A list of clichés in crime writing recently made its way across Facebook. I read it over and sighed. How many of them had I/have I been guilty of? The one that stung the most was the ‘daddy issues’ cliché. I was 20,000 words into a novella called Daddy Problems, anxious to pound out the second half. But, goddammit, that list was correct. I was well aware of the cliché when I outlined the project and started writing it. I have always had fun turning clichés upside down and “deconstructing” them according to my 21st century attitude. I now question, though, whether or not I have just been lazy.
How many movies have announced their villains with dialogue that sounds something like—“Vee half bin vaiting for you Mr. Zo und Zo…”? It’s Hollywood’s throwaway antagonist, the closet Nazi. Indicated by a thick, stereotypical German accent. Hollywood has Krautphobia, and I understand its historical origins. However, how much longer can the general public be expected to give screenwriters a pass on the complete lack of imagination required to make their villains Nazis? I find the use of dime store psychology in fiction as the primary source of motivations for characterization to be no different from Tinsel Town’s cut-out Nazis.
Fathers have been vilified since the Frankfurt School cleverly positioned the father as metaphor for oppression. Artists, particularly male artists, have since become much more sensitive and decided, collectively, to bash their strict dads who had the audacity to provide food and shelter in exchange for the outrageous expectation that their children do something with their lives. Don’t get me wrong—there are bad fathers. But they are the exceptions. And writers have been using them as easy scapegoats for too long.
It is much more challenging to find new motivations for character behavior. A good, (actually) progressive writer has to do what writers used to do on a regular basis—invent. Be creative. Most importantly, be original. This takes more time to achieve, but the rewards, I’m willing to bet, are unimaginable.
I am taking a vow, at this point, to attempt to motivate my characters in ways that do not fall back on the same, tired ideas that have fueled fiction (not just crime fiction, oh by the way,) for far too long.
Oh yeah, I’ve put Daddy Problems away. No need to finish it. The cycle of short stories I’m working on for my MFA thesis deal a little bit with dads and the way they treat their children, but the overriding theme of the entire collection is really about the evolution (or, perhaps devolution) of masculinity in America since World War II. Whining about daddy problems, I suspect, has a great deal to do with that very neutering of the American male.