MEET THE READER: Ten Characters I Can Do Without

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script Magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

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Some time back, I wrote a column called “Fourteen Scripts I Never Need to Read Again” – a list of story concepts that had been done so many times that for me they had become burned-out clichés with nothing left to offer. I’ve been reading a lot of scripts lately and have noticed a preponderance of certain characters that I have come to feel the same way about. So here is a list of screen staples that I would be very happy to never cross paths with again:

Heroic Hit Men

charactersHit men have been the protagonists in so many films over the past decade that one script I read recently described a character as dressing “in typical hit man costume.” That’s right, hired killers are now so ubiquitous in our pop culture that there’s a standard outfit for them, as if they were Batman or Superman (the script didn’t specify what the outfit was – I guess because we’re already supposed to know – but I assume it’s the standard black suit with sunglasses). Apart from extreme overuse and the ridiculous, super-heroic characterizations ascribed to them in current films and screenplays (paid assassins on screen tend to be cool, sleek, Bondian characters: smart; sophisticated and cultured; highly-paid; highly-trained, with the combined skill set of a Navy SEAL and a ninja; and living by a strict, Samurai-like code of honor, whereas real-life mechanics are usually low-life mobsters or seedy, fringe-dwelling sociopaths that would kill their own mothers for a few thousand bucks except that they usually bungle the job), my main problem with hit men (or women) protagonists is that I don’t care a whit about them. I’m not one that believes that a protagonist always has to be “likeable,” but I do need to have some sort of essentially sympathy for him (or her), his predicament, and/or his goals in order to invest myself in his adventures for two-plus hours and I find it impossible to feel any sort of sympathy for someone that has chosen to kill people for money.

Many writers try to get around this problem by making their protagonists’ targets even worse than they are (“I only kill child molesters and litterbugs”) or by giving their killer elite crises of conscience that are supposed to make us realize that they are really decent people underneath (“Wow, seeing that little girl cry after I blew away her parents makes me realize how despicable my profession is. As soon as I finish this one last job, I’m going to give it all up and move to the south of France to grow grapes”). The problem is that these things are all artificial dodges (I mean, I imagine if a hit man actually had a conscience to prick, he probably wouldn’t have become a hit man in the first place) and when you strip them away, you’re still left with having to root for a character that has made a choice at some point in his life to whack people for scratch. This I cannot do, so while I may enjoy the thrill-ride aspects of a hit man movie, I can never get invested in them, and since an endless parade of movies that I can’t get invested in doesn’t much interest me, I’m ready to put a contract out on this tired, tired character.

The Elite Government Operative

The heroic hit man’s semi-legal cousin, these sleek, cool spies, agents, soldiers, and special force members – all of whom seem to work for secret government agencies that no one knows exists that are so secret that even all the other secret government agencies that no one knows exists don’t know they exist – are all highly-intelligent and highly-trained (in everything – the art of war, martial arts, weaponry, computers, stunt driving, piloting aircraft and marine vehicles, and selecting the right wine with dinner). They live well (surrounded by the latest in hi-tech everything) but alone (since they could die at any moment, they make it a point to never get emotionally involved with anyone, which doesn’t stop them from having lots and lots of sex) and there’s nothing they can’t do, from smuggling secret documents across heavily guarded borders to building explosives out of chewing gum wrappers and crazy straws to preparing an exquisite gourmet dinner. There’s no place in the world they haven’t been and can’t make themselves at home and many of them have a touch of the mystic about them (having taken time out from killing people and blowing things up to study the Eastern philosophies). Their handlers have a hard time controlling them, they tend to go rogue on a regular basis, and spend most of their time saving the world from domination by all sorts of madmen and psychopaths. The problem that I have with these characters is that even though they are all obviously fantasy figures operating in fantasy worlds, they are usually no fun at all. For some reason, the people that write most of the scripts featuring these characters do so with an absolutely straight face – presenting their heroes in a deadly serious manner with no sense of humor and no acknowledgement that they and their worlds are absolutely absurd. I suspect that they may do this to separate their protagonists and their adventures from the lighter and more fantastic approach that has characterized the obvious granddaddy of all of these heroes, James Bond (although even Bond’s creators have been draining him of much of his fun in his more recent outings), but it’s a real mistake. I’m tired of these characters because having to take something seriously that is inherently ridiculous is wearing and the constant coldness and unending grimness of these characters is ultimately pretty boring. A little humor and humanity would go a long way in allowing us to invest ourselves in these automatons and their fairy-tale escapades, but without them, I’m ready to permanently revoke their licenses to kill.

