It Worked for Narnia and Star Wars: In Defense of Clichés

Click here to download the podcast version of this post.  (Sorry!  My good mike is on the fritz!)

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.

6 thoughts on “It Worked for Narnia and Star Wars: In Defense of Clichés

  1. First of all, for the record, I stopped counting how many times I watched the Star Wars OT at 87, that was ten years ago, so the same stories can definitely hit us again and again…of course I can also be obsessive.

    That being said, I think what usually kills cliches is not the cliche itself but what surrounds it. Take the sacrificial hero (a great archetype btw), there are lots of these throughout literature (as well as a few in history), that are done wonderfully. However when an author takes that cliche, clothes in with a familiar face, sticks it in a bland setting, and drapes the entire thing with a tired plot that’s been running through hundreds of other books the entire thing winds up being boring.

    Take that same cliche. Now give it a fresh face (maybe a tired old warhorse rather than an eager teen), an interesting setting, and an unfamiliar plot and suddenly that cliche is the basis for a great story.

    I would argue that most great stories have a cliche at their center, sacrifice, redemption, freedom, love, etc. These things stir our emotions, they draw at our heartstrings and cause us to become involved in the story, and renewed through it.

  2. I admire your truly worthy attempt to justify the existence of clichés. =)

    I think you’re right about finding the good in these ideas and tossing out the bad. I would propose that what you are actually doing is looking at an archetype or motif and mining IT for gold. The dross is the cliché itself.

    I’ve always defined the cliché as a good idea gone bad, so really all you have to do is take the bad and trace it back to the original good and work from there. I’m not sure you can take a cliché and use it (except to mock), but you can do historical research on that cliché (that should make certain people happy…) and find out where it came from. Basically, instead of taking the cliché and moving forward, you take the cliché and move backward.

    So in the end, I don’t think you’re actually presenting the cliché in your story. You’re presenting the original totally awesome idea that devolved into a cliché somewhere along the way, but that you have restored to its former glory.

    Ergo, I still argue that all clichés are bad. They are just bad versions of what was once something good. The reason people come back to them is because either they sense that echo of the original greatness or because they simply don’t need anything but a poor cliché to please them.

    I feel like I should have a battle cry of some sort: “Death to clichés! Off with their stereotyped little heads! He’s NOT your father!”

    1. Aren’t you more or less saying what I just said? That a cliche is mainly a good thing that had accumulated garbage over time. When we encounter one, we cut back through the years of encrustation to get to the original idea, something we can use.

      I think we may be playing with semantics here. Once you reach that basic level we both talked about, you just stop calling them cliches and call them something different, which makes them ok.

      I think there’s something to that, btw. If they are no longer recognizable as the original cliche, then–as long as they haven’t become another cliche of a different sort–one must ask why we should besmirch their reputation by calling them a cliche at all. Still, you have to admit that the way you got to that idea was by beginning with a cliche. Just embrace it.

      1. It probably is just semantics and I was, in effect, agreeing with you and saying it in different terms.

        But I do think that it might make a difference how you think about it. Either you’re taking the bad product (the cliche) and simply giving it a fresh coat of paint, but the core is still rotten. Or you’re knocking the whole thing down and not using anything at all, except the essentially good foundation that it was built on. That’s why I balked at the idea of taking a cliche and just “using the good parts.”

        As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing good about a cliche, except that it’s a whole load of fun to mock. The good that you can find in it, is not in the cliche, but in the foundation the cliche was built on. Two separate things.

        I feel like the word cliche… is becoming cliche. Gah!

        And yes, I’m just thinking as I go and this is all sort of going around in circles. We’re pretty much saying the same thing in different ways.

  3. I think Melissa has a point on this one, although she is generally agreeing with Dr. Melton here.

    Cliche- “a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cliche)
    Archetype- “the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/archetype?show=0&t=1286382895)

    So the Cliches are those copies that are badly done. It’s all a matter of execution. It also seems more likely that if you base your idea on an iteration that is itself cliche, your example will be cliche as well unless you are aware of the archetype and consciously rectify the flaws of your example.

    1. Well, that still rather gets down to semantics. After all, it is the audience who decides what is a hackneyed representation and what isn’t. We call the ones we don’t like “cliches” and the ones we do “archetypes.”

      For Melissa, “Luke, I am your father!” is cliche, but for millions of Star Wars fans, it not only recreates an archetype it has become an archetype in and of itself.

      Of course, I’m not arguing that its all relative, but I do think it can be a good check against the sort of intellectual snobbery many authors indulge in at times, and it may open our eyes to new ideas, albeit ideas that may take an insane amount of work to make presentable, but new ideas nonetheless.

      And I think we all agree that a cliche, in any form, should be avoided.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s