The 8 WORST Cliches in Fiction

As a writer, there is always a pressure to write something that can sell. I have a weird relationship with this notion, but for the sake of this post, let’s just say that it’s true.

However, as a freelance editor, I encounter authors every day (whether I do work for them or not) who cave to the pressure of writing something marketable by incorporating cliches into their stories. Don’t get me wrong: using a cliche here or there won’t destroy a novel for me. There are many novels I adore that employ many a cliche.

On the other hand, not all cliches are created equal, and some make me more annoyed (read: inexplicably furious) than others. Here is a list of cliches that I just. can’t. STAND.

Chosen Ones

This cliche is at the top of the list for a reason: it is my least favorite cliche. Actually, amendment: it is my most hated cliche. The chosen one cliche stipulates that a character is destined to be the hero and save the entire world because everyone around them or some silly prophecy says so. It completely allows an author to be as un-creative as possible and abstains them from having to think about a character’s motivation. I mean, who *actually* wants to save the world anyway?

Yes, J.K. Rowling did it in Harry Potter, and J.K. Rowling did it well, but other writers are not J.K. Rowling, so they should just stop.

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“It was all a dream…”

Dreams are the worst. Whether the story opens with a dream or, *gasp*, gets all the way to the end to reveal that the entire story was a dream, there is no simpler way to piss off your reader. Seriously. It is the equivalent of your friend telling you about that one time they went to Los Angeles on vacation, met Zac Efron, went on his private yacht, and then after yapping for an hour, they’re all like, “PSYCH! There was no Zac Efron. I didn’t even go to LA.”

Not only do you feel cheated, but you likely have a headache.

That’s what the “it was all a dream…” cliche feels like. A writer spends a whole scene creating something or developing some plot point, and then BAM!, it never happened. Or worse, the author spends the ENTIRE GOSH-DARN BOOK creating this great story, and then at the end, the character wakes up, pulls the pajamas out of their behind, and is like, “Whoa, that was a weird dream.”

No kidding, sleepy head!

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Young Adult Fiction

Just as a whole… there are far too many cliches in young adult fiction. I wrote a post about this last year, but I do declare that we are at a state of no return. Young adult fiction has completely taken over, and rightfully so because it’s pretty awesome, but the cliches are out of control.

Whether it’s love triangles or teenagers saving the world or it’s the end of the world, I don’t want to read about it any more. Don’t teenagers live normal lives these days? Does *everyone’s* teenage years have to be a sludge-fest of action scenes, heartbreak, and sexual encounters with supernatural beings?

Don’t answer that.

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Super Geniuses & Super Humans

I am sick of characters who miraculously know everything and can do everything. Think Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code. That guy was so smart, it was annoying. Why do characters have to know everything? Can’t they just be normal people? And to top it all off, the worst super-characters are the ones who miraculously figure out that solution to a problem that no one else could figure out… and the solution was so simple that even I could figure it out.

AND the worst part: these picture-perfect, I-do-no-wrong-and-know-everything-about-everything characters always fall unconscious during the most intense moments. Battle scene? Unconscious. Robbery? Unconscious. Tragic moment where their sister dies? Unconscious. Venomous alien-alpacas burst in through the toilets because it turns out the character’s fireplace is one of those suburban fireplaces without a real chimney? UN-FRICKING-CONSCIOUS!

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Venomous alien-alpacas? I think I just got a new manuscript idea.

RELATED: The Reluctant Hero

I spoke about this a bit in my post about the heroes of young adult fiction, but this same cliche happens in adult fiction of all genres as well. It consists of a main character who is tasked with saving the world (or just solving a problem), and their crippling self-doubt leaves us with paragraph upon paragraph of sniveling self-deprecation. Don’t get me wrong: a healthy dose of uncertainty keeps characters realistic, but stop whining already!

If a character can’t get it together and embrace their purpose, then bring in a stronger character who can!

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“Mirror, mirror…”

To me, when a character looks in a mirror and says stuff like “I comb my long, black hair and look into my eyes of chocolate brown“, I want to toss the novel out of my window. We all examine ourselves in the mirror, but who describes themself to themselves? Better yet: who uses a copious amount of obscure adjectives to describe themselves? In my opinion, this is lazy storytelling. Incorporate physical descriptions in other ways. Leave the snore-fest of mirror description out.

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Mirror, mirror, on the wall… I look like an unrealistic cross of Ben Affleck, Ted Cruz, and a donkey trapped in a wind tunnel.”

Love… as a Whole

I hate to say it, but love is boring. I know there’s a whole market for novels about love, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about novels that throw love in for the sake of throwing love in. *Yawn*. And even worse: I can’t stand novels that have nothing to do with love but then at the end are like, “everything worked out because love is the most powerful force in the world“.

No. Just GTFO.

