Ever wanted to groan out loud at how obvious and unoriginal a phrase, plot point or character in a book was? Common clichés in fiction weaken the dramatic effect and imaginative power of a story. Read on for a definition of cliché, examples of plot, character and descriptive clichés, and how to avoid clichés in your own writing:
What is a cliché?
The word comes from the French clicher, meaning ‘to click’, in reference to the click a printer’s metal stereotyping plate would make. Thus there is the implicit idea of copying, of lifting and reproducing something unchanged.
This is a good metaphor for clichéd writing – it copies existing, worn ideas or phrases (for example the infamous setting cliché ‘it was a dark and stormy night’). These ideas and phrases have been overused to the point of being worn out.
Cliché examples (and how to avoid them)
1. Genre-specific plot clichés
The familiar elements of genres allow us to categorize novels as fantasy, mystery, romance or other genres. Each genre has its own ‘tropes’; themes and motifs that recur. For example, fantasy novels (from The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter) often feature the rise of a ‘dark lord’ who seeks total power and the ‘chosen one’ who must defeat them.
Tropes themselves are not synonymous with clichés. Countless, celebrated fantasy stories have villains who quest after power. It’s how you handle familiar themes that determines whether or not your fantasy (or sci-fi, or literary) novel is packed with clichés.
Here, for example are some fantasy plot clichés:
- An orphaned boy is the only one who can defeat a terrible tyrant
- In a magical world, twins are separated by destiny
- A band of adventurers quest for a magical talisman, ring or artefact
You might say ‘hold on’ at this point: Doesn’t J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter fit the first description? Or Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series match the second; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings the third?
The familiarity of these tropes from fantasy novels is, in fact, partly why new novels using these plot points can feel clichéd. Readers might argue, however, over whether Rowling’s use of the ‘orphaned hero’ trope is clichéd. Even though Rowling uses such a familiar device, she also surrounds Harry with a vast cast of supporting (as well as major characters). In reality, it’s not only Harry who faces the task but the whole of the wizard world, with many characters playing vital roles. Harry thus doesn’t feel questionably gifted or truly solo in his task.
Similarly, Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series, about a girl who disguises herself as her boy twin so she can become a knight, makes the gender switching element more the focus than the relation between twins. The twin plot cliché doesn’t overwhelm the more interesting aspects of the story.
There are many ways to turn what could be a cliché around. To avoid clichés your genre is known for:
- Make a list of common clichés
- Examine your outline or draft: Does it contain any?
- Brainstorm ways to add your own slant to any common genre-specific trope you’ve used. Rowling makes the ‘lone orphan who must defeat the evil one’ fantasy plot into a story that shows how much lone tasks actually depend on the support – emotional and practical – of the hero’s friends and community.
2. Character clichés: Examples and avoiding one-note characters
Believable characters are some of the most important elements of enjoyable stories. Clichéd characters in novels frustrate us since their characterization feels phony.
Examples of clichéd characters include:
- The exotic, wise, old ‘other’ who, as if by magic, has the key for the protagonist to reach their objectives
- The brooding rebel without a cause
- The Plain Jane who is magically transformed at ‘the eleventh hour’ (itself a cliché) to win the hunky hero’s heart
- The sarcastic teen girl hero who reluctantly saves the day
There are several reasons why character clichés cause frustration:
- Because they avoid complexity, they don’t ring true: Why can’t the old ‘other’ from another culture never be suspicious, mean, grumpy, jaded, unhelpful?
- They feel like convenient solutions for the sake of plot: Of course Plain Jane catches the school hunk’s eye when she walks into the venue for school prom. How else would a connection between them grow?There is no real cause and effect, only a single event that miraculously changes everything.
To avoid character clichés:
- Avoid stereotypes: Don’t just reproduce a stock character (the high school hunk; the Plain Jane). What are each character’s internal contradictions, strengths and faults? List them.
- Make sure each character wants something. Show, in the course of your story, the cause and effect behind this goal. Nobody wants to rule the world ‘just because’. Believability is the antidote to cliché.
- Be distinctive with character description. Use gesture, movement and body language. Does a character fold their arms a lot? Walk with a limp?
3: Clichés in worldbuilding and setting
Vivid fictional worlds and settings give us detail and specifics. Yet it’s also common for beginning authors to reach for the most obvious elements to convey a world or setting in their genre. Knights carrying swords and elves carrying bows in epic fantasy abound.