Jaded 21-Year Olds

I was twenty-one once. I thought I had seen it all and done it all. Nothing impressed me and I was bored by everything. I thought all adults were corrupt, clueless phonies and that only the young knew what was real and honest and true. I thought I had figured out all of the answers to life’s riddles and that everyone else in the world was too stupid to figure them out. I was hip and wry and cynical and ironic and a complete and total obnoxious bore. And so are all these characters.

The Chosen One

The concept of a single person designated by prophecy since before conception and imbued with the knowledge and/or power to destroy all bad in the universe and elevate all good is the oldest and most tired cliché in fantasy fiction and has given rise to a long string of equally tiresome young, inexperienced (and often quite whiney) youth that are completely ill-equipped to answer whatever hero’s call that has been shouted out to them by the universe, but by ultimately believing in themselves and whatever kooky pseudo-mystical philosophy that they have been asked to accept, are able to become the triumphant heroes they never thought they could be. The sheer predictability of this arc is wearying enough, but it also seems to have convinced writers that all that is required to create one of these characters is to toss in a single negative character trait – lack of confidence, lack of courage, lack of vision – that can be corrected by “believing” and their job is done. As a result, most of these would-be Luke Skywalkers are shallow, one-dimensional, and wholly uninteresting. The force is definitely not with them.

The Wise Ethnic Shaman

Don’t the oppressed minorities of the world have better things to do than be responsible for the moral and philosophical development of a bunch of clueless white people?

People with Jobs That Don’t Exist

A lot of very good drama can be created by giving a character a significant professional dilemma. Should a lawyer defend someone they know is guilty? Should a doctor employ a risky procedure on a dying patient if it might save the patient’s life? However, recent films like Hitch and Failure to Launch feature characters that work in jobs that don’t exist and never will exist in the real world (a “date doctor” that tutors nerds in how to be hipper and more romantic in order to date hot chicks; a woman that makes a living by dating men in order to get them to move out of their parents’ homes) and then put them in situations in which they are confronted with fake problems arising from their fake jobs (should the date doctor accept clients that are only out to score; should the launch woman come clean when she falls in love with her mark?). Perhaps inspired by the success of these sorts of the film, the character with the fake job has become something of a spec script staple. For me, the problem with these characters is that there is absolutely no reality for the audience to grab on to. There can be enormous fun in putting a real character in an unreal situation or an unreal character in a real situation, but putting an unreal character in an unreal situation reminds me of that famous Gertrude Stein quote: “There’s no there there.” I can’t care, so I don’t care.

Hip Old People

For me, this one is also a matter of reality – I think the best comedy plays off something that is recognizable and real. Old people are funny in all sorts of ways, but acting like present-day teenagers isn’t one of them – I mean, really, how many rapping 75-year-olds or skateboarding 90-year-olds or centenarians that swear a lot and call people “dawg” are there out there, anyway? At best, it’s a one-joke idea and certainly not something that can or should be extended throughout a feature length script. Which doesn’t stop people from trying. A lot.

White Kids That Act Like Minorities

If hip old people are funny once, these ethnic wannabes are funny never. Ever. At best they’re simply stupid and at worst horribly offensive, and yet that doesn’t stop many spec script writers out there from continuing to include such characters in their screenplays at much higher rates than you might ever expect.

The Romantic Young Woman That Becomes Involved With A Long String of Mr. Wrongs Before Finally Realizing that Her Male Best Friend Is the Mr. Right She’s Been Looking For All Along

My problem with this character is that I know I am supposed to root for her, but the fact that the obvious has been staring her in the face for years and she has never been able to see it makes me think she is an idiot… and it’s hard to root for an idiot. And this leads me to the next movie character that I’m totally done with:

That Male Best Friend That’s Been Waiting For Years For The Romantic Young Woman to Realize That He Is The Mr. Right She Has Been Looking For All Along

Dude, are you really going to wait around for the better part of a decade while the girl of your dreams jumps into bed with jerk after jerk while she never gives you a second look and then let her cry to you every time one of these toxic romances goes south? And after she’s stepped on your heart a gazillion times, are you really going to finally get together with her no questions asked? Man up already, you big wuss.