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*barf*

Wise Old People

Don’t get me wrong, I love the elderly (Hi, Nonna!). But they don’t know everything. Stop making old people these all-knowing, wise, do-no-wrong seers that feed the main character quasi-philosophical ramblings and unwanted life advice. Old people want to be left alone. They worked hard all their lives, and the expectation that they’ll provide life-altering guidance is frankly too much weight for their hip replacements.

Unless your wise old character is Yoda. Yoda is a boss.

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BONUS: Cliches in Prose

Ding, ding, ding… It’s your lucky day! Not only have I listed the 8 cliches you should avoid that have to do with storytelling, but now I’m going to talk about the most stomach-churning, fist-clenching, rage-inducing cliches of them all.

CLICHES IN PROSE.

I hate it when characters turn on their heelGentle waves lapping on the shore is not calming to me; it’s cringe-worthy. Breaths of wind are making a single tear roll down my cheek. I’m sick of glares from good-looking people totally disarming me, and then their caresses making me squeal. Trust me, when I find someone attractive, I don’t feel butterflies in my stomach and then feel something lower (ahh. Eww. Stop it.). So, come to a halt with darn cliched expressions already, they’re putting my stomach in knots and setting my teeth on edge.

Get the picture? Use original language.

And I detest the word gingerly. Stop using the word gingerly.

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I wish the character would just gingerly fall down the stairs…

AND VOMITING! Why do characters vomit so much? I get it: bad sh*t happens, and sometimes it’s so terrible that you feel like being sick, but in some books it happens more often than it does at a homecoming frat party. I worry for these people’s esophaguses (esophagi?).

What are your least favorite cliches?

 

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11 responses to “The 8 WORST Cliches in Fiction

  1. Pingback: The 7 WORST Cliches in Young Adult Fiction | Michael Cristiano

  2. Ahaha, you made me laugh aloud with that last one about vomiting. It’s so true. Every time a character smells something foul or hears bad news, they have to vomit. Just personally, the only time I have EVER thrown up in my life were due to illness or being in immense pain. Never because of emotional trauma or being grossed out.

    All the rest are totally on point as well. The only one I even slightly disagree with is the reluctant hero. I do agree that self-deprecating characters are the WORST, and you want a character who has agency and pushes the story forward. But I hate the chosen one cliché down to my bones, and usually end up going with everyman protagonists. So it would be unrealistic for those everymen to say, “Oh, demons exist and there’s an entire hidden world I never knew about or was meant to see, but now my life is forever thrown into mortal peril because of a random encounter? Cool. Sign me up.” However, I follow the Joseph Campbell pattern of “they refuse the call, and then are forced over the threshold.” In which case, they stop being reluctant at the end of Act I and get on with the story. If we’re wrapping up the climax and they’re still not sure if they want to be in this book, they’re probably an annoying character!

    Like

    • I agree. At the end of Act I, the character should decide whether or not they want to be the hero. What I hate though are the ones who, at the end of the book (or even at the end of book 2 or 3!), can’t just accept it. Thanks for reading and for reposting 🙂

      Like

      • No problem!

        Gah, I definitely agree with that. Luke Skywalker needing a bit of a push to join the Rebels is cool. But when you’re on book 3 and the stressed protagonist acts like she wouldn’t care if she dropped dead today, I’m like “why should I care what happens to you?”

        Is it more realistic? Maybe. But I’m more in the “fiction is escapism” camp and I like my heroes to be a bit larger than life.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The 8 WORST Cliches in Fiction | Aether House

  4. Interesting article and you are right there are many cliches in books/movies/tv. If I see too much of the same cliche this gets annoying but say I haven’t seen a typical rom/com for awhile or I feel like an easy YA read on dystopia again because the last book I read was deep, then I don’t mind cliches. Cliches in the end are cliches because they work and have a sort of timeless quality to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is true. I can remember a well-known writer saying “when a cliche works well, it is called a ‘trope'” (I don’t remember who said it). I whole-heartedly agree with that statement and with what you’re saying. Some of the best books have cliches (*ahem* tropes) in them. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Completely agree on a few of these: Wise Old People and It was all a dream. The dream thing is basically undermining the entire value of reading. If we absolutely MUST have a dream sequence, let me know from the get-go that it’s a dream. Books are not movies in text where the shock value gets you a cheap thrill.

    I disagree whole-heartedly on the Reluctant hero: I think Reluctant heroes are such a staple because it lets us illustrate a change in the character. Most heroes have to be pushed to get the ball rolling if only because if they were already heroic, we’d already be into the story. Now, do I care for self-loathing heroes? No. Let me brush back my emo bangs and talk about how much I suck.

    Here’s my own cliche corollary that (cliche prose language, here we go) grinds my gears: The only thing worse than super-heroes and the chosen one, and the reluctant hero: All three in one.
    “I have powers and am special, thus the world strangely hates me, but I really just want to be normal”

    Thanks for the great article!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Michael! Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article to be featured as a guest post on June 2nd. As usual, it includes your credit/bio/link. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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