(Note: I am not insulting or any of the titles mentioned below. They are only being used to make a point. Also, some mature language is used, so you beware.)
Have you ever read a negative review for a book, or movie, where the author complains about the story being clichéd? I have, all of the time. As an author, I am very conscious about how many of the plot points in my books might be seen as clichéd. While in the seventh grade, I had an English assignment where I was to write a short story, and one of the warnings my teacher gave was to not use clichés. If you ever read books on how to write well, or on how to write a novel, one of the warnings those books give is to not use clichés. You can find entire websites and blogs displaying every cliché they hate and how it should be avoided. Well, here’s a newsflash: life is a cliché.
People who complain about clichés, and will often use the phrase, “the storyline was contrived and too clichéd” to sum up why they didn’t like the book are, in actuality, committing a cliché. It has become very commonplace for those who fancy themselves to be critics to complain about the amount of clichés in their list of complaints. It’s also an easy way for them to explain away their distaste without having to explain anything.
We are often told how evil clichés are. Think of them as wearing the stereotypical black goatee with a black cape and hat while giving you an evil grin. (Did I just come up with another cliché?) The word cliché has such a stigma attached to it, that anytime we hear it, we run from it.
Recently, I placed a book for sale on Amazon and asked some advice from fellow authors and friends about the description. The first bit of feedback was, “it’s clichéd.” That’s it. No advice on how she would make it better, or on how to not make it so clichéd. One person tried to tell me how to get rid of the clichéd book description by making it more emotional, but in doing that, the description would still be clichéd.
So you may be asking yourself why I’m writing this post. The answer is simple: I’m tired of the “it’s clichéd” complaint, as though that’s supposed to sum up everything that’s wrong with a book.
We need to get rid of the stigma that is associated with clichés. They exist. They are part of everyday life, there is no getting away from them, and believe it or not, your whole routine could be a cliché. When I received that complaint about my book description being clichéd, I spent four hours researching clichés and looking for advice on how to avoid them. I discovered long lists of all of the clichés that people, all of whom think they can write better than anyone else, hate. And here was my conclusion afterward: Fuck you, you cliché hating critics!
Now that I have gotten that out of my system, let’s continue. Critics are your holier than thou people, who think they can do everything better than everyone else, but possess no smidgeon of talent, other than putting people down, and are happiest when they tear apart the dreams of another person all in the name of constructive criticism. (Was that just another cliché?) Don’t get me wrong, critics have their place and sometimes they mention something worth pondering about, but in my experience as an author, most critics are just a-holes who feel that they need to tear people apart so that they can feel important. You can usually tell your good critics from the bad. Most good critics, those that have some semblance of a conscious, will point out what they liked about a book in addition to what they didn’t like. However, in talking about what they didn’t like, they will give details on how they might have done it differently, or on what can be done to improve it, in their opinion.
The bad critics are the ones who complain and complain and are very vague, or too detailed, in their complaint. Most of them will say things like:
The storyline was contrived.
It was clichéd.
There were some typos and editorial errors.
Reads like an essay from my sixth grade students.
Not enough twists, or realism.
I saw the ending coming a mile away.
I had one reviewer give my book Dystopia 2 stars after pointing out everything she hated about the main character. Her biggest complaint: the character had no special qualities and abilities so she had no reason to be the heroine. On the flip side, this person complains about how clichéd it is for the hero / heroine to have special abilities.
One of the biggest complaints critics have about clichés is that they are unoriginal, and they want something fresh, new, bold, and exciting that has never been done before. Here’s the problem authors face: it has all been done before. Do you know why clichés are used? Because they work.
One of the biggest complaints about fantasy books is that the “chosen one” storyline is overused and clichéd. There are always elves and dwarves. It always has a medieval type setting, or is set modern day, but the fantasy world is hidden from normal human beings. Here’s the thing: every genre has its own list of what needs to be there to make it that genre. Fantasy always has magical creatures and sword fights and will usually have a “chosen one” aspect to it. If you don’t like it, don’t read fantasy. Apocalyptic stories will begins with a world that has been returned to pre-industrialized times because of a plague or nuclear war and the survivors must learn to survive. A story with zombies will always have its characters trying to escape the hoard of walking dead that can only be killed if you chop off their heads. Science fiction always takes place in space and on other, exotic planets. Critics will always be frustrated old farts who complain about these same old clichés, thus becoming clichés themselves.
Think of the story where the unsuspecting main character grows up in a rural type setting, away from the harsh realities of the world, and finds himself ripped from his home and thrust into a world he doesn’t know. But our protagonist is not alone. He has a friend who is wiser than him, maybe older, maybe younger, and a small band of colleagues that join him. After facing many trials, the story reaches its conclusion where an over the top battle takes place, but he prevails, and returns home victorious, but changed and usually more mature than when he left home. Does this clichéd storyline sound familiar? It should. I just describe The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Inheritance Series, the Shannara Series, Wheel of Time, and Star Trek. I bet you never thought of these as clichéd, unless of course you’re a frustrated critic who knows everything.
You want something more original? Let’s try this:
The protagonist who is never seen and can never be caught. You only meet him when he wants you to. He is very elusive and no matter how much law enforcement try, they can’t catch him. The man has a code of ethics, that is far superior to our own, is good looking, of course, but possesses deadly skills (marksmanship, martial arts) and can kill when necessary.
Oh, wait, I just described Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series.
Well, let’s try the super spy that is damn good looking. Drinks, but we won’t hold that against him. Is very loyal to his country and the few friends he has. Has tons of sex with delicious looking women. (Why can’t I look that good in a bikini?) Always has to thwart these villains that are bent on some form of world domination because they have daddy issues, or are just psychotic. And no matter how difficult and life threatening the situation, our hero prevails without messing up his gorgeous hair.
