By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Clichés aren’t necessarily bad—they’re just not original.
One of my favorite writing T-shirts says “I avoid clichés like the plague.” But clichés are so ingrained in our day-to-day lives that it’s hard to eliminate them completely from our writing. For me, the more casual the situation, the more often I use them. For example, you’ll see me use them a lot more in blog posts versus my novels.
Clichés are not bad. They’re cultural shorthand to convey an idea.
However, it’s this ease of communication that makes them undesirable in our writing.
We’re writers. We’re supposed to be original. Using something that’s been used "for ages" is taking the lazy way out and making the reader do the work. Even worse, because clichés are so culturally known, readers aren’t surprised by them. How many TV/movie plots have you ever figured out right away because of the clichés used? I’d guess a lot.
I had a WIP with a director of security type position and a second-in-command guy. It’s a cliché that both these roles are often filled by a character who’s up to no good—the guy in charge of your security is secretly working against you. Your second-in-command is trying to do you in and take over. No matter what the genre, this role is frequently where the bad guy hides.
Obviously, I didn’t want to make either of these guys a bad guy. Readers would see that coming without even having to look up.
But since I know readers will expect them to be bad guys, it lets me play with those expectations. I can twist the cliché and have my characters behave in ways that could easily be interpreted as helpful or hurtful and let the reader assume the wrong thing. I can play into those expectations and later yank the rug out from under readers when they realize those actions weren’t the actions of a villain.
Years ago, I read a book called Villains By Necessity by Eve Forward. Forward took the tried-and-true “good vs evil” cliché and turned it on its head. The good guys have won, evil is gone, but it hasn’t turned out exactly as all the fairy tales said it would. The world is unbalanced now, and that’s causing trouble. A group realizes that the world needs a little evil, and to save it, they have to turn into bad guys. The “villains” have to save the world. What a great twist!
My own novel The Shifter developed this way as well. I was playing with various fantasy clichés, trying to find a different angle on my idea. I ended up focusing on healing, and realized that you never saw it used for evil. There were rarely any consequences to it at all. I wondered, “What if healing could be bad? What if it could be harmful?” And thus, the book was born.
Can you do the opposite of what’s expected?
Can you make it positive if it’s a negative? Negative if it’s a positive? (As in, if the cliché is always for the good guy can you give it to the bad guy, and vice versa?)
Is there something that hasn’t been done with it already? Can you:
How many times have you heard “Don’t have your character look in a mirror to describe themselves.” It’s good advice, but what if your book absolutely needs to do this?
Then twist the cliché.
You expect to see the person, so what if they have no reflection? What if they remember what they can no longer see? What if they go out of their way to avoid looking into mirrors? What if it’s someone else looking at them as they look into the mirror?
What if they have something they didn’t have before? Their appearance changed in a way that’s intriguing.
What if they see something they don’t want to see? What if they’re always looking into mirrors because they need to constantly watch behind them? What if they’re waiting for something bad to show up in their reflection?
Naturally, the story will dictate which direction you go with this, but you can already see how a little brainstorming has opened up several ideas.
Wander through TV Tropes, one of the most comprehensive cliché databases I’ve ever seen. It covers all the common plots, tricks, and clichés and gives you plenty of examples. It covers books, TV, comics, and movies, so don’t let the name fool you.
What clichés do you struggle with? Does your WIP use any? Are they working or not working?
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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.
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