(Photo Credit: Ethereal Illuminations blog)
“Once upon a time an evil dragon kidnapped a beautiful princess from her father’s castle. The king offered half the kingdom and her hand in marriage as a reward for her rescue. A handsome, brave, kind-hearted, orphaned knight with a magic sword slew the dragon and won the princess’s heart. Everyone cheered and loved the orphan because he was the best hero ever. He ruled wisely and well. And they lived happily ever after.”
After you read the first line, did you have any doubt about the last line? As soon as you read that the princess was beautiful, did you have any doubt that there would be a hero who was handsome? Once the antagonist was identified as an evil dragon, did you guess that there would be a princess, a prince, and a castle?
I don’t want to take up more words providing you with lists of cliches. Instead, let’s look at three problems that cliches pose…
- less conflict. At first, this may not seem to be the case. After all, there’s a knight and a dragon, right? but that’s as far as it goes. Lots of missed potential — even if you throw in an evil step-mother. If you went beyond the cliche, there could be conflict between the princess and dragon, princess and king, knight and king, king and dragon, etc. And that’s just external conflict. What if someone had mixed feelings about the princess’s capture or the rescue or the reward or the wise rule of the hero? Or if the inner conflict belonged to the dragon? And don’t forget about conflict between person and society/nature/fate. So yes, there is still conflict but also many missed chances.
- too much predictability. You were able to predict most — if not all — of the Westernized story, right? Maybe you thought there would be a prince instead of a knight but… Readers instinctively look for patterns. Nothing wrong with giving the reader what he wants. But as much as your reader thinks he enjoys guessing the next move correctly, what most readers really want is for you to surprise them. Cliches are patterns that have been over-used to the point that they have lost most of their potency. There’s some fun for the reader to predict them but…
- boring characters. Cliche characters are a bad idea for the above reasons. Cliche characters are not just the “perfect character” but also over-used combinations of traits.
All that said, cliches can be used deliberately for humorous effect. Or as a starting point. After all, you have to start somewhere. Only when you fail to develop a predictable boiler-plate character/setting/conflict does it become cliche. Before then, it’s fair game.