Am I repeating myself?

9f4a3a16481f4b32baa216b70914661fNow 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.

That’s boring.

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.

Two questions:

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?

 

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12 thoughts on “Am I repeating myself?

  1. Really good subject. Keith Richards said, I presume when he was in a sober moment(?!), that there was only one song and every song was a theme on that song. Recently, it has been said that many of the fairy tales that were supposed to have come from the 16th and 17th centuries are now said to have come from the Prehistoric age. In fact, probably a lot of the stories of good and evil, the rough and tough but nice person, and all those broad stereotypes that litter films, plays, literature, children’s stories, popular culture and fairy tales and so on, have some distant theme. Most of us like a decent person we can trust, most of us dislike nasty snobbish people, and within that is probably human emotion and the view of ourselves as nice, basically sound people. Of course, I could be wrong!

    The characters in my stories so far tend to be either the middle class rebel who wants to break away from conformity and the straitjacket of convention, perhaps with working class origins, or the rough and ready working class person who wants to break away from the confines of working class life and its limitations. I realised that both these ‘characters’ are aspects of me and my somewhere in between the classes kind of person I am. I live in an essentially working class city but where lots of us move on and move up. Curiously, my side characters are often a mixture of all kinds, usually eccentric and probably the type of people I have met throughout my life and who amuse me. Perhaps these archetypes of character are ultimately mere extensions of our personality, of who we would like to be, who we don’t like, and people we secretly admire. It’s a subject worth studying. There’s a novel in there, somewhere!

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    1. I see so many aspects of myself in my characters, including (or especially!) the antagonists. I think my rather limited lifestyle has been detrimental to my characterizations; I know middle-to-upper class white church people in the Bible Belt, and private Christian school environments. One of the hardest things for me to write in one of my WIPs is the protagonist’s struggle to make a living on hourly paying jobs. It’s difficult for me to imagine because I’ve been blessed/spoiled/whatever financially because my husband’s job is sooo stable. I had to dig deep to find some common ground between me and Kellyn, my character, but that was good for me and gave me more sympathy for those in need.

      If you see a novel in there, you should write it! 🙂

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      1. You are blessed! In many ways, and you have an open mind and that I believe is essential to write good literature. Class is a very touchy subject in the UK, much akin to racism and race in the US. People feel distinctly uncomfortable talking about it. The equal rights movement in England hardly if ever mentions class discrimination against poor white people. And Upper class is something else in the UK, It has aristocratic connotations and has a lot to do with those who live in stately homes, usually have inherited wealth and can mention loads of famous people going way back. I suspect in America it is sort of different. More to do with vast wealth.

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      2. I’ve started reading Ian Rankin, a crime writer from the U.K., as well as several other UK-based writers, and I’ve noticed that class is a huge thing over there. Rankin’s troubled protagonist often makes snide remarks about people who’ve been to university (unlike him) and how they think they’re better/smarter/higher class than he is. And the concept of aristocracy is as you describe. It has really opened my eyes to how different our countries are. In America, the highest classes have vast wealth. I think there are places where family connections/name carries a lot of weight, but for the most part, that’s not the case; Americans like to think that anyone can be financially successful in our country. That’s not really true; the cycle of poverty is complicated and people are often stuck in poverty for life. But we like our fiction: it makes the wealthy feel better about ourselves and to look upon the poor as lazy, good-for-nothings, who, if they’d just “work harder” would get off welfare, etc.

        Oh, by the way, I’m sorry your friends had such a negative experience in Alabama. I live in Huntsville–the best educated, wealthiest area of the state–and it’s all technology, etc., but the tolerance level toward outsiders isn’t all that it could be (even though many of the people here aren’t native Huntsvillians). In certain parts of the state, anyone who isn’t from the south is considered a “Yankee” who ought to get out and stay out. I don’t know where your friends were or what race they are (that would make a difference, unfortunately). But there are definitely areas where I wouldn’t want to go!

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  2. I saw it in the Dick Francis novels. His hero always gets beat up and then really gets beat up later. But I loved the stories regardless of certain plot devices being used repeatedly. In fact, the familiarity might have been one of the draws.

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    1. That’s an interesting observation, Tim. I wonder if that is part of the draw of certain genres that have lots of conventional elements. Like, say, a romance novel must have a happy ending . . . I mean, the reader has the comforting knowledge that no matter how bad things appear to be for the leading couple, they WILL end up happy. We don’t have the reassurance in real life, so perhaps we seek it in our fiction.

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  3. I was thinking this very thing today: that I have written 3 stories in which someone is paid an unexpected visit late at night. I didn’t realize that was the case until recently, and I’m not sure why it is! There are a lot of differences between the stories in other ways, but they share that plot event. I remember hearing a saying that there are only 2 plots: “Man takes a journey” and “Stranger comes to town.” My stories definitely seem to be mostly of the latter type. I like to write stories about someone who’s living their life in some sense of unawareness and then something/someone comes along and shakes things up — how do they react? Do they change? Or do they become even more set in their ways? But as for the visit late at night part — I’m really not sure why that bit is being repeated. Like you, I think I probably need to make some changes to the story I’m working on now — maybe go in a totally different direction. Maybe I’m just taking the easy way in terms of plot and not challenging myself to do something different and hopefully better.

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    1. Oh, how interesting that your characters like to visit each other late at night!! 🙂 I suspect that every writer has some set ideas of what makes good plot points, usually derived from our reading or personal life, and that’s what we fall back on. For me, fainting in public seems dramatic without being overly dramatic (as someone waving a gun in a classroom would be) but that’s because I’m remembering my own classroom days and combining it with my fear of public humiliation. (Both characters are private people and deeply fearful people, much like I am.) I’ve had the experience of having the same type of (violent) scene within the same book, which seemed too convenient and highly unlikely. I had to really challenge myself to come up with a variation that would be horrible but also not quite as cut-and-dried morally. Even though I knew that the book will probably never be published, it was useful to challenge myself in that way; I’m much happier with how that scene turned out.

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  4. Catherine Cookson made a very good living writing what was, in essence, the Cinderella story over and over. Can’t remember which philosopher it was but it has been said that *all* stories are variants of a handful of archetypal stories. I’ve been listening to the Iliad recently and have been struck by the similarities of storytelling despite thousands of years of growth and change. Remarkable. Really, it’s not a bad thing, as long as your readers like it. Having said that, I used to read Ian Rankin and I don’t now because I found he was rehashing the same storylines. But maybe I have changed, rather than it being quite so direct. I used to love crime novels but nowadays my tastes are more eclectic. Ooh, do try Minette Walters, btw. Ruth Rendell too. Actually I probably stopped reading quite so much crime because I realised that it was triggering.

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    1. Probably a lot does depend on reader taste. I tend to avoid writers who churn out a book a year, because they tend to repeat themselves (similar characters, plotlines, etc.) a lot. I have to be choosy on crime novels; if there’s a lot of violence or creepiness, I can become afraid of the dark. (I read a lot at night before bedtime.) Thanks for the author suggestions; I’ve heard of Rendell, but I haven’t heard of Walters. More books on my to-read list!

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  5. To be honest, I’ve never noticed this before! I have certainly seen it in my own writing, but usually with stories that are only ideas, and then scenes and impressions from that book are repeated in later books that actually make it all the way to the finished stage.

    It’s okay to have a type to an extent. People like predictability in little amounts. This is why series (usually mystery) where the characters never change from book to book do so well. If it’s a type you do well, don’t stress too much. CPs, agents, and editors will be better at telling you if you’re too repetitive or not.

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