How to deal with clichés in fiction

The topic of cliché is one I have brushed upon in my earlier article on Mary Sues. In that context, I argued that being cliché doesn’t automatically make a character a Mary Sue. The link between Mary Sues and clichés that has been made by some commentators implies that clichéd Mary Sues are bad because clichés are bad. But this isn’t necessarily so.

There are many sides to the cliché debate. There are those who see clichés as an automatically negative element within a story, like the Rinkworks Fantasy Novelist’s Exam, which implores writers to abandon novels that contain certain cliché elements. There are those who see clichés as tools to construct a story and manage reader expectations. And there are those who believe that whether an element of a story is cliché or not is irrelevant and that the focus should be on how well the author tells the story, not on whether its been done before.

Allow me to expand upon the reasoning behind each position.

Anti-cliché

For those who oppose clichés, the crime of clichés is twofold. A cliché becomes a cliché through overuse; it is a story element that appears frequently, and is handled in the same way. Thus it becomes repetitive and predictable. A story without surprises, a story which feels like dozens of other stories that have gone before it, is dull.

But often, clichés aren’t merely overdone, they’re also not believable. When you look at them rationally and pick apart the framework behind them, it becomes evident that the events that allow the cliché to happen must be so contrived that it becomes clear that the author hasn’t thought deeply about their story; thus the cliché is a symptom of a bad story.

An example of this can be found on the Rinkworks Fantasy Novelist’s Exam. Question 3 reads:

Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?

Consider the circumstances that might have allowed this. Taking the most obvious – the protagonist is an illegitimate child of a king; legitimate children of the king either never existed or died before the king. Thus the protagonist is contacted by the king’s advisors and is made king himself.

But in real-world royalty, frequently legitimacy was everything. A legitimate daughter would succeed as queen in preference to an illegitimate son – an example of such being Robert Fitzroy, First Earl of Gloucester, whose half-sister Matilda became Empress of England when their father Henry I died.

The way politics works also means that some unknown farm boy or blacksmith’s apprentice would not become king, even if he were the late king’s only living relative. His upbringing is wholly unsuitable to rule. He hasn’t had the education or the court experience to understand what it means to be king, and thus the barons or advisors would be unwilling to support him – or validate his claim. Far more likely one of them would claim descent from an ancestor of the late king or a previous king and go for the throne themselves. Why hand over the throne to an oik when you can attempt to seize it yourself?

Assuming the protagonist is legitimate doesn’t clear things up either. Why didn’t he know? People do know – someone must have told the protagonist the truth for it to come out, someone along the line must have known at some point. So what didn’t they reveal it? Was it a cover-up? Why was a cover-up needed?

Here’s where the contrived circumstances emerge, usually involving some sort of coup, a dead mother, foster parents either ignorant or sworn to secrecy, and someone who sat waiting for eighteen years for the young prince to come of age and reclaim the throne. Why an attempt to reclaim it couldn’t be made when the prince was a child is rarely ever established – his royal blood is still royal, and if the support is sufficient the move can be made whether he’s of age or not. Underage monarchs are not unknown – like Edward VI of England, crowned age 9 at the death of his father Henry VIII. The wait is thus contrived to allow for a protagonist old enough to be interesting and take the lead.

It is situations like this that the opponents of clichés rest their argument upon; use of such clichés demonstrates that the author has failed to consider the implications of their story or logical alternatives to illogical events, or that they have prioritised a particular storyline that they want above what is believable or logical, to the detriment of the story.

Pro-cliché

Then there are those who see clichés not as crutches bad writers lean upon, but common and popular story elements which evidently work (or they wouldn’t be used so much) which can be included for the purposes of informing readers.

In a story which is either very complicated or very short, using clichés, which readers recognise and understand, enables an author to get a point across in a concise manner. It saves space which would have otherwise been required to explain the situation. As a result, it enables the author to focus on what is important in the story rather than the framework that supports it.

In a story where an author seeks to challenge accepted positions, or indeed clichés themselves, using clichés gives the author the chance to lead the reader to expect a certain outcome and subsequently surprise them.

The other position

I was going to call this indifferent, but it’s not, not exactly. Those in this position are somewhere in between the other two, maybe a little off to the side. They see clichés as story elements that do occasionally appear, but that whether they are used or not is a secondary indicator of the quality of the story; far more important is the author’s ability to tell the story well.

For some, originality is unimportant – including clichés – as it is whether the story is compelling or not that is important. For others, originality can come through whether clichés are used or not, in the treatment of the cliché; it is how freshly the author handles the cliché that is important, not whether the cliché is used in the first place.

My view

With clichés, as with many aspects of writing fiction, it’s all subjective. What is a cliché to one reader might not be to another; whether “cliché” is an inherently negative label will also vary.

I feel that the way to approach it is to be aware of clichés so you don’t accidentally stumble into a cliché, and if you are going to use one, to consider carefully whether it’s the best way to tell the story and what the root logic of the cliché is.

I would not recommend deliberately avoiding clichés. Clichés are a part of storytelling, they are common features readers are familiar with and at times they are elements which have been used in telling stories for thousands of years. Depending on who you ask, there can be a lot of clichés. To deliberately avoid using clichés you would have to exclude a lot of potential material from your story, leaving it dull and potentially confusing.

A lot of people will advise to tell the story and not worry about clichés. And I agree, with the caveat that the story should be internally consistent and believable and doesn’t rely on a contrived set of circumstances to enable a situation to arise. Where a story falls because of its clichés is where the author has used a cliché as an answer or to fill a gap, but failed to work out what impact it would have on the rest of the story properly or what questions might naturally arise form it.

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