Quit the Narrative and Character Cliches

We’ve all read that book; the one with the over-used, unimaginative clichés. If we’re totally honest with ourselves, we have all written that one book too. It sits nestled in the back of the folder or drawer and should stay there for all eternity.

So, what is a cliché?

Definition: A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

I couldn’t have put it better myself- ‘lack of original thought’. Narrative and character clichés are predictable and dull.

  1. Damsel in distress: beautiful, but weak female protagonist without a personality, who constantly needs to be rescued by her hunky boyfriend <yuk>.
  2. The ‘Chosen One’ prophecy.
  3. Brooding, handsome love interest without a personality of his own.
  4. The villain sat in a chair, petting a white cat, and being mean for the sake of being mean.
  5. Wise, elderly advisor/mentor: the protagonist usually ignores their advice much to their own repentance.
  6. Love triangle…<yawn>.
  7. A return from the grave: the ‘but you’re dead’ line.
  8. Hate turning to love: ‘I hate you’… four chapters later…’I love you.’

As with any advice, I believe in ‘each to their own’. Some writer’s may not agree with my list, and if you can take a cliché and make it original and fresh, I take my hat off to you. One or two clichés may be unavoidable in your narrative, but stories littered with the above clichés are a huge turn off for me.

Do you have any clichés that grate on you as a reader? Have you read a story with a fresh take on an old cliché? Please, let me know.

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14 thoughts on “Quit the Narrative and Character Cliches

  1. I’d like to wade in and answer one of the questions presented at the end of your essay. I notice that some of the literary cliches have rubbed off on people in real life and I think that if writers and publishers took the time to support original characters, we would not all wait around to be 1, 2, for 3 to do 8 after 6 goes wrong. x

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    1. Brilliant point, well made! Yes, living the cliché is ten times worse than reading about it. I agree, original characters with original opinions are increasingly needed, especially in children’s and YA novels where the target audience are impressionable.

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  2. “… and then little Jimmy woke up, and found that it was all a dream.”

    Go away! A book ending like that is such a big disappointment to me, because neither main character nor story are still special. I have dreams, too, thank you very much. I don’t want to read about some other person having a dream. If I read about someone riding a dragon I want that to be real at least in their universe!

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    1. Yes, it undermines the whole story! I read The Sleep Room by FR Tallis at the beginning of the year and was incredibly disappointed by the ending. The Dr, whose P.O.V we followed throughout, was actually the delusional one, and it was kind of all in his own head! Why a modern author would cheat readers with a lazy ending like that is beyond me?

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  3. First of all, I have to say, “I can’t believe I actually avoided all of those cliches in my first novel and so far in my second.” I think it helped me, though, that my protagonist, Kara, is a writer and so recognizes a cliche that either happens or could happen throughout the story. Yeah, I do have a few cliches in my novels, but they’re pointed out and thoroughly laughed at, even making fun of myself for using a cliche. For example, in my second novel, when a plan to thwart the antagonist is concocted, a plan that Kara finds is so similar to the plan of action in the first novel, she thinks to herself, ‘Sounds like the same thing we did the last time. Christ, it’s like I’m living in a lazily-written sequel.’

    So yeah, I’ll use a cliche, but only in an intentional way that will hopefully add some humor to the story.

    As for cliches that grate on me, I’m really tiring of the ‘Young man/woman coming from nothing rises up to challenge the established order of things’ cliche. I think you know which books and movies of those books that I’m talking about. 😉

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    1. Oooo, I like the idea of you using a cliché to add humour! I think some clichés are unavoidable, but as long as the story content, characters, and plot twists are fresh, it is acceptable, and can pay off.

      My biggest peeve is the first on my list. Feminism has happened, and still female protagonists can be written as weak, beautiful, delicate creatures who need a hunky hero to protect them… (Bella Swan, Twilight.. cough). Don’t get me wrong, I love a good romance, but I love a strong female character who contributes equally if not more. 🙂

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      1. Same here. I’m sort of Joss Whedon feminist, someone who enjoys seeing young women in empowered roles. I tend to avoid hunky heroes because I’m not hunky and so I would only be giving into my own empowerment fantasies if I dared to write a male character that way. Haha.

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      2. I am Whedonite, and totally agree! I like hunky love interests, but they have to have a brain and their own personality ( see cliché two) ;).

        They say every character we write has facets of ourselves in them. Only a few days ago a relative finished reading my book and said, “Teddie isn’t like you in 99% of her character traits, but she is as stubborn as hell and that ‘is’ you! You know the part when she flips him the bird?… Totally you!” Perhaps that has something to do with my empowered female antagonists?

        I find it fascinating when people point things like that out to me. Psychologists would have a field day 😉

        George R.R Martin says it the best: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/154811305914315883/

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      3. That’s a great quote! Haha! 🙂

        I think if a psychologist read my writings and knew that I put a piece of myself into every character, they’d be diagnosing me with some sort of multiple personality disorder. Seriously, whenever I argue with myself about something, I’ll put it into a story as different characters arguing with each other and it’ll play out as normal, whereas those arguments existing only through me is abnormal. I get the feeling I’m not the only person who does this and feels completely insane every time.

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      4. I think all us writers are a little bat s**t crazy, and we just have to find readers who are at the same level of crazy as us 😉 Writing is great therapy, so we’re probably better adjusted than most… now that does sound crazy haha

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  4. I’m battling the damsel in distress cliché at this very moment. I’m striving to include strong, powerful, intelligent female characters in my book, and my female lead keeps coming across as wimpy! Being aware of these clichés has really helped my efforts. Thank you for sharing this. 😊

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    1. No worries- I’m glad it helped. It’s the hunky love interest that gets me 😉 I think it’s a balancing act, and the trick is to get the scales level… (it’s that easy she says :/ ) I think some clichés are unavoidable, but making characters flawed and believable is a big help to shake the cliché.

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