Mistakes Writers Make When Trying To Avoid Cliches
(And How To Avoid Them Yourself)
So you want to make your work original and boot out a few cliches. Good for you! But - before you charge on ahead, you should know that there are a few ways that this can go horribly wrong and end up backfiring. So here are some mistakes to watch out for - and how to avoid making them.
Table of Contents
- Failing to make sure their knowledge of cliches is up-to-date.
- Completely inverting or reversing the cliche.
- Averting a cliche the same way over and over.
- Avoiding a cliche just for the sake of avoiding a cliche.
- Making a gimmick out of the averted cliche.
- To recap!
Failing to make sure their knowledge of cliches is up-to-date.
Cliches, like fashion, come and go - which means that something that might have been a pretty big cliche twenty years ago might be rarely seen today. Unfortunately, many writers fail to take this into account when they sit down to write - and often end up falling right into the cliches that are current because any number of other authors had the exact same ideas they did for avoiding the old cliches.
So if you're aiming to avoid cliches, make sure that you know what's going on in the here and now. If your knowledge of what's cliche is at least several years old, then it's time for a refresher course.
Completely inverting or reversing the cliche.
It often happens that writers trying to avoid a cliche will try to go for the exact opposite of what the cliche entails in some way. However, there are a couple of problems with it:
It's the most common go-to for "avoiding" a cliche. As a result, most inversions/reversals have already been done - making the "destroyed" cliche a cliche unto itself. For example, back when people started complaining that OC protagonists in fanfiction were too pure and kind (the classical "Mary Sue"), people started putting them on the opposite end of the spectrum - making them dark and surly instead. This became a cliche unto itself, which became known as the Anti-Sue or Jerk-Sue. A better solution to this problem would have been to give the characters more balanced personalities, blending both positive and negative traits. The same holds true for most cliches - if you're trying to change them around, doing it in moderation is usually better than doing it in extreme.
It often ignores the core problem with a cliche. If it's ridiculous and unbelievable when a male character does it to a female character and gets away with it, it's probably still going to be ridiculous and unbelievable when a female character gets away with doing it to a male - which means it's still bad! It would most likely be better just to leave it out altogether or to give the action realistic consequences.
Is it always bad to invert or reverse a cliche? Not necessarily - but before you go that route, stop and think it through. Is it going to interest your audiences? Is it going to feel believable, per the rules of your setting? Is it going to take the plot itself down an unexplored or unexpected path? If it won't do any of these, then inverting or reversing the cliche probably isn't going to help you much.
Averting a cliche the same way over and over.
Some people end up falling into a trap of using the same alternative to a cliche over and over in their creations. For example, someone trying to avoid creating damsels in distress might end up giving very nearly every female protagonist nigh-identical "feisty" personalities. Or someone tries to avert the cliche of villains who are evil for the sake of being evil by giving all of them tragic backstories to explain their reasons for what they do. When this kind of thing happens, they've essentially just created a new cliche that soon becomes just as tiresome as the old one.
Keep an eye on your own creations and make sure you're not falling into this trap. Try and think out multiple ways you might avert a particular cliche, and employ them among different scenarios and different characters.
Avoiding a cliche just for the sake of avoiding a cliche.
While it's good to try to be original, taking a contrarian attitude against anything and everything already done is no way to go.
Some cliches happen because there's actually a pretty good reason for them. For example, works in the space opera genre usually include some made-up method of faster-than-light travel because otherwise, the main characters would have a hard time getting places to have their adventures. In this case, the cliche is usually a good thing!
Some cliches might not have a big impact on the story itself, but they can still be fun and useful in other ways. An example of this would be fangs on vampires. Fangs weren't actually part of traditional Eastern European lore - and yet, many stories give them fangs anyway. However, for many people fangs are now considered part of the vampire package - if you stick fangs on a character, people can look at that character and know immediately that they're looking at a vampire. Plus, many people simply like the way fangs look. Most importantly, the presence of fangs doesn't usually prevent the storyteller from creating new plotlines. So while there's nothing wrong with forgoing fangs on your own vampires, there's nothing bad about having them, either.
So before you try to eliminate a cliche, stop and think it over: What are your motivations for getting rid of it, beyond "I want to be different from the rest!"? What are you going to do to make your story work and hook people without this cliche's presence? If you can't answer these questions, then you've probably got a half-baked idea that's worse than the cliche.
Making a gimmick out of the averted cliche.
An averted cliche might be a reason for people to want to check out your creation, but if you continually talk it up as if it's the biggest/main reason people should give it a look, you run the risk of putting people off! Many will get the impression that you're probably very superficial and think that a simple gimmick is all it takes to make your work good, which will make them assume that you probably put little to no effort into the rest of it.
Even worse yet, overhyping the aversion can make people start to resent the aversion itself, as they might get annoyed from hearing about it so much. They may also start to associate it with lazy gimmickiness, which may put them off other works that use this aversion - even if it's not as hyped up for them.
So if you want to let people know that your work does something differently, that's usually fine - but rather than outright singling out and hyping up that difference, it's typically better to present it as simply and casually as you'd present anything else about your work. For example, rather than by talking up how "different" and "original" your main character is, just offer up a quick, simple description of your main character that simply includes at least one of the traits that makes this character different.
Avoid this kind of thing: "My story has a main character who is different from other characters in similar stories because mine actually has to work for everything and earn it."
Try instead: "The main character has to work really hard for everything."
And don't forget the biggest aspects of what makes an interesting story: sympathetic and believable characters, and interesting and suspenseful plots. If people can't see any sign of this, they may fail to become interested in your work no matter how "original" it is.
- Cliches come and go, so make sure your knowledge of them is up-to-date. Otherwise, what you might be trying to avoid might not really be a cliche anymore, and you might just end up committing something that actually is a huge cliche right now.
- Think carefully before trying to outright reverse or invert a cliche - because very often, doing this won't actually give you a better or more believable scenario or character. Rather, you usually have something that's just as bad and unbelievable, but in a different way.
- Make sure that you don't always take the same route to avoid a cliche. Use a variety!
- Be careful that you don't fall into the trap of avoiding a cliche just for the sake of avoiding it. If you can't answer the question of why you're avoiding it beyond "I want to be different from the rest!", what you're trying to do probably isn't very good.
- Make sure you don't overhype your avoided cliche - otherwise, you run the risk of coming off as a superficial creator who relies too much on gimmicks and probably doesn't spend enough time on everything else.
And these pages might be relevant to you:
Borrowing & Sharing Ideas In Fiction - When It's Okay, And When It Isn't
"Is This A Good Idea For My Story/Setting/Character?" - How To Answer This For Yourself!
Tips For Describing & Summarizing Your Story & Pitching Your Plot Ideas