A lot of writing courses, workshops, and degree programs will teach you that “cliché” is the mother of all dirty words. It’s worse than “adverb”, “voice”, and “agents” all put together and slathered in a sauce made from the tools of the publishing elite.
I’ve taken writing courses and will be (as soon as I have everything sorted) pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. I also work in the real world where academia doesn’t matter as much as they lead you to believe in school. Now, I will be first to tell you that I had some fantastic professors in college and some of them gave me advice I’ve carried with me ever since I heard it. However, I also heard a lot of BS and, as any student will tell you, the BS tends to outweigh the good in some cases.
The dictionary defines cliché as:
1. a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox.
2. (in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.
3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse.
Now, if you’re looking at cliché as the dictionary definition then yes, it’s a bad thing. If your work is littered with “strong as an ox” and other such overused expressions then your editor might explode with indignation, but in writing courses the definition has evolved into this gargantuan monster that includes all “classic” plot twists, characters, or tropes (yes, that’s a real word!).
An example of “cliché” is Romeo and Juliet, a tragic love story most anyone is familiar with. These days if there’s a plot in a work that contains very strong elements of a similar tragic love story it is considered, by many academicians, to be cliché. However, look at all the places where similar tragic love stories are played out.
Take, for example, the classic American Soap Opera. These kind of clichés are everywhere and they’re shamelessly harped on and much mocked. However all those shows are still on the air. Why? Because people watch them. Even after the millionth time you see something like Romeo and Juliet out there most people still find their heartstrings tugged.
There are literally millions of clichés in the world. Why? Because everything has been done before in one form or another. Every story has been told in one manner or another and so everything is, in some way, cliché. And yet the majority of the people out there never know it, notice it, or care. They are happy watching and reading the same stories over and over and over because they still carry that impact.
One good example of cliché involving modern literature is the “supernatural love triangle”. In modern fiction’s fascination with supernatural (particularly werewolves and vampires, recently) there is almost an inevitable love triangle involving the main protagonist and one of the supernaturals with which they are interacting. Edward and Bella and Jacob (of Twilight fame) are an example of this, so are Anita, Jean-Claude, and Richard (from the Anita Blake series). This supernatural triangle actually first emerged in the original romantic vampire story: Dracula. It has also made appearences in Anne Rice’s writing and many others.
And it sells every single time.
Why does it sell? Because love triangles always sell. Most romances out there will contain at least one and they’re a staple of Soap Opera tragedy. So, by now, you could say “ugh, love triangles are so cliché!” and be correct. However, they continue to sell books.
The question that is a product of this line of thought then has to be: Why do people buy and read things that are so painfully cliché?
The answer is actually phenomenally simple: because they like them. Cliché (or “classic”) elements of stories are things that the human condition can relate to. Most everyone in life has experienced a love triangle and so they can step into that character’s shoes and feel real emotions related to that experience. Or the unwary adventurer that has to save the world (a la Lord of the Rings)? Who hasn’t stepped in something and had to fix it, or as a child didn’t dream of going on great and wild adventures to save the world? I could get into the psychology of all of this but I think I might bore you all to tears.
The crux of the matter is that nobody except for the academic world of “Literary Fiction” cares much about clichés. In fact, they like them because everybody can relate to the experience and if you can relate to something you can experience it and enjoy it more fully than you can if you walk away scratching your head and going “Huh?”
All of this said, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about including clichés in your work. If you’re following the exact lines of another work and aren’t modernizing it (think “Romeo Must Die”) then you’ve got a problem. If you’re going to use clichés then you have to make sure that you’re using them properly. Having a Romeo and Juliet story is all well and good so long as you’re not just taking the exact story and plunking it in, say, outer space. Make each cliché your own and introduce your own elements.
Classic plots, characters, and twists work best when they’re settled comfortably in amongst things that don’t usually go with them. Or when they’re couched in such a way where the reader doesn’t necessarily know exactly what’s coming next. The love triangle might resolve in the way that it should, but keeping the tension positive to the plot rather than becoming a negative, whining cesspool of cliché and angst is imperative.
I’ll use the Anita Blake series as an example. I stopped reading around Narcissus In Chains because of the fact that the main characters were starting to disgust me. The fact that the writing was quickly dissolving into pornography with a little plot aside, the “love triangle” between Anita, Richard, and Jean-Claude had gone on for six books and for the first few it was riveting. The main problem was that it never became resolved and the main characters spun around and around and around this main nexus of their relationship whining and sobbing and kicking their feet like children until I wanted to set the book on fire.
I have had similar feelings about other love triangles in other series (I could name a bunch of obscure Fantasy series in which this happens) and that was about the time I stopped reading them. The problem became that the cliché became the entire focus of the plot and everything else ground to a screeching, stumbling halt. While that can be good if the focus is short-lived and makes the reader bounce on the edge of their seat wondering what happens next, it’s bad form to have it drag on and on.
I think this may be my longest blog entry to date so I believe I will stop here, but just remember that clichés are not necessarily poison, they’re not necessarily “evil” and they’re not necessarily bad. They do, however, need to be used with awareness and intent and not simply leaned on because you can’t come up with anything better.