It was a dark and stormy night.
“There she blows!”
Captain Amab clicked his spy glass shut and spun on the tip of his wooden leg.
“After that whale, you scurvy sea dogs. That’s the beast that ate me leg.”
The sailors shuffled their feet while the first mate and the bosun looked at each other.
“Is he always like this?” the bosun asked.
“Oh, this is just the calm before the storm,” the first mate said.
“Captain,” the bosun said. “We haven’t seen shore in months.”
“Avast that talk. You’ll not rob me of my revenge.”
The first mate and the bosun exchanged another look that said, “we’re all in the same boat”. Or maybe it was “sink or swim”. They nodded to each other.
They grabbed Captain Amab by the arms and chucked him over the pin rail.
His peg leg disappeared with an unassuming bloop.
“Not so hard after all,” the bosun said. “Turns out he was just a drop in the bucket.”
That was written during a writer’s group meeting where we talked about clichés. The general consensus was that they’re bad and no self-respecting writer would ever stoop to using them. However, I disagree. I think there’s a time and a place where clichés can be used effectively. For example, spotlighting the ridiculous, as seen above. Disclaimer: I’m a sailor and I’d have thrown him overboard too. What is a scurvy sea dog anyway?
The thing is, clichés are cliché for a reason, usually because there’s some truth in them. I’m not giving you free rein to go out and use all the same tired phrases and cheesy situations you can think of. I know it’s really easy to fall into the cliché trap when creating your characters. Half the work is already done for you when readers can easily imagine the crusty sailor with a peg leg, or the PI with a smart mouth and a drinking problem, or the romance heroine with a sordid past. But readers can also easily get bored with such tropes. Maybe stop and think about what you want to get across to your readers and figure out how you can use clichés without making them cringe and throw your book at the wall.
I write fairy-tales and what’s more cliché than happily ever after? One of the reasons I love fairy-tales is because they’re so familiar. Everyone knows that Cinderella loses her shoe at a ball. I use the familiar to bring out and highlight the differences in my characters and my stories. My Cinderella doesn’t lose a glass slipper, she loses an ankle-foot orthotic. Still just as unique to her (I mean, Prince Charming still has to be able to pinpoint her, right?), but not nearly as uncomfortable as glass footwear. Or what about a character that twists clichéd metaphors or uses them wrong. A guy says, “I beat that dead fish to death”. Tells you something about the character, doesn’t it?
I also write about disabilities. Just like everything else there are clichés associated with the handicapped, and like I said, they’re clichés because they’re at least a little bit true. My characters have the expected feelings of anger, bitterness, and uselessness because I had to go through those myself. But I try to write beyond them as well. There are deeper reasons behind the emotions that are far more interesting to read about than just “she’s angry because she can’t walk”. We’re capable of feeling so much; can you really justify assigning just one emotion to a character? My Maid Marion is angry, yes, but it’s a mask to hide her self-loathing and protect her from pity. She hates the people around her for not understanding her and then hates herself for hating them. So I’ve explained the cliché and moved past it, creating a deeper character we can understand and relate to.
So before you ax everything that sounds even remotely familiar, consider how clichés could actually help your writing.