This post is the twenty-sixth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.
I did not plan out all my posts on novel writing in the beginning so as you will see, some of these posts probably would have been better earlier in the series. Today, I wanted to talk about clichés in writing.
A cliché is anything that is overdone and overused. Clichés pop up all the time in movies and books. When you look at the list of cliched plots and characters, you may wonder if it is even possible to come up with something new, something original. Rest assured; It may not be easy, but it can be done.
Plot clichés are the hardest to avoid as there are only so many things that can happen during a story. The mark of a good writer is to turn that same old plot device into something special.
Some plot clichés:
- A man/woman loses their memory
- A tycoon’s son must prove himself (to his father, to the woman he loves)
- A young girl grows up among horrible family members but still succeeds
- The ugly duckling story-line
- The love story between two people from the opposite sides of the track
- The tough rancher (boxer, mechanic, or whatever) meets the sophisticated woman from the city and falls in love (which really is just a variation of the one above)
- Two people meet, fall in love, one of them screws it up and then some how they get back together
A few clichés for fantasy novels:
- A prophecy that must be fulfilled by the “chosen one”
- The rise of a dark lord who seeks total power and “the chosen one” (often an orphan or a nobody) must defeat them
- A band of adventurers quest for a magical talisman, ring or other artifact
So how do you avoid these plot clichés?
The key is to know the common clichés for your genre. Then look at your outline, draft or story idea to see if it contains any of them. Fix any clichés by brainstorming ways to add a twist or new slant on the plot. One way might be to fill your story with fresh, compelling characters.
This brings up character clichés which are just as common as plot clichés. The villain has piercing dark eyes, and the hero is a dashing and likeable. The young stable boy is mentored by a wizard or wise old man, the police detective has a broken marriage, and the private investigator has a drinking problem are just a few examples.
Knowing that these things are overdone, doesn’t mean you can’t use them. It just means you need to be more creative. Turn them into something new. Take something people are expecting and change it around. The orphan isn’t the savior but perhaps the love interest. Instead of having your villain either be handsome and charming or dark and menacing, aim for a plain person who no one would even offer a second glance. No longer do you need to make the heroine a modern-day Barbie doll. Instead instill her with average looks and a truer to life personality. (So that is Tip #1: Don’t use stereotypes – the high school hunk, the plain Jane, etc.)
And most important, make sure your protagonist has flaws. Everyone has them and so should your protagonist and antagonist. Really all your characters need them. Your characters need to be complex. They need a history, problems, dreams and more. They need to feel real. (Tip #2 – Consider giving your character something distinct. It could be a gesture, a movement, a habit or even a limp.)
In addition to flaws, your characters need goals. They must want something. And during the course of your story, you need to develop the cause and effect behind that goal. Nobody wants to rule the world “just because.” Goals and flaws will make your characters believable. Believability is the antidote to cliché. (That is Tip #3.)
So with a little imagination, you can get rid of both plot and character clichés.