Courtesy of the cartoonist, Clangnuts
Ah, the dreaded cliché! The worst feedback a writer can get is, "Well, it sounds sort of cliché, doesn't it?"
All authors want to be original. If someone even mentions that a writer's work reminds them of someone else's, the writer tenses up. "No, no, no, I'm nothing like him," he says swiftly. "I've never even read him."
"Yeah, but it's kinda like him," the reader persists, believing she is giving a compliment rather than an insult. "He's incredible, you should read him!"
The thing is-- it should
be a compliment when a reader compares your work to a published writer. We all have our influences. It is important to know that there is no new idea. If you've considered something, odds are there was someone before you who considered that very same idea. It doesn't make you unoriginal or a copy-cat. It just makes you human.
You as an individual are very unique. Our experiences, family, friends, and personality combine to make a fingerprint that no other can replicate exactly. And even if you came up with the idea of a scientist and his alter-ego without ever even hearing of Robert Louis Stevenson, you can still write that story and add your own personal perspective on it. T.S. Eliot once said that "Mediocre Writers Borrow; Great Writers Steal."
And who do we consider to be great writers? Shakespeare. Steinbeck. Dante. Poe. Do you really believe their ideas were completely their own? Shakespeare, for example, wrote numerous plays with creative plots that he borrowed either from history or from stories much older than he was. Romeo and Juliet
was a retelling of the old Roman Romance, Pyramus and Thisbe
, with smatterings of history. He does not try to hide the roots of his plays. In fact, he often celebrates them. In A Midsummer Night's Dream
for example, the Mechanicals parody this tale by putting on a poor performance of it. If you think that it ends with that, Twelfth Night
is based on an old Italian story, Gl’ Ingannati
tale comes from Cinthio's Desdemona
If Shakespeare's writing was not original, why is he celebrated? For the way he tells
these classic tales and makes them his own. His language, his characters, and the way he strings together history and fiction into beautiful pieces of theater. To say nothing of Steinbeck and Dante who used the Bible more often than once, or Poe who used classic poetic patterns to make his prose more interesting. Every good writer steals from one another.
This includes what we call the "cliché." All a cliché is, in the end, is an old idea. Now you have two choices when it comes to clichés: embrace them or reject them. Do not
dilly-dally between the two. Because if you write something and believe it's a cliché, and you didn't want it to be a cliché but you leave it as it is, it will come off as poorly executed. No one will be interested in it. They'll say, "It's been done before, and I don't care." This isn't to say that clichés don't have their uses! In fact, embracing a cliché and remodeling it can make a very interesting work. These can come off as a critical text, a parody, or even a complete reevaluation of the original cliché.
Let us take for example the classic tale of The Stinky Cheese Man
, which completely deconstructs the old fairy tale, The Gingerbread Man
. Fairy tales are often remodeled because they are the oldest and most familiar cliché of them all. Gregory Maguire has created a career out of transforming old, two-dimensional fairy tales into political commentaries. The appeal of clichés is that they are so familiar to us, when we find them in unfamiliar territory, it startles us. Another example of remolding the cliché in television and film is the work of Joss Whedon's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer
. Not only does he change the meaning of the word "vampire," but he changes our idea of a "slayer," not only by making her female, but making her a blonde cheerleader.
Certain schools of literature and theater have made a whole genre out of parodying clichés. Existentialism challenges things that the world takes for granted (Camus, Calvino) and Beckett and Ives drafted Theater of the Absurd out of cliché concepts.
So the cliché is not something that we necessarily need to avoid at all costs. Every cliché can be retold and remodeled into something new. If you find that you have (accidentally) written a cliché, don't just abandon it! Embrace it! Take for example, the following short, short story.
Once upon a time there was a princess. She had beautiful long blond hair and loved skipping out in the woods on the weekends looking for adorable woodland creatures to call her pets. Then one day she stumbled upon a frog. She found it to be so cute that she kissed it and it turned into a prince!
Rather than ending this tale with a "Happily Ever After," try to think of a few more interesting endings other than that.
Examples: The princess dragged the prince to the castle to be married immediately. The prince, still dazed and confused by the fact that he was suddenly human, went back to his usual ways of lounging about and eating flies until the princess began to nag him incessantly. Furious, he decides he loathes the whiny beast and marches back home to his swamp, where he lives still, sitting on a rock and eating flies, doing as he pleases.
The princess screamed and began beating this stranger with her purse before pulling out her mace and threatening to call the police and running back to her castle.
It is not difficult to put a new spin on an old idea. Those examples were just off the top of my head, but if you put more thought in it, just imagine the ways you can twist an old cliché for your own devices!
Just a recap: It is not a bad thing if something you write reminds someone of something else. "Mediocre Writers Borrow; Great Writers Steal." And embrace or reject a cliché. If you waver in the middle of each, then it will come off poorly. It is a perfectly fine thing to embrace a cliché, and plenty of good works of literature have come out of such a practice.