Everything Old Is New Again: How Not To Be Afraid of Clichés

Cliché.  Perhaps the most dreaded word in the history of writing.  The last thing any writer wants to hear about their work is, “This story is so unoriginal.  It’s riddled with clichés!”

The dictionary definition of a cliché is:

  1. a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, such as “sadder but wiser,” or “strong as an ox.”
  2. (in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.
  3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse.

It’s a word, phrase, stereotype, character type, or even storyline that is way, way, WAY overused.  I’ve heard some people accuse Shakespeare of using too many clichés.  Little do they realize that he came up with half of the expressions that were so witty and original at the time that everyone wanted to use them until society got sick of them.

Cliché’s very close cousin, “the trope” seems to be somewhere between a cliché and an archetype.  Tropes show up in many works as recognizable patterns, but haven’t become so common or so overused that they descend into the Exile of Cliché-dom.  (See “TV Tropes” for more details.  I’ve heard it’s an addictive site.)

However, there is also something called “the archetype,” which is defined as “an original pattern or model, a prototype.”  These are characters and storylines that somehow resonate with the human psyche throughout time, place, and culture.  Most mythologies, folklore, and fairy tales contain archetypes such as the hero’s quest.  (Read anything by Joseph Campbell if you are interested in learning more about archetypes and mythology.  He is THE expert.)

So, you might be asking yourself, what is the difference between a deep-set, resonating archetype and an overused cliché?

Honestly, not much.  Only the trappings really differ.

I think that the fear of cliché is grossly over-exaggerated.  So many new writers hear about the horrors of Cliché-dom and obsess over their work, wanting to make it as “original” as possible.  The moment they hear about another work already using something that they wanted to do in their story, they scratch it out and try to make their story “be nothing like anything else.”

News flash:   we are creatures of influence.  Everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or experience influences us, our thoughts, and our imaginations.  And quite frankly, by now, there is very little completely new pioneering that can be done in fiction.  There is such a wealth of material out there that it is next to impossible to create something that stands utterly apart from anything that has come previously.  Those new writers who try to create their work in a vacuum?  Too often by shying away from their own creativity and struggling to stay free of clichés, their work actually becomes MORE clichéd than if they’d gone with their gut in the first place.

I speak from personal experience, and my friend and fellow writer Foxglove Zayuri can back me up on this.  Both of us have experienced that terror of clichés, the desire to be completely and utterly original.  But the more we tried to avoid clichés, the more our work became flat, insipid, and practically collapsing from the weight of the very thing we wanted to avoid.  Depressed and frustrated, we decided to stop comparing our work to other works, to stop looking for clichés, and just write what felt natural to us and to the story.

Guess what?  Our writing got better.  By not actively avoiding clichés, our stories became more original and we started having fun writing again.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t worry about clichés at all?  No, you should be aware of clichés, but not be so absolutely terrified of using them.  In some cases, even if it is a cliché, the story may demand it.  The best thing to do with clichés is to put your own twist on them to take something stale and overused and giving it a fresh infusion of lie and originality.

My favorite genre, fantasy, is often accused of over-using cliché.  After all, seriously, how many stories can you really have with dragons, unicorns, and elves?  How original can that be?  You may be surprised at how many different variations of those three creatures alone there are in fantasy.  Granted, there are some common elements that many fantasy stories have (dragons breathe fire and love gold, elves are long-lived, beautiful, and haughty, unicorns are white and are drawn to virgins), but the fun part is seeing how different authors take those clichés and turn them into something new.

For example, Elizabeth Haydon’s Symphony of Ages series has elves in it.  If you’ve read the books, you might know them as “Lirin.”  Elizabeth Haydon took elements from traditional elves and created a very new, very original race with their own habits, customs, and sub-species.  They are longer-lived than humans, beautiful, elegant, and love music and nature.  They have elvish roots, but are certainly not clichés.

AnnMcCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series has dragons that breathe fire, but the fire comes from eating a substance known as firestone that creates a chemical reaction to allow the dragons to flame.  And what are those flames used for?  Why, to burn the parasitic filaments known as “Thread” that swarm Pern every few centuries from the sky.  Oh, and the dragons were bred large enough to carry humans by the original colonists of Pern from the tiny native flying lizards.  Does any of that sound clichéd to you?

Diana Peterfreund’s book Rampant and short story “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” feature beautiful white unicorns and those unicorns do have an attraction to and respect for virgin women.  But they are also poisonous, fanged, flesh-eating monsters that have been hunted into extinction by an order of virgin warrior-maidens.  (This apparently wasn’t quite as successful as people hoped since the unicorns are back in action.)  Does it have traditional “clichéd” unicorn traits?  Sure.  Is the story itself clichéd?  Absolutely not!

Rather than being afraid of clichés, you should be aware of them and use what you see around you to your advantage.  While a lot of ideas in fiction may have been used before, keep track of the ones that interest you to incorporate in your own writing with your own twist.  I do this with my own writing.

For example, I was first introduced to the concept of “ley-lines,” currents of magical energy running through the land like invisible rivers, when I read Mercedes Lackey‘s Magewinds Trilogy.  Then, later, I read C.S. Friedman‘s Coldfire Trilogy in which magic, called “fae” is fueled by the energy of shifting tectonic plates.  When an earthquake occurs, the fae become “too hot” to handle safely, and any mage who tries ends up burning their brains out with the magic.  I combined these two ideas of the rivers of power with the heat of magic being too strong for people to manage into the magical system of The Mariner Sequence.  In my version, magic does run through ley-lines all over Marina.  However, wizards have to harvest magic from the edges of ley-lines, like harvesting heat.  The deeper you reached, the more potent the power, but if a wizard reaches too deeply into the ley-lines, they risk being destroyed by the magic.

You can see how, by reading about two different magical systems how I combined elements of both into something new and, to my knowledge, unique.  Use clichés and traditions within your genre to your advantage.  Keep your eyes and mind open to new, unlikely possibilities.  And above all, don’t try to censor your writing to meet the expectations of an imaginary audience.  (You can work on that during the editing process.)  Writing is from your imagination, so go wild!

2 thoughts on “Everything Old Is New Again: How Not To Be Afraid of Clichés

  1. I don’t know about your students, but I know MY kids ride unonircs and play with elves.June is coming. One more quarter and you’ve made it!!! Breathe deep. And go lasso a unicorn for your kids. 🙂

    1. I’ve actually been out of school for three years and don’t have any students or kids, but I’m glad yours enjoy fantasy as much as I do!

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