Cliches and How to Avoid Them

Lorraine has been discussing conflict and cliche on her blog after an interesting editorial post on the Mills and Boon UK site. It’s all about how conflicts can become cliches if they are used to create a character. Thought I might put in my two cents worth as it’s something that the editors have pointed out to me about my own writing, so I’ve had a bit of experience with it (hope you don’t mind if I nick your topic, Lorraine!).

The way I understand it, a conflict becomes a cliche if that’s all there is to the charcter. An example would be my Feel the Heat entry. Kate was a cliched hippy set against Alex, the cliched developer. And that’s all. There was nothing behind their conflict, nothing that made them anything more than cardboard cut-outs. Another example (yes, I have a few!) is the current ms that I revised. My heroine in the initial draft was a cliched geek. Again, that’s all. That was her conflict. She was two dimensional. Her conflict made her a cliche. I have another heroine in another WIP who also started out like that – the prim accountant who doesn’t like losing control. Another cliche. There wasn’t anything more, anything that made them real people rather than ciphers. Does that make sense?

To get past these cliches, I think the answer is, as the editor put in her post (paraphrasing here), imagine your character as a real person and ask yourself: what life has this person lived that makes them who they are today? What experiences have they had that have added to their character? Okay, so your hero’s mother died when he was 5 and it scarred him, but that isn’t the only thing that has ever happened in his life.
For example, in my current WIP, the main conflict for my heroine is that her mother never got over her father leaving them. So she has spent years trying to make her mother’s loneliness better but never succeeding (because it’s her father her mother wanted, not her). She’s very caring so this need to make things better has leaked into other areas of her life, namely her relationships with men. She’s attracted to tortured souls so she can ‘heal’ them. Now, if that was all there was to her, it would make her very one-dimensional (in fact, make her a nurse and I have a cliche just waiting to go). But I have learned my lesson so her need to help people isn’t all there is to her. She’s developed a fear of flying after a bad flight experience, her much loved grandfather introduced her to photography which she loves, she used to go out with musicians and likes going to a good gig, she’s trying to be a bit more selfish about her own needs… All facets of her, some of which are related to her conflict, some are not. But they are all part of the life she’s lived up until now and make her the person she is. Her conflict does not make her a cliche – I hope!

Again, this is just my take on it. I could be wrong. Anyone else have any ideas?

12 thoughts on “Cliches and How to Avoid Them”

  1. Of course I don’t mind!

    I think you’ve nailed it with the cardboard cutout comment – I do think it’s about making your characters believable and unique.

    I suppose the thing to try to avoid is going too far in including details that aren’t pertinent to the story. We’ve been told everything has to be included for a reason (strappy sandals debate anyone?) but I suppose details that bring your character to life are a good enough reason.

    I think it’s about balance – you do have to emphasize the emotional conflict but not to the exclusion of all else. I think 🙂

  2. Yep, you’re right. Balance is the key. You don’t want to go overboard with every little detail, but a little touch here and there really can add another facet to your character.

    It’s just having a feel for it too. I like the unexpected glimpses into a character’s life but if you get too many, they detract from the main focus which is the conflict. Arrh, she’s a tricky beastie…

  3. She doesn’t sound like a cliche to me.

    I find it hard to factor in facets that have nothing to do with the story – but these facets are so important in creating a well-rouded character.

  4. It is difficult Suzanne but if you’re subtle about it, it doesn’t have to feel like a pointless detail.

    BTW, thanks. I don’t think she’s a cliche either.

  5. Great post Jackie – you do put it all so clearly! I’m slightly worried that my current heroine is a bit of a cut-out though… note-to-self… must add a few quirks!

  6. No, no, Rach, she’s not a cardboard cut-out at all! In fact, she’s a great example of a character who feels like a proper person. If you want a cardboard cut-out, my poor old mountain climber is in danger of becoming one. But that’s because he’s obsessed with climbing and doesn’t have anything else in his life. At least, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

  7. You do such good writerly posts!

    I’m thinking this is another example of why it is so important for characters to have layers. I think we previously decided it was Kate Walker, and not Shrek, who came up with this analogy.

    It’s the layers that stop characters from being cliched and cardboard cut-out.

  8. Joanne, thanks! *blushes*. 🙂 Yeah, layers do maketh the character. But they’re hard to do. Speaking of Kate Walker, she made a lovely quote on her blog about category romance being like a sonnet to write – elegant, disciplined and difficult. Cool eh?

  9. Great post Jackie! I love the sound of your latest WIP, obsessed mountain climber and all 😉 because let’s face it some athletes really are like that, it’s how they identify themselves (been there 😉 ). They are a mountain climber, dancer, race car driver, period. They devote their lives to training and being THAT good. If you take that away with an injury etc they’re forced to change their whole life, because the one thing that took up every waking hour is suddenly gone and they’re going to resist that with a disgusting amount of stubbornness and irrationality. Who do I have to bribe to get my hands on your story?

  10. Lacey, that’s absolutely it re the obsessiveness. I felt it might be a bit of a cliche but having read heaps of mountain climbing books I found out that they ARE actually like that! Yep, my poor old hero is faced with giving up his climbing for love. Awwww. Do you think he actually will go through with it?? 😉
    My story? Well, if you’re lucky M&B might accept it and it’ll be published and I’ll send you a copy. If not…well, send me lots of good quality 70% cocoa chocolate and I’ll give it to you. 😉

  11. Completely unrelated, but I was wondering, since you’re NTAI and have already 3 completed novel drafts, if you have the time / inclination to read the opening chapters of my new novel.

    If you’re willing and able, please send me your email address. It was one of the many things I lost when my laptop crashed.

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