clichés in fiction
Writing Craft
Scott Stoops  

Using clichés in fiction

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“I encourage students to pursue an idea far enough so they can see what the clichés and stereotypes are. Only then do they begin to hit pay dirt.” 

Robert Morgan

To Cliché or not to Cliché? Clichés. We love them and we hate them. A quick Google search yields a copious quantity of articles defining what clichés are and how to avoid them in our writing. George Carlin once said, “There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions, and wooooords.” Should clichés be off limits on our writing? Or can we use clichés in fiction in ways that bring our characters and our stories to life?

What exactly are clichés?

We’ve all heard the word and many of us have also had the admonition to never use clichés in writing. But what exactly is a cliché? Where do they come from? When did they pass into the infamous pit of clichédom?

According to Mirriam-Webster clichés are1https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clich%C3%A9:

  • trite phrase or expression and the idea expressed by it.
  • hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation
  • something (such as a menu item) that has become overly familiar or commonplace

Clichés began life as innovative and useful phrases. For instance, the expression “all that glitters is not gold” originated with William Shakespeare2William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act II Scene 7. We have used the phrase and variants in music and popular literature. It and related phrases such as “don’t judge a book by its cover” remind us to not just look at the obvious things when we are trying to judge the value of someone or something.

The popularity takes over, and the phrase becomes common. We all know what the phrases mean, but the phrases themselves have lost meaning.

In case you’re interested, the word “cliché” comes from French and describes a stereotype: a metal plate used for printing an image. A cliché was simply the representation of an image.

Where do we see clichés in fiction?

Clichés can appear in:

  • Metaphors
  • Characters
  • Plots

Metaphors

Metaphors are figures of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

  • This place is a zoo.
  • You are the apple of my eye.
  • Her tears were a river.

They provide us with simple ways of describing sometimes complex concepts. Good comparisons give readers an accurate mental picture of what we are trying to express. They serve as symbols pointing to something else. And we often overuse them.

How can we use metaphors and avoid them being clichés? Let’s look at the expression “Her tears were a river.” The image is of a large quantity of tears flowing freely. A better way to express this might be “Her tears cascaded down her cheeks, wiping away all signs of makeup.” It’s corny, but it’s also more visual. Another one might be, “her tears were a river of toxic waste.”

Characters

Our characters can either be based upon archetypes or stereotypes. Both are patterns and represent something about the human experience.

The term “archetype” refers to an assumed ideal pattern—a character trait or emotion that has a universal quality. A stereotype, on the other hand, is a reductionistic notion that has the potential to be dehumanizing.”3https://www.masterclass.com/articles/archetype-vs-stereotype

Archetypes give us patterns to build upon. Stereotypes actually take away that ability because we are reducing them to a few well-known identifiers. The hero who can do no wrong and the villain who can do no right.

It’s OK to have clichéd characters if they are relatively unimportant to the story. Some characters serve a very limited function and don’t need a lot of development. But we want our main characters to have depth.

The antagonist appears. He is rich, powerful, arrogant, and ruthless. All these things are necessary for him to take over the company and crush the hero and all who stand in his way. And these same things, if that is all we know about him, make him boring. We can avoid the clichés by giving him believable flaws and by showing that, in other circumstances, he’s actually a nice guy. He may even despise what he does for a living, but justifies his behavior.

Clichés can work really well in dialogue. They are common in our real speech patterns, so using them sparingly can help in characterization.

Plot

There are also archetypes and stereotypes here as well. Several well-known archetypes are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

We can start the story with a cliché. Villain bent on overthrowing society and wreaking general havoc. Hero learns of plan and works to stop that plan. Plenty of action, plenty of conflict. Even some room for the hero and the villain to reflect upon their circumstances. But the audience will see the end long before the ending actually comes.

Your villain is ready to kill the hero. But he’s arrogant and wants to gloat about his success. So, he spills all of his plans to the hero. After all, the hero son’t live long enough to do anything about it. How can we avoid this being cliché?

The typical response goes like this:

HERO: You won’t get away with this.

VILLAIN: I already have. And there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

The hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain and stops the ticking bomb.

But what if, after the hero hears the villain’s plans, he finds a flaw in them and points it out and then works with the villain to remediate the flaw? Or the villain sees the error in his ways, frees the hero, and walks away? Clichéd, unless the hero takes over the villain’s mission.

Another way to handle clichés in fiction is to work with the pattern of three. It goes like this:

  • Do something once
  • Do something again
  • Do something a third time. This time might be a repeat of the first two, confirming the pattern, or it might be different, breaking the pattern.

A word about tropes

Dictionary.com describes a trope as “a recurring theme or motif, as in literature or art”4https://www.dictionary.com/browse/trope.

Tropes are common and recognizable story elements. Many genres rely on stories that incorporate well-known tropes. Tropes can become clichés if we do not handle properly them. As with clichés, we will want to take the trope, use it to establish a character, setting, or plot line, and then transform it.

Clichés in fiction. Use them wisely.

Clichés in language have their place. They are useful tools precisely because they succinctly describe things. That we overuse them should not mean we neglect them completely. Any phrase we find to replace them will, with time, suffer the same fate.

Rather than just using clichés, we should look for clearer, more imaginative ways to express ourselves. But clichés can also be useful when we take the time to use them intelligently and intentionally.

  • 1
    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clich%C3%A9
  • 2
    William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act II Scene 7
  • 3
    https://www.masterclass.com/articles/archetype-vs-stereotype
  • 4
    https://www.dictionary.com/browse/trope

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