1: a trite phrase or expression; also : the idea expressed by it
2: a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation
3: something (as a menu item) that has become overly familiar or commonplace
That’s how Merriam-Webster’s defines a cliché — unfortunately, there are still far too many of them around. As writers, we owe it to our work, our characters, and our readers to change these hack phrases and situations around for something fresh. They are, to use a cliché phrase, easy as pie to come up with. And that’s the problem.
The first step, as with an addictive problem, is to recognize that it is a problem. And, yes, clichés are addictive. They pop out easy as easy as that pie from a greased tin, and they slide on by–which it’s why it’s a good idea to read your work aloud. You’ll catch these more easily when you read your own work.
They’ll show up in phrases–those are the easier ones to grab and shake out. The “stalking like a panther” phrases. Or easy as pie, or you’ll find many more over at Laura Hayden’s handout on Suspense.net. These just need a fresh phrase–an image that has not become used up in its overuse.
The harder ones to catch are the clichés situations that come from getting a little too lazy with the plotting. The ones I keep seeing crop up (in unpublished manuscripts) are:
1-Kidnapped heroine. Heroine stupidly ends up on her own and bad guy kidnaps her. Bad guy never seems to have a particularly good reason for this, menaces heroine without doing anything to her really, and ties up heroine for convenient rescue by hero. This is so old it creaks. Come on folks–if you need a confrontation with heroine and bad guy, come up with a better situation. How about bad guy throws a party and heroine is invited? Or what about kidnapping is really a plot to get to bad guy? Or how about a smarter bad guy who is just going to shoot the woman on sight and get her out of his way. This is easily solved with characters who are better motivated and who make sense.
2-Hero and heroine argue after making love. He pulls away, she pulls away, and all for no particular reason. How about letting your characters talk, hash it out, and make everything worse by blurting out the wrong thing at the wrong time? If you find yourself having to contrive the conflict, go back and give your characters deep, good reasons for not being in a relationship. If your characters are not acting in unique fresh ways, time to look at how do you motivate them to be unique, fresh folks.
3-Bad guy is infatuated with heroine. In such cases, heroine is usually hateful, mean, and bad mouths the guy, but somehow he still “wants” her. Another moldy oldy. This often comes along with bad guy wants heroine’s money–and while money is a good reason for a lot of things, it’s also been done way too many times. This is where you need to find better, deeper reasons for actions. Orson Scott Card gives wonderful advice in his book, Characters & Viewpoint, that the first four or so ideas you come up with for character motivation are almost always clichés–that’s why they pop up so fast.
4-Bad guy is just insane, which becomes explanation for everything. This shows up in almost every weak romantic suspense out there–and in more than a few Westerns, too. Bad guys need to make sense–they need motives and in some ways the word “sociopath” has led too many writers to think this is a bucket into which the bad guy can be dumped without any more effort applied. Go watch Dexter to see how a complex character can be created instead of just another crazy killer on the loose.
5-Hero/Heroine experience unexplainable attraction–beauty blinds sense and leads to lasting love, they are just “meant to be” soul mates. This often comes along after characters have been rude and horrible to each other for about 100 pages, but the truth dawns and true love (and sex) wins out. This situation is older than Cinderella, and is overdue for retirement. Give all your characters good reasons for their actions, and look for fresh reasons. Maybe your hero is a sucker for a great pair of legs, and that’s the initial draw–but it’s the fact she has a Cub’s t-shirt in her closet and wears it on game day, and eats hot dogs just the way he likes them (dripping with mustard, relish and sliced red onion), and won’t go outside without smearing every nose in sight with SPF 50 that does him in. Maybe her eye is caught by the broad shoulders, but he is a guy who cooks, loves pasta as much as she does, and he has a southern drawl that does her in, and he’ll do a deal to watch chick flicks with her (in exchange for a movie with stuff that blows up in between). Its the details that make your characters–don’t get lazy here.
6-Hero’s ex wants him back, and so causes trouble. Usually this means ex lies (and heroine believes her–and, really, you would believe whatever you guy’s ex said over what he says?). This also usually has the ex being so nasty that you wonder how the hero ever hooked up with her in the first place–it really does put him in a very bad light. There’s an easy fix for this one–just remember we are all the hero of our own story. Even the ex has a story that makes her sympathetic and a good guy–make sure you know this story about her (and that you like you as much as you like all your other characters). And keep telling yourself–characters who are one-sided are cliche.
7-The big “MISUNDERSTANDING”. Hero/heroine assume the worst about each other after glimpsing something. This is usually heroine sees ex leaving hero’s bedroom (and or an intimate moment) and heroine assumes he’s back with her (and why she doesn’t go pounding on doors for answers is a mystery), or this is heroine is seen with someone from her past and hero assumes the worst–oh, my god, she hasn’t changed. This is a case where you wonder what are these two doing together. Then you wonder why doesn’t anyone talk. Make it easy on yourselves, folks–when in doubt, put your characters together and get them talking. The talking should make things worse, not clear up misunderstandings. And always remember conflict based on misunderstanding is a cliché.
8-Bad guy has to explain all his reasons for his actions. The Incredibles gave us this present tense verb of monologuing. If you have to stop the story to explain a bunch of stuff, consider the possibility that either the plot is too complicated or that you need smarter characters who can figure out things without having to have stuff explained. The other way around this is to make the information so interesting that folks will sit though this cliché without complaint. But that’s a risky bet.
9-The hero/heroine suddenly has a skill that’s unexplained and doesn’t fit their past. This happens with careless writing (the writer forgot to foreshadow a skill), or when a writer has backed herself into a corner and needs to get out–that’s not usually done gracefully. Just remember to ask if you’ve set up a character who can pull off the skills needed to make the plot work. Also remember that readers are not very forgiving of “luck” factoring into a story unless it’s bad luck (or unless the character has had so much bad luck that the readers are rooting for the universe to give the characters a break).
10-The parents who want to force the heroine into a bad marriage. This one shows up mainly in historical romance, and sometimes in some contemporary romances. And, yes, while there are bad parents out there, this ignores the basic core of most folks, which is that we regard friends and family as attachments of ourselves–we want the best for them because they are a part of us. To go against anything that is core to most people, you have to use strong motivations–this is usually overlooked for the quick form of just having them be greedy folks. That’s a cliché because it’s going for a quick answer instead of really figuring out your characters.
Now you’re going to find all of these clichés in various best sellers. Which goes to show there are no rules. But you’ll find them carried off with either a twist that gives them a little fresh tread on an otherwise worn tire, or you’ll find them stuffed in with so much other good stuff that most folks will turn a bad eye. But how much better to be aware of the clichés and to be ready to make the effort to find characters who’ll take you through a story with a lot more interesting things going on, all because the characters themselves are fresh and new and worth spending your time in their company.