This discussion is based on a panel author Geri Krotow and I did at an RWA conference in 2013. With regard to cliché things haven’t changed much since then, but the list has grown…
What exactly is the meaning of “cliché”?
Cliché refers to the overused, the overfamiliar. Any term or approach that becomes too familiar is numbing to the reader—and deadening to the story. Clichés are a short cut, a kind of code that prevents or at the very least gets in the way of both clear thinking and genuine observation.
Cliché flattens the narrative, makes it uninteresting and, often, untrue. Admittedly, at one time a clichéd expression or description or character action was usually an interesting one. One that seemed real. Even original. Then it caught on in that viral way things do (if you’ll excuse that cliché) and became, through overuse and overfamiliarity…a cliché. Dead and deadening.
In fact, one of my favorite quotes about this is the description by James Wood in his very good How Fiction Works: cliché is a dead metaphor. We can all think of countless examples…
Another relevant quote is this one from the introduction to Martin Amis’s book of essays, The War Against Cliché. In this perfect summary, he says: “To idealize: all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy and reverberation of voice.”
Cliché can exist in all aspects of the story—language, characterization—which includes dialogue, traits, appearance and actions—and of course plot.
Avoiding clichés in characterization
With clichéd writing, your story will lack deep and genuine characterization, originality, immediacy. There can be no intense reader engagement, no true surprise or satisfaction—and this is principally because the writer has created predictable characters and a predictable story. Research has shown that predictability is romance readers’ number one complaint about romance fiction, and this will be the case with other genre fiction—and, often, fiction in general.
What writers (of any kind) do when they resort to cliché is use shortcuts. Skimming the surface.
Let’s talk a little about clichés of characterization, since characterization is the basis of most fiction. These are books about people and the ways they relate to each other, the ways they bond—through love for a partner, family, children, friends, community. Your reader needs to connect with and believe in your characters, care about them. And to create that kind of character, you need to develop and depend on your skills of observation, pay attention to the people around you. Pay attention to how different kinds of personalities act and react in different kinds of situations. As the talented novelist Margot Early says: Tell the truth about your characters. And that means you have to know your characters.
Geri Krotow—Cliché in characterization depends on the genre. In contemporary romance, for instance, it’s common to have a down-on-her-luck heroine with the goal of succeeding at her new business or venture, or sometimes coping after an economic catastrophe. It becomes clichéd when the heroine’s motivations aren’t organic to her goals, and even more clichéd when the conflict is too predictable. Give your readers something new yet relatable, and you’ll avoid cliché.
Distinguishing between archetype and stereotype
In pretty well all genre fiction—and indeed, fiction of any kind—characters often have a larger-than-life basis, one that derives from age-old forces and primal experiences. These tell the recurring story of the human race—regardless of country, culture or era. What I’m talking about, of course, is archetypes.
The term "archetype" comes from the ancient Greek for "original or old"; and typos, "pattern, model or type." Jerome Stern in his valuable book, Making Shapely Fiction, says: “Some writers try to create figures that are archetypes before they are characters. These usually don’t come to life on the page. … Great writers have understood that if you create a fresh, individual character or a vivid, moving experience, you suggest all human experience… If you’re afraid that specificity of detail limits the significance of your characters, you’ll cut yourself off from your most original and vital material.”
There’s value in archetypes, of course; they play a role in the culture (indeed they belong to the human experience in a way that crosses cultural barriers) and, as Jung famously put it, they’re part of the collective unconscious. Archetypes describe the most basic human roles and experiences—love, family, belonging, parenthood, authority, faith and so on.
Stereotypes are a debased form of archetype, you might say. Definitions of stereotype focus on the fact that they’re formulaic and oversimplified. To quote Stern again, “This negative term is used when writers create characters whose traits have so little individuality that readers are merely reminded of how often they’ve seen that type done before. A stereotype is a particular form of cliché.” And he adds: “If readers feel a character is a stereotype, it means the writer has not perceived anything new, that [he or she] has simply described the obvious traits.”