Setting clichés include:
- Overemphasis on the weather. Weather can contribute to the atmosphere of a scene, yet balance is key. If your character faces a threatening situation, don’t let the weather do all the work. Lightning and thunder likely wouldn’t strike up just because they’re in danger, even less so every time. Unless you’re writing a maritime novel and your character is sailing into a squall
- Stock settings (the tropical island paradise in a romance, for example) that feel predictable and thinly drawn
If you’re building a fantasy world, for example, avoid clichéd setting by thinking about:
- Authenticity: In George R. R. Martin’s Song of Earth and Fire books, even favourite central characters often die. That’s because the quasi-medieval world in which they live, a world of brutal ambition and conflict, is dangerous. The world is more believable, more historical, as a result. Life expectancy in a conflict-heavy, pre-modern time, without antibiotics, is short.
- The purpose of each element in your fictional setting or world: If there are dragons in your fictional world, why? How have they survived human onslaught? Is there perhaps dragon conservation?
Real world settings can read as clichéd too. If you’re setting a story in Paris, don’t just describe the Eiffel Tower. How does each arrondisement (Parisian municipality) differ from the others in architecture, atmosphere, character? When you recreate real places, use Google street view to find more interesting things to describe than the obvious, go-to emblems.
4: Worn out similes and metaphors
Clichés at the sentence level weaken the effect of your writing. Similes compare two or more things using a comparison word such as ‘like’:
‘Her mouth was like a knot tied too tight’.
Metaphors compare by saying x is y, using substitution. The same example rewritten as a metaphor:
‘Her mouth was a knot tied too tight.’
Simile and metaphor are greenhouses in which clichés easily grow. Some examples of descriptive clichés:
- ‘Her love was like a rose in bloom’
- ‘It was raining cats and dogs’
- ‘Their arguments became more and more heated’
Comparing love to flowers or planetary bodies (‘he loved her like the moon loves the sun’) is clichéd because countless (often unoriginal) poets have done the same. A metaphor or simile likes this is like the printer’s plate since it just replicates an obvious image already in heavy circulation.
Common metaphorical expressions such as ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ are ‘dead metaphors’. Dead metaphors are figures of speech that have lost their meaning through being repeated so often. Without the metaphor being explained, many English speakers will know that ‘raining cats and dogs’ means that it is raining hard (not that domestic animals are actually falling from the sky).
Some clichés, like describing an argument as ‘heated’, are subtler. We might not notice we’re using a cliché. Yet phrases as common as this have lost much of their dramatic effect. You can avoid them by being more exact and literal. E.g. ‘Their arguments grew intense’. Even better, show, through dialogue, this effect, rather than telling the reader that your characters are arguing constantly. Clichés often result from telling when showing the thing itself (e.g. scenes of argument) is more descriptive and, in fact, telling.
5: Famous cliché examples and why they don’t work
Although 50 Shades of Grey and its spin-offs have become huge financial successes, the books litter clichés. Brenton Dickieson lists several here, for example the expression ‘quaking like a leaf’ (p. 111) that E. L. James uses to express fear.
Besides the fact this is a dead metaphor, it’s hard to picture a person as a leaf. A quake, like an earthquake, suggests solidity; trembling ground. Does a leaf have enough solidity to quake? Leaves crunch, drift, rustle. The comparison doesn’t show us the character’s fear, only giving a weak, general idea of it.
Ben Blatt, in his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, takes a statistical look at literature. Blatt’s book is full of graphs that show how often authors use certain words or punctuation marks (James Joyce used 1105 exclamation marks per 100, 000 words (!!!). According to Blatt’s research, James Patterson’s Cross Fire (from his Alex Cross series) is the most clichéd popular book of the 21st Century, with 242 clichés per 100, 000 words.
As an example, the opening page of Patterson’s book includes the clichés ‘the man of the hour’ and the simile ‘he fell like a tree’. Describing his character Kyle Craig, Patterson writes:
‘Once upon a time, he’d been the type who needed everything yesterday, if not sooner.’
These descriptions are clichéd because they use stock phrases and images. They tell the reader without showing them. What exactly is tree-like about the man’s fall? The volume of the impact? As an exercise, take a book that is known for its clichés and write out each one you come across. Then write an alternative. Instead of ‘the man of the hour’, we could write ‘a man who was admired for his punctuality and sly wit.’ Instead of ‘he fell like a tree’, ‘he fell hard, with a deep, crunching thud.’
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