*Editor’s Note: A few weeks later, Ray Morton wrote a follow-up piece – Meet the Reader: 10 Characters I Can Do Without… Revisited.

Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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44 thoughts on “MEET THE READER: Ten Characters I Can Do Without

  1. LFabry

    Don’t forget the kids who have the wisdom of a 60 year old. If the 60 year old was wise. Oh those chubby cheeked cherubs who can lay down keen observations of complex issues only to stun the adults that should be making them. All kids I come in contact with have fart jokes. I may or may not have told a few.

  2. Molly

    I’d like to add one more…the scrawny female action heroine / heroic hit woman who looks like she’s never eaten more than a salad in her life and yet can fire an automatic machine gun without ANY RECOIL WHATSOEVER, and acts, essentially, like a man with breasts. Talk about annoyingly dialogue-challenged!

  3. Oscar

    @Alison: Forrest Gump is That Male Best Friend That’s Been Waiting For Years For The Woman to Realize That He Is The Mr. Right She Has Been Looking For All Along. But the love interest is a nice twist on an old cliche – she’s a trainwreck slut and our hero is much better off once she’s dead.

  4. Alison

    Hollywood throws these cliches at us like a Saturday Night Live skit that has gone on for two long; two hours.

    I agree that these cliche characters are tired and worn out. Unfortunately the people in charge are the ones who long for these cliche characters because they have proven to be financial successes. People want what they are familiar with.

    Instead of complaining about these cliches, pose new characters that are brilliant enough to create a new “breed” of characters. Look at Forrest Gump. He was an unlikely hero. He doesn’t fit into any of these cliches and look at how well that movie did! There is proof that if you build it, they will come. You just better be good at building something!

  5. TRW

    Here’s a cliche I’d like to see less of : the pontificating non-writer who purports to tell actual writers how not to write and what not to write.

    So let’s see. You’re tired of seeing white kids acting like “minorities”. Really? Which sad collection of clueless stereotypes do you use to define the difference between “acting white” and “acting like a minority”?

    While you think about this, try to remember—it’s 2011 not 1956 in Biloxi, Miss. Also, revisit “As Good As It Gets” with special emphasis on the Jack Nicholson character and the Cuba Gooding character at breakfast. Nicholson has a funny line in that scene which you may find familiar. Jim Brooks and Mark Andrus obviously meant Nicholson’s comment to be funny. You on the other hand…

    By the way is it ok for white kids on screen to speak Spanish, or is that acting too much like a “minority”? What about movie characters who are part black and part white? How would you have them act? Please give us the benefit of your great wisdom.

    Which brings me to the issue of “ethnic shamans”. “Ethnic” as you use the word means not white. So you divide the world into two groups—whites and everybody else. In your lexicon “ethnic” and “minority” are synonyms for “everybody else”. Jackie Chan might be intrigued to hear that he is part of an Asian “minority”.

    As we all know, Hollywood filmmakers have a long history of positive portrayals of ethnic characters. Right. But now they’ve apparently gone overboard. Over and over again they try to make us believe that characters who are not white have something wise to say to characters who are actually white. What drivel.

    Some might call your use of the term “oppressed minorities of the world” snarky or sarcastic, but I call it brilliant. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, your use of the term tells us exactly where you’re coming from.

  6. Jack

    Great stuff but here is the problem. A friend of mine, a professional touring stand up comedian and radio DJ, said that every radio station is looking for the next Howard stern… but none of the will HIRE the next Howard stern. SO with Hollywood, they say, “We want something different, but we want what we know works.” ARRRGGGHHH!

