What's Cliche?

Everything creative is plagued by cliche. Writers are told over and over again not to use cliched phrases, cliched plots, cliched characters... But what's cliche? Sometimes people talk about cliches like they're definable and objective, but I think it's slightly more complicated than that.

At its heart, a cliche is something you have seen before and are tired of seeing. You're bored of it, maybe even annoyed or angry, BUT it's your opinion. People like to say things like, "The washed-up superhero has been done. It's so cliche." And maybe it has been done, but whether it's old and boring to you is another matter.

Take ninjas. Ninjas have been done, a lot. But you know what? I'm not sick of them. Give me Japanese guys in black pajamas - give them swords, shuriken, and smoke bombs - and I'm sold.*

My point is we should be aware of cliches, but not afraid of them. If it's something that you still enjoy, there may be others like you. If someone says they don't like your work because it's "been done," don't set your hard drive on fire. Write well, be as original as you can, but write what you love, even if everyone else is tired of it.**

But most of all, don't be afraid to write.

* It's worse than that. I know nothing about motorcycles, but I want a Kawasaki Ninja. There's a bottled tea here made of red beans and poppyseed (blech!), but because it's called Ninja flavor, I want it. I'm so sad.

** Now, it's different if an agent or editor says something is too cliche. They know what will sell, presumably. At the very least, they know what won't sell if you don't listen: you.


Stephanie Faris said...

Everything has been done at least a dozen times. Probably a million. It's the unique way we handle it that gives it its edge.

Natalie Whipple said...

What? Ninjas cliché? Never! (That gave me a heart attack, you know.)

I totally agree with you, though. Don't be afraid to write something that's "been done." Just take your own unique spin on it.

Like, uh, say a certain vampire book. It is possible to breathe life into something that's been played a thousand times.

Alicia Evans said...

Man..I love the concept of washed up super heros. I've seen Hancock like a gazillion times. I thought it was brilliant!

Nat's right..ninjas are NEVER boring. *L*

And I agree with Stephanie...I think if you have a new and unique way of approaching something that's been 'done'...then you're in the right direction.

Adam Heine said...

Sorry for the heart attack, Natalie. My point was, after all, that I love ninjas, no matter how many times I see them. I think I'm 2/3 done with your Ninjas, and still loving them. So no worries.

Sun Up, I think Hancock was in my head for that example too. I finally saw it a few days ago and liked it. I need to see it again though before I decide if I thought it was brilliant :-)

Natalie Whipple said...

Hehe, I know. I'm just easily spooked. What if every editor think ninjas are done? Eek. (Yes, I'm already thinking editors...)

Also, I like Hancock. Haven't seen it in a while, but it was cool.

Adam Heine said...

I'm glad you're thinking editors. You should be. And I'm easily spooked too. Remember your rant a few days ago? And that's just the spook I told you about ;-)

Anonymous said...

In a general way, it's true that everything's been done. That's a good thing to remember, the better to write your ninjas (or pirates or wizards or vampires or whatever).

It does bother me, though, when someone uses, "There are no new plots" to justify a story with a much larger derivative element. It's the difference between saying, "Pirates have been done," and saying, "Cursed pirates who change shape in the moonlight and travel the seas in a legendary ship seeking the object that will enable them to lift their curse have been done."

On the other hand, some people are extremely free with the "it's been done" dismissal. I had someone read a story I wrote - fantasy with a college-age female protagonist and a focus on mythical creatures rather than actual magic, taking place mostly in modern-day London - and say, "Does it have to be set in England? That just makes me think of Harry Potter." WHAT? J.K. Rowling does not have a copyright on ENGLAND! :P

Adam Heine said...

"J.K. Rowling does not have a copyright on ENGLAND!"