So, to avoid clichés of characterization—in appearance, in action, reaction, dialogue—you, as the writer, need to base your characters, above all, on personal observation. Not on the kind of received wisdom, so to speak, that comes from the many novels you’ve already read. Archetypes have a great deal to do with a character’s role in relation to others, but in order to avoid stereotyping and cliché you need to start not with what you see as an archetypal character but with honest, believable traits and situations.
In other words, as Stern indicates in the quote above, real universality comes from individuality.
You need to find individual traits and situations that are also recognizable, relatable. That’s the hallmark of good, uncliched characterization. These traits and situations, actions and reactions, need to cohere in a believable personality.
Geri, let’s discuss character-building. How would you say your military heroes and heroines are archetypal in the roles they play—and how are they individual? How do you work with your characters to avoid clichés?
Geri: I think creating clichéd characters in romance fiction (or any other genre) is often the result of the writer not reading widely, in and beyond his or her genre. If the only experience I have with a particular archetypal character is one I’ve read about in my genre, then my writing’s going to be clichéd. It’s my responsibility as an author to read widely, watch widely (streaming series and film) and to be an observer of life.
Paula: To summarize: Don’t repeat character traits, actions and reactions that you’ve read in other novels. Don’t rely on standard character descriptions, personalities, behaviors and situations. Even if you use a classic or popular story type or theme—in romance fiction these include the secret baby and the marriage of convenience, among others—you can make it real and believable only by knowing your characters, by determining what makes them unique, individual, memorable, and not mere reflections or repetitions of characters we’ve all come across before.
I’d like to take an example from another book of yours, part of the Whidbey Island series called Navy Rules. This is, at its most basic, a secret baby story. But what makes it different from other “secret baby” stories? Geri, how do you keep these characters real and individual? How did you prevent them from being clichéd, simply newer versions of characters we’ve seen before?
Geri: I used a scenario that sadly isn’t uncommon in the military: a spouse loses his or her active duty husband or wife. To help deal with the ensuing grief, the military assigns a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer, CACO, to walk that person through the funeral planning, obtaining military life insurance benefits, and more. In my book Navy Rules, the CACO has feelings for the widow of his best friend, which leads to their one night together and a child. It’s a classic secret baby romance, but the situation is not usual or expected.
Paula: In all genre fiction the story comes to a certain kind of conclusion, a certain kind of ending that meets reader expectations, based on its particular genre. So, with romance, for example, the reader expects and counts on one thing above all—there will be an optimistic and hopeful ending that depends on the hero and heroine overcoming their conflicts and getting together in a committed and permanent relationship. But this conclusion really only has impact if it’s handled with credibility and honesty. Give the reader what he or she expects, but do it in an unexpected way.
With mystery fiction, to take another genre, the reader’s counting on a logical and credible (and surprising!) solution to the mystery—despite any number of clever ruses by the guilty. As well, we see the development of relationships between the mystery-solver (whether cop, P.I., amateur, etc.) with a partner, if he or she has one, and the people involved on the crime and/or investigation.
Science fiction plays mostly on possible futures and occasionally variations of the present. For futures that have gone well, stories will revolve around the risk to that future and opportunities for even greater improvements based on plausible parameters established at the beginning of the story. These parameters predict the outcome for the heroes and heroines—none of whom particularly need to be human, although readers must be able to identify with them. For futures that have not gone so well, there is a strongelement of loss and sacrifice and the author needs to prepare the reader for failed heroics, gloom, a hint of hope and a final sacrifice. Again plausibility is important and needs to established early on.
A couple of examples:
Tara Taylor Quinn’s Comfort Cove books. This series, which starts with the re-opening of a cold case from 25 years earlier (in A Son’s Tale), is packed with surprises—and culminates in a revelation that’s both shocking and extremely satisfying. And the third story in particular, The Truth About Comfort Cove, is integrally bound up with a romance that just…makes sense. But it all comes down to the characters and the fresh, interesting, complex approach the author’s taken. She’s given them the opportunity to examine a critical incident from the past, to see it in a new way and to understand how it’s shaped their lives. She’s also given them the opportunity to change their lives.
