Now that I’ve written four novels (yikes! how’d that happen?), I’m starting to realize a problem that probably every fiction writer has. Repetition.
Character types. Themes. Plot points. Phrases.
It’s easy to accidentally repeat myself. Self-plagiarism creeps in and catches me unaware.
For example, I’m currently working on two different novels. (Numbers 3 & 4, if you’re counting.) In both novels, at certain points, the protagonist passes out; neither Kellyn nor Cady eat properly, and they skip too many meals and end up on the floor in a very public place. (Starbucks for one, a high school classroom for the other.) It’s embarrassing. Though it leads to different outcomes for the two, I got a distinct sense of déjà vu while I re-read the scene from the 3rd novel after I’d written the scene in the 4th novel.
I’m not certain what writer wrote this (it might’ve been Stephen King), but someone once said that if you’ve ever read it anywhere else, it’s cliché. It doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare or Woolf or your own work. If it’s been written before, it is cliché.
I’m not certain I’d go that far. That writer might’ve been exaggerating a wee bit to make a valid point. It’s a caution to be mindful. Don’t grab the first image that comes into your mind. Don’t resort to the same weary phrases. Don’t mindlessly repeat the same story over and over and over.
Another writer, Gore Vidal, said that every writer has a set number of character types.
Every writer has a given theater in his head, a repertory company. Shakespeare has fifty characters, I have ten, Tennessee has five, Hemingway has one, Beckett is busy trying to have none. You are stuck with your repertory company and you can only put on plays with them. (quoted by David Corbett on Writer Unboxed)
I’ve started seeing the limitations of my “repertory company,” too.
- Overly-thin female with eating problems, smart but dealing with mental health issues.
- Bossy but good-hearted best friend who helps the fashion-impaired female build her wardrobe.
- The good guy love interest who respects the woman he’s wooing, usually a former Eagle Scout.
- The older male authority figure who takes a fatherly interest in those under him.
- The older female who is given to speaking her mind, sometimes with crude language, but genuinely cares for those around her.
Sometimes my “types” are split among different characters. The male authority might be both a sympathetic teacher and the antagonist, for example. But there’s definitely repetition, even if the relationships between the characters are different.
Freud might conjecture that the bossy but well-dressed BFF is a manifestation of my younger self’s desire for an older sister/friend to guide me through the mysteries of dressing my body type. The former Eagles Scout love interest? Let’s just say that my husband was an Eagle Scout, as was the college crush who inspired the protagonist’s husband in my 1st novel.
And do you really have to ask where the “overly-thin female with mental health issues” comes from?
Now that I’m aware that this is an issue, I am trying to work on it. I’m changing the fainting scene from book 3. It’s less important in this novel than it is in the next one, and it undercuts what happens later in the book. Which is where I’m off to now . . . back to work.
If you’re a fan of a particular author, have you noticed this issue in their work?
If you’re a writer, how do you combat this problem within your own work?