The 8 Worst Clichés in Fiction

Hero

 

by Michael Cristiano

As a writer, there is always a pressure to write something that can sell. I have a weird relationship with this notion, but for the sake of this post, let’s just say that it’s true.

However, as a freelance editor, I encounter authors every day (whether I do work for them or not) who cave to the pressure of writing something marketable by incorporating clichés into their stories. Don’t get me wrong: using a cliché here or there won’t destroy a novel for me. There are many novels I adore that employ many a cliché.

On the other hand, not all clichés are created equal, and some make me more annoyed (read: inexplicably furious) than others. Here is a list of clichés that I just. can’t. STAND.

 

Chosen Ones

This cliché is at the top of the list for a reason: it is my least favorite cliché. Actually, amendment: it is my most hated cliché. The chosen one cliché stipulates that a character is destined to be the hero and save the entire world because everyone around them or some silly prophecy says so. It completely allows an author to be as un-creative as possible and abstains them from having to think about a character’s motivation. I mean, who *actually* wants to save the world anyway?

Yes, J.K. Rowling did it in Harry Potter, and J.K. Rowling did it well, but other writers are not J.K. Rowling, so they should just stop.

 

“It was all a dream…”

Dreams are the worst. Whether the story opens with a dream or, *gasp*, gets all the way to the end to reveal that the entire story was a dream, there is no simpler way to piss off your reader. Seriously. It is the equivalent of your friend telling you about that one time they went to Los Angeles on vacation, met Zac Efron, went on his private yacht, and then after yapping for an hour, they’re all like, “PSYCH! There was no Zac Efron. I didn’t even go to LA.”

Not only do you feel cheated, but you likely have a headache.

That’s what the “it was all a dream…” cliché feels like. A writer spends a whole scene creating something or developing some plot point, and then BAM!, it never happened. Or worse, the author spends the ENTIRE GOSH-DARN BOOK creating this great story, and then at the end, the character wakes up, pulls the pajamas out of their behind, and is like, “Whoa, that was a weird dream.”

No kidding, sleepy head!

 

Young Adult Fiction

Just as a whole…there are far too many clichés in young adult fiction. I wrote a post about this last year, but I do declare that we are at a state of no return. Young adult fiction has completely taken over, and rightfully so because it’s pretty awesome, but the clichés are out of control.

Whether it’s love triangles or teenagers saving the world or it’s the end of the world, I don’t want to read about it any more. Don’t teenagers live normal lives these days? Does *everyone’s* teenage years have to be a sludge-fest of action scenes, heartbreak, and sexual encounters with supernatural beings?

Don’t answer that.

 

Super Geniuses & Super Humans

I am sick of characters who miraculously know everything and can do everything. Think Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code. That guy was so smart, it was annoying. Why do characters have to know everything? Can’t they just be normal people?

And to top it all off, the worst super-characters are the ones who miraculously figure out that solution to a problem that no one else could figure out…and the solution was so simple that even I could figure it out.

AND the worst part: these picture-perfect, I-do-no-wrong-and-know-everything-about-everything characters always fall unconscious during the most intense moments. Battle scene? Unconscious. Robbery? Unconscious. Tragic moment where their sister dies? Unconscious. Venomous alien-alpacas burst in through the toilets because it turns out the character’s fireplace is one of those suburban fireplaces without a real chimney? UN-FRICKING-CONSCIOUS!

 

RELATED: The Reluctant Hero

I spoke about this a bit in my post about the heroes of young adult fiction, but this same cliché happens in adult fiction of all genres as well. It consists of a main character who is tasked with saving the world (or just solving a problem), and their crippling self-doubt leaves us with paragraph upon paragraph of sniveling self-deprecation. Don’t get me wrong: a healthy dose of uncertainty keeps characters realistic, but stop whining already!

If a character can’t get it together and embrace their purpose, then bring in a stronger character who can!

 

“Mirror, mirror…”

To me, when a character looks in a mirror and says stuff like “I comb my long, black hair and look into my eyes of chocolate brown”, I want to toss the novel out of my window. We all examine ourselves in the mirror, but who describes themself to themselves? Better yet: who uses a copious amount of obscure adjectives to describe themselves? In my opinion, this is lazy storytelling. Incorporate physical descriptions in other ways. Leave the snore-fest of mirror description out.

