That's right, you too could be trapped in a cliche.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary a cliche is:

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

a. A very predictable or unoriginal thing or person

2. A stereotype or electrotype

The term ‘cliche’ comes from a French word meaning to stereotype, and that is the primary definition I want to use for this series of articles; though some of the first definition will be present.

For the purposes of fantasy literature, a cliche is a phrase, character, archetype, or plotting tool/structure that has become common in fantasy writing.  Some examples of cliched characters and character archetypes are the farm boy hero, the elderly hermit mentor, the damsel in distress, the virtuous knight, or the evil overlord.  Each of these has seen a great amount of use in both late myth and legend/early narrative (e.g. Tales of King Arthur), as well as in modern fantasy.

The heroic quest has also become a cliched plot device in modern fantasy because of its overuse, as has the coming of age story.  Now, of course, this is far from being a complete list of fantasy cliches (there are quite a few of them after all), but it should give you the general idea of what to look for.  If you are writing your first novel, and you have seen an idea repeatedly in your reading, then you should probably avoid trying to write something distinctly similar.

Of course, if we took this as absolute truth, then most of us would never write anything at all.  Everything has been written before and, honestly, just about everything is cliche to someone, so we have to deal with cliches to some degree.  The two things to keep in mind are 1) What is a cliche to your target audience? and 2) What can you get away with?

Because you can definitely do a better job than J.M. Barrie...or not.

First of all remember that readers define cliches by what they have read before.  If your audience is adolescents then you can probably get away with a lot more cliches than someone writing for an adult audience.  Furthermore, if you are writing dark fantasy you have to deal with different cliches than you do writing heroic fantasy, or romantic fantasy.   Your first responsibility is to know which cliches you have to deal with.

Secondly, you need to figure out what your audience will enjoy, what they will accept, what they will forgive, and what they will hate, and then you need to treat each accordingly.  What you can get away with is very important, because this will be the limit of what you can actually write.  Remember that.

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3 thoughts on “What is a Cliche?

  1. Hahaha, that is pretty much what it comes down to. Every reader is going to think of different things as cliche. Personally I have trouble with medieval European fantasy settings in general. Give me something new…and I can’t finish coming of age stories. I recently borrowed Sabriel by Garth Nix from a friend…I made it about half way through. Great world, well written, a good book, but the story is a coming of age story. I got very bored, very fast. Someone else, actually a lot of other people, would love the book.

    Obviously you can’t predict the reactions of every single reader, and you can’t write for everyone. However, you can find out who is likely to like you’re writing and avoid things that they will see as trite and cliche.

  2. I think you’re missing one golden opportunity that few people notice. In fact, really, I can only think of one good example of it. The opportunity is to start with a blatant cliche and then build that into a real, fleshed out, non-stereotypical whatever. The example I love is Babylon 5. Almost all the major characters start out as unbridled cliches, especially the head of security, Garibaldi. He’s the private-eye kind of security guard, with lots of underworld contacts, a finger on the pulse of the station, and to boot it all, he’s even an alcoholic. And then they start building. He’s a recovering alcoholic, so he drinks water and fruit juices. He has an ex-wife. The ex isn’t violently anti-him, things just didn’t work out. He likes old-Earth stuff, like pistols and motorcycles and Daffy Duck. He makes friends with ambassadors and the like. He has a tendency to not notice he’s in over his head until he’s already there. Etc. By the end of just season one, a cliche has become a real character.

    In a more obvious example, Terry Pratchett often does the same thing, but more intentionally. He intends for you to notice the cliches and puns, groan at seeing them, marvel as he magically transforms them into real things, and continue to groan as the puns and cliches are beaten to death until all that remains is the real thing. It’s wonderful fun!

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