Friday 19 November 2010

When did cliche become a naughty word?

I have just been settling down to some quiet reading of my latest book (that being Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher) and, as is my wont, was jotting down some immediate thoughts as they occurred to me.

One point that I made about the book - and will explore properly in my review - is the fact that this novel follows a lot of fantasy cliches. The problem is, I realised, that, having said I thought it was cliched meant then having to justify the fact that I still liked the book DESPITE the cliches. Not because of the cliches. And then it hit me:

When did "cliche" become a naughty word?

These days, if I state a book is cliched, this often directly translates into tired and unimaginative. However, a cliche can make a book feel fun and comfortable.

For instance, one of the said cliches in this novel is that of the orphaned boy destined to go onto big things. Big fantasy cliche. For some, enough to make them turn away from Furies of Calderon! But why would they automatically dismiss the novel and why does the word cliche now feel so negative and as though we are talking a book down?

So... feel free to discuss? Have you noticed this new negativity? Do you think that a cliche can only be a bad thing in a book? Or are cliches merely tried and tested story formulas that work?

Comments please! And happy reading :-)


  1. Good point. :)

    I think things are cliche for a reason. People like that stuff. I even think that you could argue almost any book is cliche even things like Erikson's Malazan series have cliches. It's when the cliches overpower the entire narrative that I get turned away.

    I still love the old farm boy/girl is really king/magician/hootenanny. But I probably won't read further if that's all it is, if it brings absolutely nothing else to the table.

  2. I believe "trope" is the positive version of a "cliche." A trope is a well-tried building block of scene, plot, or character. A cliche is when this is done obviously or badly.

    Or, to steal from

    "Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means "stereotyped and trite." In other words, dull and uninteresting."

  3. I think you make a good point about that - it is strange that in our remake culture, we are finding cliche to be a dirty word, even when we keep returning to the old and the familiar in order to write and film and etc.

    Some of my recent favourites are favourite because they bring me back to the first book of that genre I read, and I, too struggle with justifying it to outsiders ...

    Anyways, good point! LOts to think about! :D

  4. I was about to say what Robert Bennett has already.... When I hear people say something is "cliche," I assume they're referring to something so overdone that it's become tiresome and generally pulls a story down. Whereas, if they say "trope," I imagine something that's a common occurence or mainstay in the genre, but which is otherwise neutral depending on how the author handles it.

  5. I don't think Cliche' is necessarily bad. I don't think "comfortable" is bad either. Sometimes cliche' and comfortable can translate to a fantastic read. I guess an example of a series with a lot of cliche's that I actually really, REALLY enjoy would be Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorne. You have the downtrodden nobody who becomes somebody and the series is complete with swords and etc. I love it. It has cliche's and in my opinion it's a very comfortable read. It's also a fantastic read.

    I think sometimes cliche's make me feel like I'm reading more "traditional" fantasy reads; getting me to the root of the genre - also not a bad thing.

  6. I'm not a fan of rehashed fiction. I'm not a fan of stale, clichéd prose that uses language like "he put his nose to the grindstone" or "where there's smoke, there's fire," etc...

    A cliché that is written in such a way that it becomes fresh and new is no longer a cliché by definition. A commonly used plot device can become cliché only when it's so overused that the original meaning is lost.

  7. why does the word cliche now feel so negative and as though we are talking a book down?

    There is no need for the word "now", by definition a cliche is a negative thing. The fact that something is bad doesn't stop you from enjoying it but the fact you enjoy something doesn't make it good.

  8. I think Robert explained it best. People mistake tropes for cliches. And indeed, tropes done badly in turn mean cliched stories. But the use of cliches/tropes themselves isn't necessarily equivalent to producing a bad story. I read this article earlier today on the Orbit blog by Rachel Aaron talking about the use of tropes. I found it very interesting:

  9. As mentioned, clichés are not tropes. Tropes and their execution however, can with time and mishandling, become clichés. Clichés are never a welcome part of a good story; least of all those belonging to the fantasy genre. To say otherwise I fear, is to misunderstand both.