 

Love… as a Whole

I hate to say it, but love is boring. I know there’s a whole market for novels about love, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about novels that throw love in for the sake of throwing love in. *Yawn*. And even worse: I can’t stand novels that have nothing to do with love but then at the end are like “everything worked out because love is the most powerful force in the world”.

No. Just GTFO.

 

Wise Old People

Don’t get me wrong, I love the elderly (Hi, Nonna!). But they don’t know everything. Stop making old people these all-knowing, wise, do-no-wrong seers that feed the main character quasi-philosophical ramblings and unwanted life advice. Old people want to be left alone. They worked hard all their lives, and the expectation that they’ll provide life-altering guidance is frankly too much weight for their hip replacements.

Unless your wise old character is Yoda. Yoda is a boss.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Michael Cristiano. He works in editing and acquisitions for Curiosity Quills Press, and his freelance work has appeared on websites such as Nexopia, FluentU, and BlushPost.

Advertisements

40 thoughts on “The 8 Worst Clichés in Fiction”

  1. Has anything truer ever been said?
    Chosen ones- Harry Potter and Hunger games, also maze runner
    Young adult fiction- pretty much all the young adult books
    Super humans-Sherlock, Da vinci code, like you said
    Reluctant hero- TRIS PRIOR from divergent
    Love as a whole- I so so hate this, like in the end, the girl gets to kiss the hunk in her maths class because love is most powerful. so so true
    Wise old people- Dumbeldore, but I like that, and in Spiderman movies
    Thanks for the post. Love it! I couldn’t relate more.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Back in the day, “Mirror, mirror” was taught as a writing technique. It’s been used so much that it’s now cliche. I must confess…I do rely on the technique from time to time, usually to depict emotion. So, toss my romance novels out the window! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hilarious and unfortunately so true … sage advice is too heavy for my hip replacement … this cracked me up. A very timely post. I read the first paragraph of a book and it says stuff like “I comb my long, black hair and look into my eyes of chocolate brown”,
    That book will hit the wall fast. Some people can carry off first person and do it well, everyone else should leave it well alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I going to have to slightly disagree here. Tropes and cliches shouldn’t be avoided at all costs. A writer should feel free to look at these tropes/cliches and turn them upside down.

    Chosen one stories where the chosen one is also the reluctant hero or some superhero can be inspirational. However, this common trope assumes that the chosen one is the good guy. All characters are meant to have flaws. Why not make the chose one the sleaziest character ever, one that people just want to loathe? Or why can’t the chosen one really be a bad guy? These sorts of stories come down to the concept of Prophecy. Vague prophecies that could mean almost anything annoy me. Specific prophecies, but missing details… Now those are fun. As a reader you know what’s coming, but when it comes you’re shocked because it didn’t happen the way you expected. Terry Goodkind started to play with those when Richard was able to visually see the prophecies in the dark towers.

    As far as wise old people go… You might have a mentor that you listen to, however, as you point out, they don’t know everything, so why not take that wise old person and point out the fact that they don’t know everything and that the student is meant to surpass the teacher. (Real life research student: by the time the student submits their PhD, they’re meant to know more than their supervisor.)

    And to go through and say that you should avoid all forms of Love? I’m sorry, but if you look at every single story out there, there will be some form of sex and violence in that story — even children’s stories (just not necessarily in your face).

    Ragging on the YA category in its entirety like that? There are some really good YA stories. I will grant you that YA is taking over, so many contests seem to focus on YA submissions, something I personally find frustrating because I write adult. But still…

    I don’t think the message here should be “don’t use cliches.” It should be “if you are going to use them, you better be prepared to turn them upside down and inside out, making the story fresh and new.”