  7. Sally Josie

    Don’t forget all of the cliches inherit in most Television shows nowdays. Shows like Doctor Who where the current writer seems bent on stealing storylines straight from some old Disney movies like Finding Nemo or Pirates of the Caribbean. Not to mention the weird pairing of a young man with an ugly obnoxious woman. And don’t get me started on all of the “I’m not what I seem” type of shows, like Psyche or Burn Notice or White Collar. Please. And if I see one more teen reality show that looks like an advertisement for a Rehab center, I will scream. No more cliches in either TV or the Movies.

  8. bozo_de_niro at

    Whew, you really had me worried there with your Top-10 list of tired, worn-out, story-hero concepts. For a minute there I thought I was going to see “MILF Pizza Delivery Boy”.

  9. Alan Rudo

    Good article, probably see these scripts full of cliches in dialogue too. I think a writer should be original, take the cliche, turn it on its head: the tortured hitman that vomits after each hit, is broke, drives old junker; the lady looking for Mr. Right and is a serial killer.

    My peeve is when something works once, Hollywood force feeds it until you puke. I expect vampires to turn up in elementary school anytime or maybe rug rats with fangs.

  10. Marvin Willson

    Interesting article… If you don’t want to see these story lines and characters, what DO you want to see? The ten listed, are basically the backbone of the movie industry, so show both sides of the argument and list ten that your average person would pay to go and see. I wager that would be a hard list to compile and the total box office grosses would barely tally up to, a chosen one “Matrix” type story.

    Cinemagoers are looking for FANTASY. An escape from their everyday lives. Not many people want to take themselves or their families and pay to watch a reflection of their own lives, hence the ten listed examples are, and will most likely always be the top grossing screen staples. The movie business is exactly that; a business and business have to make money.

  11. Pingback: Cliché Characters That Have Run Their Course | Film Couch

  12. Ryan

    I agree fully with Chris McQuade. Great comments!
    Everyone tires of cliches. That is until it’s Friday night and whatever slick/funny/special effect spectacle of a marketing campaign has left the most memorable impression on the public’s brain, hooks them into the theaters!
    I’d still be extremly happy if one of my scripts found their way to the silver screen…Shaman in OR out.

  13. aeriol

    Danilo…..produce it yourself and let them eat their heart out. There are students who are looking to make stuff happen. Movies are easy to watch over the internet. We should start a division of ‘netflix’ with the movies you always wanted to see and could never get from the cliche prone mass media moguls.

  14. Lee Van Gils

    I love most of the suggestions here although the ‘one where the jobs don’t exist’ is something I don’t think deserved a mention. Maybe this is because (as I’m sure a heap of aspiring screenwriters do) I spend a good deal of my time dreaming about things that aren’t real, and trying to find a way to make them seem real/believable in a way that is entertaining.

  15. Franky Lamouche

    Good article. My feedback.

    Heroic Hit Man

    If your definition of hit man extended to the military then your story line would end, after a term of collateral damage, with a hanging suicide in a garage behind the house.

    The Elite Government Operative

    The Iron Man series, would be an exception, since Robert Downey (Junior) is simply not a serious person, like his father wasn’t before him.

    Jaded 21-Year Olds

    But isn’t Michael Cera cute.

    The Chosen One

    That’s not fantasy fiction, that’s man’s actual religion(s). So you don’t want your savior to be an action figures, how about a politician. No, bad idea? I have it: let’s save ourselves.

    The Wise Ethnic Shaman

    Only if the whites are themselves ethnic, live in LA, and produce movies.

    People with Jobs That Don’t Exit

    Is having a fake job the same as working for a fake industry, like the movie industry?

    Hip Old People

    Old people could be our saviors (see The Chosen One)?

    White Kids that Act as Minorities

    Not to worry, all youth will soon be mulatto, then they can pick whatever tribe they like.

    The Romantic Young Woman …

    Maybe she’s a nympho.

    The Male Best Friend

    Ever heard of love, my brother. It can be totally one-sided and last forever.

  16. Danilo Cortez

    I have written a screenplay (Action/Drama) that I have been sending out to various screenplay contests and screenplay analysts or screenplay doctors. And in all their responses (and this is the crazy part) they suggest that I do the very same thing that you consider, cleche, with main characters. I take great efforts to think out of the box and write as such. Oh, and one more thing they always finish with, if I don’t go with what they suggest, my screenplay will never see the light of day. What to do?

