Cliche, the Literary Default
As writers, we’re constantly told to avoid the cliché. MFA programs in particular indoctrinate an almost Pavlovian shock response against it; workshops introduce a wearingly familiar ritual where even the most minor characters are raked over the literary coals if they fail to achieve Hazel Motes levels of compelling. To an extent the witch-hunt is justified. Indeed, cliché is one of the worst offenses a writer can commit — to some, second only to plagiarism. For readers, it’s a deal breaker. Why keep reading if you’ve heard the story before? Any time readers find themselves on familiar ground, the writer’s ‘hand’ is ultimately revealed behind the story, working the strings of plot. The illusion of fiction fails, and the story is dead on arrival.
What I’m about to tell you may come as a surprise, but almost every story begins as a cliché. That’s right, cliché is the home base, the starting point, the default position for practically all narratives and characters. Think about it. Let’s say we’re reading a story that begins with a farmhouse, set in the late 1800s. What type of story immediately creeps into your head? A pastoral, Steinbeck-style family drama, complete with God fearing elders, gingham-clad mothers, and children who enjoy rock candy? The same principle applies to characters. Let’s say we have a scene that introduces a man in a business suit, sitting in a Manhattan boardroom. What are some of your immediate assumptions about him? Overachieving? Materialistic? Greedy? How about an elderly Native American? Let me guess: he’s wise, and prone to burst into sage aphorisms. Each of these ideas could be melded into a compelling narrative somehow, but right now they’re a barrel-bottom brine of cliché, cliché, cliché.
Readers go into stories with expectations. If the writer fulfills too many of those expectations, the ‘spell’ of the story is lost. Understanding this, we see that writers really have the odds stacked against them from the beginning: not only do we have to deliver stories that compel, we have every story that came before it staking territorial claims to each conceivable starting point. In the very beginning, readers arrive at your story with their knowledge of the world as they know it. It’s the job of the writer to come along and knock them off that stoop of certainty, to show things are no longer business as usual. One way to do this is by playing off your readers’ expectations — by exploiting their proclivity to judge characters and stories — veering them off that familiar path and compelling them to discard any preconceptions they have, ultimately moving your story away from that default position.
The first step is to avoid easy characterization. A compelling character is always an individual, never a type. This means they’re a bit like us: they’re filled with disparate, unexpected elements, sometimes contradictory ones. Even if they’re “good” people, they’re probably a little “bad” too. In other words, they’re complex. Throughout your story, you should add plenty of idiosyncratic details to your characters so that he/she confronts and ultimately confuses readers’ judgment instead of confirming it, thereby forcing readers to see your character as one-of-a-kind instead of dime-store throwaway. Remember that boardroom yuppie we introduced earlier? Let’s say we later reveal him to be a humanitarian activist from the Deep South who has a penchant for Eastern philosophy. The juxtaposition of his assumed type with his individualistic behaviors catches readers by surprise. The trick works because we’ve taken readers’ natural inclination to judge and frustrated it.
The second step is to make sure your story constantly maintains its capacity to surprise. As you craft your narrative, you need to make sure it does two things simultaneously: it should deliver the unexpected while working toward a conclusion that, in hindsight, we see as inevitable (the same holds true of characters: they should behave in unexpected ways, while doing things that are true to their nature). Always make things look like they could go either way; there needs to be a subliminal understanding that perhaps not everything is going be “okay.” One way to do this is by leaving what I like to call a “gun in the closet.” Let’s say we have story that involves a pissed off loner. At some point we casually mention that he keeps a loaded gun in his closet. He never uses it, but we all know it’s there. Its very mention has increased tension. Make things uncomfortable for your reader; redemption shouldn’t be the only option on the menu. That said, don’t introduce a character just to rub him/her out on the next page, and don’t put someone on a perch solely to knock him/her off it.
Cliché should be avoided equally in the use of language. Watch out for countless well-worn phrases like “before I knew it,” or “it was a lesson learned.” Overuse ruins language, and whenever phrases such as these are introduced an uncomfortable awareness creeps into readers’ heads because they realize you’re relying on stock technique to increase tension. Of course, some people will simply say clichéd things. There’s no reason to believe an ordinary truck driver wouldn’t say he “raised hell” at a bar the night before, or an everyday mother wouldn’t say she loves her children “with all her heart,” so depending on your character, cliché in dialogue may get some leeway. In the use of third-person narrative however, familiar, pre-packaged phrases should be avoided, uh, “at all costs.”
One reason clichés occur is because they exist in the world. Given everything I’ve said, you can still write about clichéd characters, just understand that in order to convince us they’re worth reading about, sooner or later you’ll have to pull them out of the hole you’ve dug. Ideally, you should explore a character so deeply that he/she ultimately reveals a larger truth about us, which is hard to do if your model for that person is caricature. The same applies to story. You can write about vampires if you want, you just have to convince us very, very quickly that the world needs another vampire story (good luck). It’s always a better idea to introduce compelling worlds with compelling people saying compelling things, to ensure you catch — no, throttle — your readers’ attention from the very beginning.
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