Sheila Roberts’s MIRA title What She Wants comes to its various romantic conclusions through the use of…romance novels. It’s a delightful and believable premise: a group of male friends, poker-playing buddies, decide to find out what women want through reading romance novels. Despite the various detours they experience, this approach of theirs leads to “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” Whether it’s a reconciliation or the recognition of feelings, reading romance fiction is what made it happen! And these men—and women—get where they need to be through an unpredictable and unexpected avenue.
Successful stories really depend on characters who are big enough and real enough to vanquish potential clichés of characterization and plot.
And I want to remind you of that famous remark by Henry James: What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? And another classic quote: As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “Character is plot. Plot is character.” Everything in your story is connected—and it always, always goes back to characterization.
Let’s talk briefly about how you can avoid clichés in characterization. I know it’s almost a cliché to say so, but the fundamental rule is to Know Your Characters, and as Margot said, tell the truth about them. That means knowing their histories, their families, all the elements that contributed to who they are at the start of your story. To quote another titan of American literature—William Faulkner—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The point is that you need to know your characters’ pasts and the ways in which those pasts form the present and point to the future. You need to made that background so significant, give it so much depth, that you move it beyond cliché, beyond the superficial and predictable.
One good example is a book of Brenda Novak’s, Home to Whiskey Creek. The heroine’s life was changed because of a traumatic incident during a high school graduation party; it’s an incident that didn’t involve the hero, Noah, but his twin brother, and yet, if not for her feelings for Noah, feelings he was barely aware of at the time, it wouldn’t have happened. Brenda takes the high school crush gone bad in a direction that’s both very real and very timely. So these characters have a strong conflict, a major obstacle keeping them apart from the outset. In Home to Whiskey Creek, the past returns with a vengeance. The past that informs the present in this story isn’t a mere plot convenience. Instead, it’s the basis of who this character became, the reason for the decisions she goes on to make.
You obviously need to know a great deal more about your characters than you’ll ever reveal on the page. Geri, could you describe the process that makes your characters come alive for you—and how you make them come alive for the reader?
Geri: When my characters show up for a new story, I try to figure out what they want (GOAL) immediately. From there I can dig deeper, as I write, to discover my characters’ motivations and the conflicts they have, both as individuals and then together. A critical factor in romance is the conflict that will keep the hero and heroine apart.
Paula: As Geri reveals, you need to imaginatively enter into your characters’ lives, even before you start writing or creating your story. Brenda has a useful suggestion about how to do this, how to know your characters. She says “It helps to become your characters when you write instead of demanding that your characters become just like you. It’s similar to what an actor does to get “in character.” You have to (mentally) adopt the background, attitudes and beliefs of the character you are creating. Otherwise all your characters will be exactly like you or your personal ideal of what a woman or man should be. Let them make their own choices, choose their own words, view life in their own particular way. Forcing characters creates a lot of “telling” and flat emotionless stories.
You can avoid clichés of characterization by going deep into the character’s life experiences, and part of that is thinking through the structures and details around which his or her life is organized. It helps if you know that background intimately—as Geri knows naval life and Whidbey Island--but your other option. Of course, is research (which we discussed in the previous blog).
A few thoughts about secondary characters. Avoid making them simply functionaries in your story. Make them more than devices, characters who merely play a role in revealing your main characters and advancing the plot. For instance, the gum-chewing, world-weary waitress who dispenses advice as well as coffee—advice that probably shouldn’t come as a great surprise to the hero or heroine but usually does. Or the manipulative “Other Woman” whose sole purpose is to get between the hero and heroine, usually by engendering misunderstandings.
Geri: I find it helpful to figure out my secondary characters’ GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) especially if they’re in a subplot. This keeps them from becoming flat and simply mirrors to reflect the protagonists’ thoughts and actions.
