Clichés in Fiction

A cliché is a saying, expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, rendering it a stereotype, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. The term is frequently used in modern culture for an action or idea which is expected or predictable, based on a prior event. (Wikipedia’s definition of cliché)

I found this little video hilarious — all the more so because the same clichés apply to novels as well. It got me thinking… It’s every writer’s dream to break the mold — right?

Maybe not.

Think about genre fiction (e.g. sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, romance, thriller, etc.). Novels from these genres rely on clichés to some extent. I wouldn’t pick up a mystery if I thought the killer wasn’t going to be revealed at some point. I wouldn’t pick up that romance if there wasn’t a happily-ever-after ending.

Okay, okay — I hear your protests. Those are conventions, you say, not clichés. Murder-solving is what makes a mystery a mystery; happily-ever-after defines romance.

True, but look at the second part of the Wikipedia definition:

The term is frequently used in modern culture for an action or idea which is expected or predictable, based on a prior event.

Um…to me, that sounds like a genre convention. So, in other words, sometimes we need clichés in our fiction.  Millennia of storytelling has taught us to expect certain outcomes and to feel dissatisfaction when we don’t get it. (There are, of course, a gajillion billion examples of stories that do not meet our expectations and still satisfy, but those tales are told by sneaky imps with more talent than me.)

Another way in which clichés are used positively is in comedy. Think about Austin Powers or Derek Flint whose characters rely on the James Bond cliché for laughs. Scary Movie or Not Another Teen Movie — such humor exaggerates clichés that we all recognize.

Of course, clichés can also be a source of problems in your writing — particularly when it’s in the form of a stereotype. When your character or your plot twist has been “overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect“, you end up with 2-dimensional characters and story, a.k.a. cardboard cut-outs.

Yesterday, I read a query letter (that was form-rejected) filled with high school clichés: the jock football team; the picked-on gay; the young, rebellious teacher; the nagging mother.

While such stereotypes certainly exist in real life (that’s why they become stereotypes in the first place) and work pretty well on TV (ahem, Glee), they fall flat when written on the page. We’ve all read about that rebellious teacher so many times that he’s boring. What about a rebellious teacher who smokes crack? Now we’re talking…

(By the way, the crack-smoking-teacher was done in the film Half-Nelson, which I highly recommend.)

In my first novel, I had some characters that were sickeningly stereotypical — snobby rich guy, awkward poor guy — and, in hindsight, I can see why such unoriginal characters developed: poor character development. I didn’t know my characters before I started writing them. I didn’t get to know them as I wrote them… I just let my story follow the clichés (both conventions and stereotypes), and needless to say, the story suffered.

So how do you avoid the clichés? I can think of two ways to do it:

  1. Embrace it. Use that cliché and then add to it. Make your badass spy 3-dimensional by adding history, fatal flaws, secrets (all relevant to your story, of course… a badass spy who doesn’t get along with his mother doesn’t become 3-D if we don’t see it in the story). Or put your badass spy in an unfamiliar world that doesn’t follow the same rules. Go against our expectations with that extra layer.
  2. Avoid it. Examine your characters and your plot for clichés and think about how you can go against the grain (boy, that was a clichéd phrase there, huh?). Unfortunately, this is nigh impossible to do since someone has probably done it before you. The potty-mouthed grandma, the gay football player, and the intelligent stoner have all been done so much that now they’ve become clichés. Don’t let that stop you, though!  I have faith you can create a character so complex and unexpected, we can never cut him out from cardboard.

Got any other ideas on how to avoid clichés in your stories? Please let me know about them!   Any method for adding dimensions to my writing is something I want to hear about.

Happy writing!