Cliches: Why They Don't Suck

Once again, a thread on pet peeves in fan fiction has popped up on one of my lists. And once again, when asked to list particular things that bug them, one person said: "Cliches. All of them." One person's opinion, and valid in that context, but...it triggered my own pet peeve, and now I'm going to rant.

Cliches are not inherently bad.

There are two definitions of cliche we really are dealing with here:
1 - A hackneyed theme, characterization or situation
(Another way to put that is "bad writing", I believe)
and
2 - Something that has become overly familiar or commonplace.

I'm going to address the bad writing aspect of it in a moment, but first, let's address the "overly familiar" aspect of a cliche.

George Polti put together a rather comprehensive tool of plot analysis titled "36 Dramatic Situations"; it's a framework within which one may place dramatic situations. There really are only so many situations into which the protagonist or antagonist, and supporting characters, can be placed. Thirty-six would seem to be an arbitrary number; there may be more, and there may seem to be less, but the idea here is that it has all been done before. The framework is well-established and solid, and now it's all about what we throw over the bones to dress them up, and the level of creativity we exhibit while doing so. Plot archetypes simply - are what they are.

What makes all the difference to whether or not a story/plot/theme can be considered cliched is how it's done. Any of the following issues can drag a story into Cliche Country:
- predictability
- a story that's underwritten (lacks continuity, doesn't hold together well)
- a story that's just plain boring
- bad characterization or use of stereotypes
- trite situations (thinking inside the box, repetition of fanon)
- rushed ending/underdeveloped plot

Fans say they are sick of cliches, but I have a different spin on this. Some fen have plot archetypes, and the things that make them horrible to read, overlaid with one another, though they are not necessarily the same thing . Many fen are simply sick to death of poorly written plots that incorporate overused phrases, quirks, bad characterization and fanon. Some examples: Daniel-as-victim, Blair-as-childhood-abuse-survivor, Fraser-as-repressed-virgin. Or, for example, an "aliens make us have sex" plot without a smidgen of originality, with bad dialogue and hurt without comfort.

We see these things that are too familiar to us, and it's hard to look past them and give a story a chance, because we've experienced the tortuous pain of seeing them done badly over and over again and we're afraid to get sucked in to yet another bottomless, unsatisfying void. It's easy to slap the label "cliche!" on them and toss them away, and let them all rot together in the same pit - but the problem is, that label is slapped on good stories with familiar plots as well, and they suffer by association.

More than that, all of us have our little kinks, things we enjoy. And they're cliches in that sense of being overfamiliar or even commonplace. Most of us have a fondness for one or more of the following situations, when they are written well:

- Aliens are making the boys sleep together (mind control, alien device, etc)
- They hate each other, so they love each other
- Jealousy/betrayal brings them together
- Must pretend to be dating/married/undercover
- Must pose as a prostitute
- What if we met in another time and place
- Coming out/AIDS/reactions of those they work with
- Everyone is gay
- Marooned together
- Must be rescued from rapist/kidnapper/disaster
- Bonds/bonding/telepathy
- Childhood trauma
- Long road of angst before getting together
- Must be bodyguard to other man/protect partner
- Classic h/c (pick a situation, it's all been done before)
- Rape and rape recovery, partner rape
- Gender bending
- MPREG
- Bring 'em back from the dead! (fandoms of denial)
- Primal/dominant behavior (lost mind, under the influence, whatever)
- An AU where canon is significantly changed to replace a female lead with the male lead the writer wants to slash

And really, the list goes on, and on, and on. I don't know about y'all, but some of my favorite stories are in these categories. Just because a story's primary plot fits in somewhere in here does not necessarily make it bad. Am I hitting that point too hard? I don't think so.

Sometimes I wonder - why do I feel the need to apologize for writing variations of these plots? Or wanting them to be written? It's completely possible to transcend stereotypes and cliches and to produce very satisfying stories using overdone scenarios. All that's required is originality, imagination, and hard work to avoid falling into certain traps - you know, the eye-roll moments. Where characters burst into tears, or say things they wouldn't say, and generally add to the dissatisfaction we feel when looking for skillful execution of plot. I maintain that a familiar plot only falls into becoming cliche if it is derivative and completely without meaning or true emotional context.

To see good writers out there apologizing for writing cliches...it burns me up. Many are writers with tremendous imagination and talent, who can take a familiar plot and turn it on its ear. Yet they are hesitant to write or post/share their work because it might be dismissed out of hand.

I want writers to rip into cliches and take me for a ride. I want this in two ways:
1 - Writers who dare to take on a "cliche" and write a good, solid version of it in my fandom, and
2 - Writers who turn a cliche on its head.

Anna S. puts this so well on her recs page: "Cliche, like Michelle, is such a common name, but then you meet Cliche , who is like no other Cliche you've ever met; she's sharp and she's chic and, yes, she wears trendy designer clothes but she makes them her own, she puts her stamp on them, she sets the trend, she reinvents it and makes everyone else look drab. Cliche, you murmur as you gaze at her piquant face over candles, then later, dreamily in your sleep."

Exactly. Oh, how I wish I had said that. And might I add, sometimes I'm in the mood for the version of Cliche who doesn't exactly set the trend - but she does look good, and she's fun, and she's solid, and I enjoy her because she's well put-together, and she's familiar in the way of an old friend, and she's satisfying. You know?

And finally: the thing that makes a story worth reading is conflict of some sort, and emotional underpinnings - understanding your characters, and moving them through situations in a believable way. A quote from The Grand List of Overused Science Fiction Cliches: "Cliches are not in themselves necessarily bad, but their overuse shows that the writer has forgotten what separates the strong tale from the hollow: 'the human heart in conflict with itself', as Faulkner said. Where there is this conflict, the tale stands; where the conflict is absent, the tale falls flat, and in neither case does it matter how many ships get blown up."

I don't have the luxury of making generalizations about hating cliches, because I'd miss good stories that way. If you're a writer who is fretting about this - as I have been known to do, myself, and recently at that – just don't. If what you want to write has been "done before", then don't do it the same way you've seen it done . Write whatever the hell you want; try something new with it. A bad story is a bad story no matter how clever the idea behind it may be, and I'll take a well-written cliche over a poorly written story of any sort, without exception.


Disagree with my point of view? Drop me a line.

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