  17. Lynelle White

    A great list, but you left out my personal bete noire. The woman – it’s always a woman – who married to or otherwise involved with the guy whose job it is to save the world or save the tortured schoolchild or catch the worst villian in the history of humanity BUT she’s terribly terribly upset with him cause he’s going to miss their kid’s school play and/or her anniversary!

    Kill her. Just kill her.

  18. Jay

    I have one called “Cops That Kill”. Similar to the heroic hitman except being a cop is a real job. Only in real life cops can’t kill people everyday then go back to work like nothing happened. Not to mention the Cpt. who yells at the cop who kills but never fires them. Movies like Die Hard, Bad Boys, and too many to list, had cops who were basically serial killers.

  19. Mark Robyn

    How about the movies that have had three sequels that were good but is now on the fourteenth? I mean how many times can Jason kill teenagers in new and creative ways? And who cares?

  20. Frank Burke

    Could we add the TWISTED SERIAL KILLER to the list? If there were as many serial killers out there as there are in movies and TV we’d be depopulated in short order.
    Thanks for a fun article!!!

  21. Desiree Middleton

    I’ve been trying to break into screenwriting and now I see what I’ve been doing wrong.
    All I have to do is make my next script about a bunch of white kids who act like minorities, and visit hip old people, who send them to the wise ethnic shaman, that is a jaded 21 year old elite government operative, who in turn saves them all because he’s really a heroic hitman.

  22. Jussta

    Thank you for this list of Ten Characters I Can Do Without – I find myself in awe at many of the movies made with the same tired plots – often non-plots, unbelievable characters without any character arc, let alone redeeming values. The important thing is for movie viewers to not pay to see garbage and remakes of remakes with tired, overworked themes.

  23. carlito rodriguez

    Hilarious! Props, kudos and commendations all around, Ray! (Tell ’em why you’re REALLY mad, homie!)


    Maybe the complaint isn’t so much against the characters themselves, but what makes them cliche in the first place. Some of the character categories contain the cliche’d aspect (i.e. Heroic Hit Men, Romantic Girl Who…, Male Best Friend Who…) while others can be seen as neutral (i.e. Ethnic Shaman, White Kids…)

    Me, I’m all about variations on a theme. Oft-times, mass media (including its thousands of writers, producers, directors and even casting agents) use shorthand to present a world and its characters. I like to give folks what they’re used to seeing only to throw in a lil’ smoke and mirror trickery until it becomes too late for them to realize they’ve invested their time and attention in something entirely different.

    As per Chris’ post, some stories DO call for some of the chestnuts listed above. The onus is on us, the creators, to use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that we give audiences Hip Wise Old Ethnic Shamans With Government Jobs That Don’t Exist like they’ve never seen before.

  24. denise

    Chris McQuade – I love your comment, “not to discourage someone from creating a character if they have a passion for invigorating new life into one of these archetypes.” How brilliant is that? I love it.

  25. Breck Murray

    Could we add the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to this list? PLEASE!?

    To quote the quintessential anti-MPDG, Clementine, from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”

  26. Chris McQuade

    I, too, agree that these characters are overdone. However, there is a reason for this. These are the characters that moviegoers pay to see. Take another look at this list compared to some of the top grossing movies of 2010 according to

    The Book of Eli: $94.8 million domestically and $157 million world-wide.

    Salt – $118.3 million domestically and $293.5 million world-wide.

    The Social Network – $96.4 million domestically and $214.1 million world-wide.

    The Last Airbender – $131.7 million domestically and $319.1 million world-wide.

    The Karate Kid – $176.5 million domestically and $359.1 million world-wide.

    Inception – $292.5 million domestically and $832.5 million world-wide.

    Red – $90.3 million domestically and $174.9 million world-wide.

    Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – $90.7 million domestically and $335.1 million world-wide. (Not in context, but based on Jake Gyllenhaal’s casting.)

    Eat Pray Love – $80.5 million domestically and $204.4 million world-wide.
    Valentine’s Day – $110.4 million domestically and $216.4 million world-wide.

