesting to see the next generation of reporters.)
7. The snobbish matriarch fiercely protecting family secrets. Poor Grandma or Great Great Aunt Harriet, that ice princess confined to a wheelchair in her attic bedroom, secretly pulling the strings and manipulating everyone in the house to continue the family fortune or prevent a family scandal. How does she manage to be such a master puppeteer and a helpless invalid at the same time? The answer, in a phrase: force of will.
8. The cocky dude whom the heroine falls for, despite his arrogance. Yes, of course it happens all the time...women being attracted to real jerks who happen to be good looking. Just once I'd like to see a heroine really, truly turned off by this behavior, to truly NOT be secretly attracted to the guy, or to NOT have the outer dislike covering a smoldering hidden passion.
9. The wisecracking detective. No one, and I do mean NO ONE, can come up with an endless series of hilarious yet perceptive one-liners on his or her feet. I always think a good sense of humor is a true sign of intelligence, but some detectives seem to have Jay Leno's staff writing their lines. This can really irritate me when I am not in the mood.
10. The town crazy. Would that all the mentally ill could be as perceptive in their insanity as the town crazy, who behaves in bizarre ways but always manages to be in the right place at the right time, to learn the citizens' secrets and be a witness to murders, infidelities, and all manner of other unsavory behavior! But what can be the secret to unlocking the code behind the crazy person's rantings and ravings? Could it be that she lost her beloved pet kitten at age 6 and was never the same afterwards? Did his wife leave him after his tour in Vietnam? Or is there some other key that will unlock his or her secrets, and get him/her to reveal all that s/he has witnessed, and thereby provide the final clue to solve the crime?