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Before we leave the subject of clichés for a while, I feel the need to stick up for the poor devils a bit. Melissa hinted about this at the end of her first post, but I would like to develop it a little further. The simple fact is that there is a reason why clichés become clichéd: they strike a chord with us that we desperately want to hear.
For my purposes, a cliché is an idea, character, or story element that has been told so often that it lacks all originality (clichéd phraseology is another matter). Its greater meaning and explanatory power become blunted and it therefore, at best, fails to communicate its point and, at worst, becomes a distraction to the reader and an embarrassment for the author.
I would submit the key here is how and why a thing becomes clichéd:
- All clichés begin with an original, engaging idea. It is, by definition, one so powerful that reaches out and draws in literally millions of disparate people across space and time. In that sense, there is obviously something about the content of a cliché that we should take note of. In fact, if you strip off identifying information, they become “motifs” or “archetypes” and if they hang around for a really long time, they might even be called “myths.”
- Most people not only want to hear a cliché once, they want to hear it again and again and again (and again). They will read essentially the same novel fifteen times in a row with only the names and the cover changed. For many of them, they will get the same thrill each time through. This demonstrates the fact that as long as they are handled properly, clichés lose little, if any, of their punch.
- Finally, there is also the fact that for everyone there is a time when even the worst cliché is new and exciting. After all, each newborn is, in a very real sense, a blank slate as far as that goes. They will hear even the most tired story—say, that of the knight rescuing the fair maiden from the dragon—for the very first time at some point. In that moment, it is to them a completely new experience, like the story is being told for the very first time.
These points mean that, as Melissa observed, we should not be trying to avoid clichés entirely. Instead, we need to use them wisely and intelligently. Indeed, some of the most popular authors and directors have done just that. Two prime examples of success are C. S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia and George Lucas in the original Star Wars Trilogy (no, Episodes I through III don’t count. For anything.). Lewis of course borrowed freely from mythology. Lucas based his movie storylines on Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. In both cases, the characters and stories have been recycled more times than anyone cares to count, far beyond what it takes to qualify as a cliché, but both are so well done that as you are reading and/or watching them for the first (or fifteenth) time, the fact that they are actually rehashing something someone else created is usually not at all on your mind.
All that said, an improper cliché can be the death-knell of a story or character. Here are some ideas that should help keep things in line:
- Mine clichés for their gold and toss away the dross. At the bottom, each cliché can be reduced to an essential point. If you grasp that basic idea and make it your own, it can then cease to be cliché at all.
- The best use of a cliché involves making an old idea look entirely original. Of course, I’m not advocating plagiarism, but if you’re going to use a cliché or a collection of them, you need to find a way to present them in such a way that their power shows through without the fact that they have been used before getting in the way.
- Try to find niches were a particular cliché hasn’t been used much or, preferably, at all. This is where it helps to be widely read. You may find that some ideas present in classical literature are used far too often there, but that in your particular branch of science fiction are hardly ever used. Maybe that plot twist is old and tired in science fiction, but hasn’t been adapted to fantasy. If specific readers haven’t seen it recently, it won’t be clichéd.
In the end, clichés can be some of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal. Handled properly, they can become a proven vehicle for first rate content, one that will speak to a large audience and keep them coming back for more.