Sooner or later, most writers go through a period of worrying that their work is full of clichés. Some folks take this to ridiculous extremes; one person I ran into was worried about their heroine’s hair color, because it just seemed clichéd to have her be blonde, brunette, or redhead, but the writer couldn’t think of anything else (non-natural hair colors having been discarded for some reason).
People fret endlesslyabout whether their plot has been used before, or used so often it’s become clichéd. Some of them get so worried that they deliberately invert every cliché they can identify, in hopes of avoiding anything that’s been done before. Unfortunately, the opposite of a cliché is no more original or not-clichéd than the cliché it’s based on, which is not at all.
The thing is, you can find a way to sum up anystory in one sentence that sounds clichéd, stupid, and/or boring. “An ambitious man murders his way to the throne, then commits more murders to cover up his crimes” is as much a description of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “Richard III” as of assorted evil-overlord modern fantasy stereotypes. It’s not the clichés; it’s what you do with them.
So…what do you do with them?
First, you pay attention to the details and to why you’re doing whatever-it-is. A lot of the time, a clichéd plot twist or stereotyped character is the easy road…and the easy road is seldom the most interesting or effective one, which is why clichés have such a bad name. Those are the times when you probably shouldn’t try using one.
But there are plenty of times when doing the “clichéd” thing is exactly what’s right for the story. Take the opening scenes of Lois Bujold’s Mirror Dance. Mark, the central character, looks at a wall covered with decorative mirror tiles and describes the splintered image of himself he sees there. Having a character describe himself by looking in a mirror is a horrible cliché that nearly every how-to-write book or blog recommends not doing…except that in this case, the fractured image is not only thematically appropriate and ties the title to the book in a way different from what unfolds later, it also hints that he sees himself as a broken image of his brother and foreshadows the eventual fracturing of Mark’s personality. It’s brilliant; nothing else would have worked on so many levels.
There are also times when you can use the reader’s familiarity with a cliché against them, so that they’re expecting one outcome from a situation and get another. This can be a dramatic twist or used for comic effect, depending on how you play it.
And of course, if you’re Shakespeare, you take the basic clichéd plot and write “Macbeth” or “Richard III.” Which is to say that very few people will complain if you take a too-familiar story or character and really dig deep into the motivations, make it rich, elaborate on the things it shows us about ourselves. Because the reason clichés are clichés is that they’re things that have been used way too often…and the reason they get used so often is that they have such broad appeal and recognition. And great literature is supposed to try to speak to the universality of the human condition, isn’t it?
Be warned that when I say “very few people will complain,” I don’t mean no people will complain. There are always folks around who have memorized a list of no-nos without understanding the reasons behind them, and they will complain bitterly if they notice you using anything on their list, regardless of what you’ve done with it or why. If this is going to bother you…grow a tougher skin. There is no reason to deny yourself a useful writing tool because some people loudly dislike it.