    Love and Other Drugs – $32.3 million domestically and $90.7 million world-wide.
    Valentine’s Day – $110.4 million domestically and $216.4 million world-wide.

    Please note that a movie on this list does not constitute it being a “great film,” only that moviegoers where interested in paying their hard-earned cash to see it.

    I’m sure as a professional reader it must get tiresome reading scripts laden with these characters. However, my point is not to discourage someone from creating a character if they have a passion for invigorating new life into one of these archetypes. These, after all, are the scripts that sell and get made into movies.

  27. aeriol

    This is why I prefer plots/characters based on real events. It is too bad that the “formula” always requires a sex scene or some other unnecessary diversion from the real deal. Audiences are not as predictable as “formula” pushing producers might think. In fact, most of us have grown up and moved on.

  28. Robb

    I’d love to add to this list if I might:

    1) The Directionless 20-Something Yearning To Make An Emotional Connection In The Big City But Who Never Actually DOES Anything. (These tend to show up in many, many navel-gazing indie ensemble scripts. It’s really hard to build any story momentum around vague introspection.)

    2) The Brilliant But Undiscovered Long-Suffering Writer/Painter/Musician Who Is Obviously A Stand-In For The Screenwriter. (When they said “write what you know” they didn’t mean it quite THAT literally. While I myself LOVE writing, the process just isn’t terribly cinematic. And let’s face it … we’re writers. Generally speaking, our lives aren’t really that interesting!)

    And 3) Any Character Whose Only Objective Is To “Come To Terms” With Something. (I spent a decade reading scripts and my absolute number one complaint was protagonists without actable objectives. It stops any script dead in its tracks. Your protagonist absolutely SHOULD have an emotional journey. BUT … that can’t be the only thing going on. Your protagonist is the engine that should be driving your story. So they must be trying to accomplish something concrete. The pursuit of that goal is what keeps an audience engaged. The character’s emotional journey should be bubbling just under the surface of that action. The two should work in tandem. At the end of their quest, whether it ends in success or failure, if your protagonist THEN “comes to terms” with something emotionally … that’s great! The audience experience will be all the richer!)

    Just my two cents!

  29. Jaime

    Good list. I am also tired of seeing these characters. But the truth is that movies with these characters in them get made in Hollywood and sometimes become successful. Maybe you’re tired of reading scripts that contain a wise old non-white shaman, but inevitably during the process of script to screen, some helpful producer or director will request that they be inserted. Or worse, there will be entire screenplays based on one of these characters. If this article is trying to convince spec writers to stop including these characters, it may be pointless because they get sold regardless.

  30. Dennis

    May I add, the fat, obnoxious, male best friend (a “wingman” type) who says shocking, sexual things and behaves badly in front of women for laughs (?) and to make the better looking male protagonist look even better. I can take it in beer commercials, but in features? Enough already.

  31. Karen Comer

    Bravo! I agree with all of the above PLUS I am sick of having my intelligence insulted by plots that just don’t make any sense. I am also fed up with too many special effects being used for no good reason.

  32. George Masters

    Nicely done, Ray. You do make me smile. Was thinking you could do this on television and bring some of these other writers on as guests. Bet you’d have a hell of an audience. Cheers.

  33. Kathy Messick

    And Please the dumb loser who messes up and still get the girl even though he is an over-grad slacker with nothing to offer has gotta go. It’s the same theme in commercials.
    It’s the same movie regurgitated over and over again
    I know it may put Sandler, Rogen, Wilson and their other cronies out of work, but won’t we be a better audience for it? Seriously.

  34. Melva G. Bennett

    You are tired of reading these characters; I’m tired of seeing them. Thank you for being in the vanguard. Maybe I’ll feel like venturing into a theater again.

  35. Yumefulfilled

    This is a very helpful list. Many of the items listed I automatically agreed with from the perspective of a movie goer. I had to literally lol at the Wise Ethnic Shaman. You took the words right out of my mind on that one. The White Kid Minorities concept is not only played out but out dated since many aspects of the cultures that are being portrayed have become aspects of mainstream pop or hip-hop culture which now transcend ethnicities.

    Thanks for posting!