    A good story can combine familiar, even mythic elements with more original fare. A skillful writer will breathe life into the mix, leavening the comfortably familiar with the hopefully novel. Otherwise, what you get is a flat, cliché laden confection that can only please the most undemanding of palates.

    The bulk of commercial literature, in any genre, consists of this - true enough. But what careful author or discerning reader could be fully satisfied, unless limited by their own meagre talents, with dwelling in such a literary ghetto? One of the reasons why I think fantasy gets a bad reputation is that too many writers and readers aren't comfortable demanding more and breaking down the walls formed by low expectations.

    Disliking clichés has nothing to do with hating fantasy. Good fantasy, great fantasy, does not rely upon clichés anymore than any other genre of literature. Clichés do occur in life, in dialogue, and likely enough in most author's early drafts of their novels. Clichés should serve as warning signs: alerting the writer to a turn on the tracks ahead that may dead-end the quality of the story being constructed.

    I do not believe that clichés are ever valid story shortcuts. By their very definition they are worn out ideas and expressions whose power has been leeched by overuse and overexposure. If not used in a knowing, comedic way, few writers will be able to turn these base materials into gold - and even then, should be used most sparingly.

    A cliché altered, a trope deconstructed, is no longer a cliché. Or one being used as a knowing signifier to the reader saying "Ah-ha, you were expecting that - but we have given you this, instead" which is only meaningful and of value of course, if there is some meaning, some greater reason behind the reversal of expectations; a salient point to learn from the upending of the trope or the familiar scene rather than an empty flourish of craft. Playing with clichés can be done, but it is not an unfair comparison to say it can resemble dancing above a pool filled with sharks.

    That's a cliché, isn't it? Circling fins and all. But I'm not sure it adds anything to the sentence that I couldn't have done just as well by saying tread with care, watch your step, or is fraught with danger. It's a playful flourish - at best. Too many of these can weigh down a novel like rococo butter-frosting on a cake.

    The element of play is present in most great novels, playing with words, playing with expectations, and playing with the vast repository of novels and stories which have gone before the one being created. Most of the time, clichés are lead weights, false notes, missteps, and I would warn all but the most masterful of authors to treat them with the care that they require.

    Else you risk a novel that is doomed to mediocrity before it is even finished - or worse still, an end product that's all frosting and no cake.

    E. M. Edwards

  10. I think the reason that cliches have "terrible things" is because of the constant push to stand out. There's an attitude that nobody wants to read stories anymore about a farmboy who goes out and saves the world, or anything to do with dragons and magic, or many other common fantasy themes, unless something incredibly innovative is done with it, something readers have never seen before. Do something that somebody's done before, and you get accusations of being derivative, unoriginal, a hack writer. Many people thus equate "standing out" automatically to "being interesting" and "being good," and that really isn't true.

    What I think is funny about this is that so many people now attempt to stand out by doing something they think is original, and they just end up being original in the same way that everyone else is. I don't know how many urban urban fantasies star a kick-ass sexy woman who has magic powers or is a vampire or a werewolf, but in my mind, that attempt to buck the trend has just created a new trend, and I find myself aching for a good epic high fantasy of the kind that Jordan or Tolkien wrote.

    There's nothing wrong with throwing curveballs every now and then, to keep readers interested, but the way so many writers seem hellbent on avoiding every cliche in the book is just sad, I think. Sometimes there's a reason for the cliche, and sometimes that reason is because the cliche works. I completely understand wanting to stand out from the crowd; it makes publishers notice you, it makes potential readers notice you, in intrigues people who want to see just what you made of something new. But that doesn't mean that there isn't still room for a good old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery novel of the kind that got so many people into the fantasy genre in the first place.

  11. Never forget: the reason something becomes a cliche is because it works so well that people WANT to keep using/seeing it.