Shit…that’s James Bond.
No, what we really need is a story where the hero is a young woman, late teens maybe, who is on the cusp of being an adult. She is already very mature for her age, but insignificant. If you passed her on the street, you would not look twice at her. She possess no real talent. She might have one skill she is good at, but most people don’t notice or care. Isn’t that gorgeous, because we’re tire of every woman being a sex toy and it’s her character that matters, not her looks. She’s not rich and has a family to think of. By all rights, this young woman is, well, blah. But then she is forced to make a choice, either her family is threatened, or it’s a rite of passage type thing, but her decision is unique and starts an uprising. Society suddenly find itself turned on its head, and the people in charge are not happy so they vow revenge. And before our heroine knows it, she is caught up in a civil war and finds herself the unwitting leader, or symbol, of this war and must fight just to protect her family.
And that is Hunger Games and Divergent.
Maybe I can make it where the main character fails in her fight against an oppressive government. Nope, that’s been done to death by George Orwell.
I know. Zombies! Everyone loves zombies! Nope, nothing non clichéd there. Think The Walking Dead, World War Z, Hollowland, and every other zombie book written or move / television show ever made.
Perhaps I could write a story about someone who stumbles upon a body and, because the cops are unable to discover who did it, the protagonist turns amateur sleuth and solves the mystery. Yep, that describes every murder mystery ever written.
But a story about a sexy hunk of a man, who is somewhat barbaric in his mannerisms, yet has a heart of gold, meets a super model woman who is being forced to marry someone she doesn’t want. They can either fall madly in love at first, or hate each other at first before falling in love, but once they do fall in love they have tons of sex! And that, ladies and gentleman, is every romance novel to date.
No, we should have a weak willed female as our heroine who meets this beyond gorgeous guy and becomes very taken by him. Then, she obsesses over him and they have this romance that most normal people would never bother with because the guy is a creepy stalker or a self-absorbed, arrogant sadist. Can we say Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.
Well, here’s something that’s never been done. A bunch of people, children or adults, travel through a magical portal and---BWAHAAAHAAAHAAA—so, been done before.
How about a child who discovers that he is more than he seems, and on top of that, there is this whole other realm that exists right under our noses (Oh, look, I used a clichéd phrase!) and must learn to live there, make friends, despite his awkwardness, and destroy the evil villain. Hello Harry Potter and Charlie Bone. Fablehaven kind of falls under this as well, except it’s a brother and sister who are the heroes.
Are you starting to see my point? All of these stories are huge bestsellers, whether on the New York Times or the box office, that many people love. Yet, they are all just as clichéd with the same overused, clichéd storylines. So why do we like them? Because their clichéd storylines work. The authors have managed to give them a twist, or touch of originality, but in the end, they aren’t that different from anything that has been done before.
And if you are thinking that you can add a bit of realism to your story by making your hero flawed, or tragic, have so many twists and turns that no one knows what the hell is going on, have a love triangle, or have your character come to some sort of enlightenment and that that will make your story fresh and original, think again. Those elements are all clichéd.
If you are an author who has received these same negative reviews, or an aspiring author, don’t worry about the clichés that are part of your book. they are going to creep in there because they are everywhere and are a part of us. Try to make them different, and your own, if you can. As authors, our job is to try and use the same old storyline, while making it our own and giving it a fresh perspective, and that isn’t easy. But we also understand that every genre has elements that are expected to be there. Can you imagine a fantasy without elves or dwarves, or even dragons? Maybe write one about a dwarf who loves to drink Irish whiskey and loves a good fight, as well as treasure. Duh! Another cliché. Well, except for the Irish Whiskey part. (By the way, if you use that idea, I’ll take 1% of the royalties, and a thank you.)
In my first novel (Legends Lost: Amborese), I used the clichéd “chosen one”, grows up an orphan, is young and a peasant, has a talking animal friend, an older, and wiser, mentor, and carries a magical piece of jewelry storyline. (This was all before I knew, or cared about, clichés.) It also has dwarves, elves, and dragons (Oh, my!) in it. After publishing this, and other novels, I soon learned about clichés, and how critics love to use the term “it’s clichéd” as their reason for hating the book. However, I wouldn’t take the clichés out of it because they are all part of the story.
So, if you are an author, and someone complains about how clichéd your book is, consider it--sometimes a critic does point out a valuable piece of information; for instance, one did point out a glaring typo on a page of my book, which I corrected—but, otherwise, ignore them and move on. Write your story, make it your own, and don’t dwell on the negative reviews. Critics should get off their lazy butts and try writing something new, fresh, and orginal themselves instead of always complaining about how cliched or unoriginal stuff is. Writing a book is not easy and making it your own is even harder.
And here’s a non-clichéd story for you. A critic who always complains about how clichéd and unoriginal the stories of modern authors are, but then gets eaten by his computer, which turns out to be another portal, and is forced to live in a clichéd and unoriginal story. Damn! I just described Tron and every other magical portal story. Oh, well. I tried.
Janet McNulty is the author of many clichéd books: the type that drive critics nuts. Among her works include her Legends Lost fantasy series, published under the pen name Nova Rose, and have the clichéd dwarves and elves, that annoying prologue, and “chosen one” storyline. For those who like more light-hearted fare, check out her Mellow Summers novella series (the clichéd amateur sleuth who is always smarter than the cops).
Be sure to check out her latest novel, Solaris Seethes, a space adventure that takes place on exotic worlds—without the scantily clad women (Sorry, guys)—with a rag tag group of heroes that must stop a madman from destroying the universe and will make you say, “OMFG! Not another clichéd space adventure!” The book is available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the iBookstore.