When it comes to fiction writing, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Yes, when writers follow the rules they create better, more engaging novels, but the good writers not only know when they can break the rules, they know how to do it.
One rule that can be broken is the ‘no cliché’ rule. The trick is to know how, when, and why to do it.
Why can you include clichés?
You can include clichés because people speak in clichés, and in some cases it would be more awkward not to use them. For example, if you have two characters discussing a recent loss. What seems more natural?
He shrugged. “You win some, you lose some.”
He shrugged. “Sometimes we’ll win contracts and sometimes we won’t.”
Yes, the first response is a cliché, but in a quick-response situation people say the first thing that comes to mind. If put in that situation, it’s natural for a character drop in an occasional cliché, and you want your characters to appear natural. The second option avoids the cliché, but it creates a more awkward sentence.
When can you cliché?
Use clichés sparingly (just a few throughout the entire novel) and limit them to secondary characters.
The minor characters in a novel often jump on and off the page without leaving much of an impression. They’re often placeholders, sent into a scene to create a more realistic situation, but they’re not likely to stay around for long. Those are the characters whose knee-jerk reactions can (and will be) cliché.
You don’t want to take the time to introduce the bustling lady on the street – her upbringing and history are unimportant to the plot. You could create a very specific saying and phrase for her, but without fully understanding the character, her reaction could be more distracting than helpful. If she jumps in front of your main character and steals his cab, having her say, “You snooze, you lose,” paints of picture of what happened in the scene (she took advantage of a distracted person) without having to take time to explain her past and motivations.
What about your main characters?
Those are the characters who should avoid clichés at all costs, and it’s probably easier than you think. You don’t have to avoid clichés entirely, you just need to cater them to your characters’ personalities. Here are some examples of clichés that have been customized.
He was happy as a clam.
She ran like the wind.
He tried to be nice to her because he didn’t want to judge a book by its cover.
(for a farmer) He was happy as a chicken in a corn field.
(for a mom) She ran faster than a dog running from a toddler.
(for a banker) He tried to be nice to her because he didn’t want to judge a portfolio by its cover.
Modifying clichés ensures that the reader understands the point the character is trying to make while highlighting his/her unique qualities. Learning when, why, and how to use clichés in your writing will help you create realistic situations and responses that keep your readers engaged without distracting them.
Think of a cliché you use often – how can you rewrite it for different character types?