Paula: Yes, the secondary characters in your story do need to have a purpose in story terms, but they also need to be credible as real people with lives of their own, lives beyond their roles. Again, there’s only so much you’re going to put on the page, but you need to know who they are.
Avoiding clichés in plotting
I’d like to add that plot is not the same thing as story. Peter Dunne in his book Emotional Structure draws a good distinction: “When we think about great stories, about great movies,” he says, “we remember first and foremost about whom the story is told. The plot is what happens in the film [or novel]. The story is what it does to the who it happens to…. The plot provides the action, the film or novel’s motion. And the story provides the reaction, the emotion.”
Your plot should emerge naturally from your characters.
So if your characters are free of cliché in the way you’ve conceived and portrayed them, chances are your plot will be, too. You want to avoid convenient plotting—which is another form of cliché. This is when plot is imposed on the characters, when events occur in order to move the story, regardless of whether they make sense for the characters. We’ve all seen many, many examples—the conveniently overheard conversation, for instance, the crucial piece of withheld information, the lost directions, etc. Now, accidents can and do happen, but we need to feel that whatever happens, even if it’s unplanned, is intrinsic to the characters and their situation, that it’s somehow inevitable within the framework of the story.
Language as one of the most critical parts of avoiding clichés
One key is to avoid clichés of phrasing in narrative and in dialogue. I’ve often said that story and style are inextricable; you can’t separate one from the other. I’ve sometimes heard people say things like: Oh, she’s not a very good writer but she’s a great storyteller. Once, I came across an author who said that the words don’t matter, the story does. But the story is the words. The words are the story. How can you separate the telling from the story that’s told?
I quoted Martin Amis earlier. Here’s a remark of his that says brilliantly exactly what I think most of us believe: “Cliché spreads inwards from the language of the book to its heart.”
Clichés of character, of plot and conflict, usually come down to language, don’t they? One example is the overfamiliar language describing physical actions or reactions that merely cue the reader to what the character’s emotional state is supposed to be.
The brows arching sardonically or in surprise. The swallowing hard that’s meant to denote fear or the expectation of something difficult.
Geri: I struggle with this in each and every book. We all swallow hard when we’re afraid or freeze in place. Finding new ways to describe emotional reactions is tough. Yet if I’m going to raise my writing to the next level, if I’m going to be true to my story, characters and reader, I must push past my mental go-to, the clichéd descriptions. It’s my job.
Paula: Now we’re not saying never use these clichés. Sometimes, especially in dialogue that expresses a character’s personality, background or situation realistically, it’s the right thing to do. Your ultimate goal is a book that offers the perfect blend of story and style, a book in which they’re so connected it’s impossible to separate one from the other. You want to write a novel--whatever kind of story it is, whatever its genre--in which the reader isn’t aware of you, the author, laboring behind the scenes, manipulating characters and events. (With a few exceptions for a certain kind of story, usually described as “literary.”) At the same time (sorry about the repetition!) you don’t want to write a novel that’s so “generic,” i.e., so dependent on cliché, that you could be any author—because the reader’s seen it all before, described in exactly those terms. (And I’m talking in part about the different—and often similar--clichés attached to every genre.)
The writing has to be natural and appropriate to the characters and story; it has to express the characters’ emotional lives and tell the story that emerges without drawing undue attention to itself. So you don’t want to deaden your story with clichéd writing but you don’t want to try so hard to avoid cliché that you interrupt the reader’s engagement with the story. Overworked images, overwritten descriptions, awkward structures—it all damages the story.
This also goes for overused expressions in common speech—for instance, amazing, cool, awesome. Be really judicious when you use them. Yes, language changes over the years; yes, words can take on new meanings, new emphases. But with this kind of careless and ubiquitous use, even powerful words lose their original meaning. You virtually can’t use “awesome” in its original sense anymore.