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Pretty much with you on everything except the old people thing. Most old people DO NOT want to be left alone. In fact, often they HATE being left alone. Also, the ones who made it to eighty-plus and raised one or two or three generations successfully and fought a war or built a business or kept a marriage going don’t know everything, but they usually know more than some snotty twenty-year-old (or thirty-year-old) who would really do well to sit down and listen. And they are usually quite willing to share that wisdom.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Your cliches are like my what-the-tuck trends. Does every novel require at least one incident where tucking behind the ear occurs, at least one character with green eyes, and a few others I mention in reviews from time to time. ~nan (AKA pedometer geek)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We’ve all done it. My first completed manuscript was full of prophecies, chosen ones, young love, and evil overlords hell-bent on making sure said prophecies didn’t come true. Let’s just say that novel will NEVER see the light of day again :p

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think you may have missed something. If one views human hopes with anti-intellectual and uncynical eyes you can see that all ordinary people across countries and cultures have in their psyche a desire for a rescuer figure. Tolkien knew this and used it brilliantly hence the reluctant hero Frodo. It is also common to mankind to want love to triumph over all. Maybe that is why these stories are so popular?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m told I’m a realist, that I see and approach problems at their base value. Does this make for a good or even acceptable fiction author? I couldn’t tell you. I just know that I like writing stories. Judging from this list, I’d say you’re a realist too. Although I know there’s a huge market for super heroes and the gooey young adult fiction, I find it all so boring. Love this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. As I sit here upon the mountain pathway that is name(d) the 65th; upon of the Mount Life and look back over the manifold seasons of toil of many years writing I do smile. For I have seen much folly and many mistakes. It has been my lot to be a bad writer. For is not a bad writer one who is a mirror for those who can glance(d) over the shoulder and espy failure and error and so do learn thus to walk on with youth and vigour and make wonderful works of literature?
    Ah, it has not been an easy task and heavy was the burden upon my soul, and oft did I rail against it, and yet, in the confluence and jest which is Life eventually did I realise(d) my lot and strove to carry the weight of the wisdom gain(ed), ever willing and yet angry to conduct me task and be a paradoxical beacon.
    Then came(d) this one day, after toil did I achieve and modicum of success and was offered the contract previously beyond my grasp, and with trembling hands reached out to sign….
    ….Then the alarm clock went off…….
    And so, here I do sit…..in grim splendour, mirthful and mindful, that in the final analysis, let the world shake and spin, I will not change(d), for I am…
    C’ilche.

    (That wuz fun!….What? Me Worry?)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Love this list, but I’m not sure about the Robert Langdon character as an example. It took him an entire chapter sometimes to figure out something as basic as mirror-writing — something a lot of people can read almost as well as regular writing. He was more of a lesser idiot.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Are cliches not cliches if used properly? Take the whole ‘having a dream’ thing. I started the second novel of a trilogy I’m writing with the protagonist dreaming. Correction: she’s having a nightmare which is a warped version of an event that happened in the first book. I did it for two reasons–to ground the beginning events with links to the previous book, and also as a means of conveying a sense of guilt the protagonist is having over a characters death.

    Like

  12. I’m proud to say that my upcoming book “Medieval Vixen Quest Episode 0” is breaking most of these rules. Then again, I aim for making cheesy fiction fun.

    The reluctant hero is a very old trope, going back to Homer at least. That one is part of the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey, My take is that if you play something like that seriously, it must be suitably original.

    Like

  13. Oh yeah…..

    I spat the dummy at a romcom last night. How many airport dashes with “just missed” moments and unlikely romantic pairings can you handle without wanting to slap a lazy writer?

    Like

  14. I will have to disagree with you on the reluctant hero thing. I am writing a novel where the protagonist suffers from social anxiety and as a result is reluctant to do a lot of things. It sounds insensitive (or rather offensive) to say that the reluctance of such characters is just whining instead of actually trying to understand their problem. And bringing in a stronger character would completely fail the purpose of making a character with social phobia the protagonist.

    The entire point of such stories is to show the journey of the character from reluctance to acceptance. Their hesitation isn’t whining. And it is necessary to show a good amount of reluctance to make their subsequent transformation have that much impact.

    Like

  15. I agree. Sometimes it’s hard to think up a plot theme that is cliche-free. Also, agents and editors cringe at the use of cliches within a manuscript – unless you write something like “she looks like a million bucks, tax free.” 🙂 (I heard that line at a writer’s conference)

    Like

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s