It’s true that it might be realistic to have all your characters spouting “awesome” and “amazing” because lots of people do that in real life. But in your book you have to be judicious, as I said; you have to think about the value and legitimacy of every usage. Once again, you have to be clear and specific to avoid the sense of overfamiliarity. In love scenes, for instance, if your characters are busy claiming lips and quivering with lust and having orgasms that sound more like something that should be on the evening news—they’re going to come across like characters in a thousand other romances. As well, in most clichéd love scenes the characters lose their individuality and become two anonymous bodies….
We should make a brief mention of a way clichés can be used effectively, and that’s for humor. That of course means they’re used consciously. Ann DeFee is very good at taking regional expressions and clichés and using them to help define her characters and to create humor. When the heroine first sees the hero in Ann’s book, Beyond Texas:
The man strolled into the lobby oozing testosterone. With hair the color of midnight and a five o'clock shadow, he had the bad boy persona down pat. Please God, her eyes weren't bugging out.
And in this other example, she uses the butter melting cliché in a way that’s funny, continues the heroine’s slightly exaggerated response to the hero and tells you something about her life. (You’ll discover that Aunt Dolly is a retired hooker living in a houseful of retired hookers. It’s all described very matter-of-factly, which contributes to its credibility and charm.)
"Do you have a vacancy?" the newcomer asked. He had a Texas drawl as smooth as hot butter melting on one of Aunt Dolly's biscuits.
To summarize, cliché should be avoided—unless it’s used in a purposeful way (for humor or satire, for example) because it diminishes and deadens your characters and your story. It all starts with the language you use. And even if there’s reason to employ clichés in, for instance, your characters’ dialogue, to make them more realistic, more true to life, remember that a book isn’t life. It’s an approximation of life that also reveals life.
And to do that, you need to remain true to your own individuality as a writer, and to the individuality of your characters and therefore your story.
ANN DEFEE who has been published in a number of different programs and series (for Harlequin, a division of HarperCollins), is starting on a new and exciting adventure in the world of writing. She’s always loved magical realism where the surreal becomes reality. Her first foray into that adventure is Believe written under the pseudonym Annaliese Darr. This book won the Chanticleer International Book Somerset Award for Women’s Fiction and the Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal for Wizardry and Magic. It has also received a recommended review from Kirkus, a highly respected review organization.
Believe is a magical realism story with a spiritual twist. Springen O'Flaherty has psychic powers that have ruled her life. She was resigned to being different until she met Jed Collinsworth. And now she has to tell the man she loves that she can talk to dead people. But she waits too long, and when her dad passes, Jed meets the O'Flaherty family with all their eccentricities—tent revival preachers, healers and heroes. The sequel is When the Magnolia Blooms, coming soon.
MARGOT EARLY has been an author of mass market fiction and sold more than 3,500,000 books; her work has been translated into nine languages and sold in sixteen countries. She lives in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, where she writes reads and writes poetry, enjoys the outdoors, and helps dogs whose people have gone on vacation without them to be better behaved and as happy as possible.
GERI KROTOW is the bestselling author of the Silver Valley, PD series for Harlequin Romantic Suspense, where she also contributes to the Coltons continuity series, and The Bayou Bachelors series with Kensington Lyrical Caress. A US Naval Academy graduate, Geri’s known for her authentic military heroines and heroes, and their thrilling adventures. Geri loves to connect with readers! Please find her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and at her website, where you will find a complete book list and can sign up for her newsletter. www.gerikrotow.com
BRENDA NOVAK is a New York Times & USA Today bestselling author with more than seven and a half million books in print, translated into twenty different languages. An eight-time Rita nominee, she has won many awards, including the National Reader’s Choice, the Bookseller’s Best, the Book Buyer’s Best, the Daphne, and the Silver Bullet. Christmas in Silver Springs, the latest addition to her popular Silver Springs series, will be out October 29, 2019. She also runs Brenda Novak for the Cure, a charity to raise money for diabetes research (her youngest son has this disease). To date, she’s raised $2.6 million. For more about Brenda, please visit www.brendanovak.com.
TARA TAYLOR QUINN is the author of more than 90 original novels, in twenty languages. She’s a USA Today bestseller with over seven million copies sold. A five time RITA finalist Tara appears frequently on bestseller lists, including #1 placement on Amazon lists, and multiple showings on the Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller list. She has appeared on national and local TV across the country, including CBS Sunday Morning.
Tara is a supporter of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. If you or someone you know might be a victim of domestic violence in the United States, please contact 1-800-799-7233.
The next release is Her Detective’s Secret Intent, 9/19, followed by six releases in 2020. Colton’s Lethal Reunion, 1/20; A Baby Affair, 3/20; Her Motherhood Wish 4/20 and the rest are written, but still untitled!
USA Today best-selling author SHEILA ROBERTS has seen her books translated into a dozen languages. Her holiday favorite On Strike for Christmas was made into a movie for the Lifetime Channel and her novel The Nine Lives of Christmas became a popular Hallmark presentation. She loves to write about things near and dear to women’s hearts: family, friends, and chocolate.
Current title: The Summer Retreat
Coming this fall: Christmas from the Heart
Non-Fiction Bibliogaphy (in alphabetical order by author):
Martin Amis. The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews. Vintage. 2002
Peter Dunne. Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot. Quill Driver Books (Linden Publishing). 2009
Jerome Stern. Making Shapely Fiction. W.W. Norton. 2011
James Wood. How Fiction Works. Picador (10th Anniversary Edition). 2018
Corporate and other clichés/ Overused words and expressions
· Baked in
· Bandwidth (as in “don’t have”)
· Bubble (as in living in one)
· Bubble up (to the surface)
· Buckets (for putting facts, etc. in)
· Capacity (as in “don’t have the”)
· Circle back
· Curate or curated (and we’re not talking about art here!)
· Deep dive (go “deep” into a subject)
· Drill down
· Drivers (e.g., key drivers)
· Echo chamber
· Grow (the economy, the company, etc.) This one has been around for a while…
· Invisibilize (!)
· Lens (through a gender lens, a racial lens, etc.)
· Lighthouse thinker
· Look like (“What would that look like?)
· Loop in (loop someone in or loop back with)
· Low-hanging fruit
· Move the needle
· Moving forward (Moving forward, we’re going to…) Or “Going forward”
· Narrative (as in “Change the narrative”—often used in political situations)
· On the ground (to mean simply “there”); Also boots on the ground
· Paradigm shift
· Piece (e.g., the sales piece)
· Pivot (verb—heard a lot during the last US election campaign)
· Present as (Black, White, gay, etc.—i.e., present oneself as someone of a particular identity; also “identify as”—vs “identify oneself as”)
· Read--As in “read her into the project” or \’I don’t know about that project; I haven’t been read in”.—i.e., included/informed
· Reset (or push the reset button)
· Silos (even heard it used as a verb—to silo or siloed). Also “break down the silos”
· Speak to (something) vs. speak about
· Speak truth to power.
· Speak your/his/her/my truth
· Take it offline
· Thinking outside the box (an older one)
· Unpack (as in sort out, explain)
· Walk (it) back
· Wheelhouse (as in “not in”)
· Woke (Wokefulness)—a new one, meaning a recent awareness
· Year over year
Also regrettable and overused: “absolutely,” “amazing” & “awesome.” Not to mention the now commonly heard weaponize and monetize…
I’ve even come across: “to calendar” and “consequented”
If you have any comments on this list or other suggestions to add, please let us know—and we’ll “curate” your contributions! Thanks!
About the Author
PAULA EYKELHOF is a former (retired) Executive Editor at Harlequin Books (now a division of Harper Collins). She was with the company for more than 30 years.
Paula worked with a number of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. She was responsible for various series programs (including Romance, Superromance, American Romance and Everlasting), as well as working on single-title imprints, principally MIRA and HQN.
She gave many workshops and speeches through the years and has also written a number of blogs on writing-related issues, most recently for Bellastoria Press. She has also advised many aspiring authors.
Paula is now working as a freelance editor and writer.