Image by Tom Newby used under CC BY 2.0

Clichés are tricky things. They sneak into our writing when we least expect it. You open up your manuscript for editing and discover to your horror that you’ve written a Chosen One story! On the subject of clichés, Ethan Fletcher sent us this question:

What clichés should someone as a writer avoid? What are some of the ways that they can be changed to be made fresh without falling into something done by another author?

Good question, Ethan. First, let’s define what a cliché is. To some people, clichés are any bad story devices common enough to have their own TV Tropes entry. We’ll be a little more specific. For our purposes, a cliché is something that would be fine on its own but has been repeated so often it has become trite and predictable. That’s why they’re so hard to spot. Clichés are overused for a reason. They worked well before becoming overused, and if you’re not vigilant, you’ll fall into their trap. Let’s look at some of the most egregious.

1. Declining Elves

Legolas Sad

No matter if a story is high fantasy, urban fantasy, or even space fantasy, the elves are always on their way out. They once built wonders of such splendor as to make humans tremble, but now they are a shadow of their former selves. They have only memories of their great accomplishments, and soon they will fade away entirely.

Why Writers Use It

Because Tolkien did it, for one thing. Lord of the Rings elves set the template for all the fair folk to come. They’re beautiful, mysterious, superior to humans, and in decline. When Fellowship of the Ring starts, the elves are already getting ready to board their ships and sail west. Their age is ending, and they must make way for the rise of humans.

Tolkien’s theme is a powerful one, in which ages past were filled with beauty and wonder, before our own mundane civilization took over. This theme can be a parallel for humanity’s ever-greater consumption of the natural world, paving paradise to build a parking lot. Fantasy stories often take the stance that things were better in the Good Old Days, and vanishing elves are a part of that. Oh, march of progress, why must you take away everything beautiful and only give us a vastly improved quality of life in exchange?

Why It’s a Cliché

The inherent tragedy of declining elves creates an emotional response in readers, but it also raises serious questions. Why are elves always so willing to roll over and accept their fate? Often, elves who fight the decline are portrayed as evil for doing so. In Hellboy II, the villain is one such elf. His actions are all in response to humanity breaking its treaty with the elves and stealing elven lands, but for some reason he’s considered evil.

Some readers will grow to inherently dislike elves, or even hate them, because of this trope. They see the elves as whiny elitists, always demanding sympathy for their problems, yet smug in their inherent superiority to humans. That’s not the reaction you want.

Keeping It Fresh

Instead of the declining ancients, elves could be the new player on the scene. Everyone assumes that because elves are long-lived, they must be the oldest civilization, but that isn’t true.* They might be the result of a magical/technological experiment, newly unleashed upon the world.

Alternatively, elves might have only recently arrived in human lands from their far-off country, ready to set up colonies. This is a great way to subvert themes of colonialism in your fantasy story. To the elves, with their ley lines and crystal tech, medieval humans look hopelessly primitive. They might not see anything wrong with demolishing a human city to make way for a magic nexus. After all, since the humans hadn’t even planted sapient trees on the land, they couldn’t possibly own it.

If you really want the elves in your story to be disappearing, make your main character an elf trying to stop it. They won’t let their home fade away, any more than a human would allow their kingdom be demolished by a dragon.

2. Self-Disposing Villain

Gaston hates 9.8 meters per second squared.
Gaston hates 9.8 meters per second squared.

After a climactic fight scene, the protagonist has the villain at their mercy, but our hero would never kill anyone. They have principles, and taking another’s life is a line they will not cross. The villain immediately takes advantage of the hero’s respect for life and tries one last desperate attack. Somehow, this attack backfires, taking the villain out of the picture. Sometimes it’s an exploding death ray or a curse spell gone wrong, but often the bad guy just falls to their death.*

Why Writers Use It

In many stories, particularly children’s stories, it would be inappropriate for the protagonist to kill their enemy. These main characters are supposed to be role models for us to look up to, not cold-hearted killers. Often, refusing to kill is the hero’s moral anchor. Crossing that line would make them as bad as the enemies they fight. For exhibit A, see Batman.

There’s also dramatic value in the villain’s own nature leading to their destruction. We want our stories to show the inherently destructive nature of evil, and what better example than a bad guy doomed by their own machinations? It’s a powerful message that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Why It’s a Cliché

Over time, the message of this cliché has become that the hero isn’t willing to take responsibility, and that the villain is stupid. In many stories, the villain would have gotten away free and clear if they hadn’t gone for the last, desperate attack. The villain doesn’t need to hurt the hero, because if the hero catches them again, death still won’t be on the table. A villain who attacks the hero without reason seems to care more about their abstract evilness than any real motivation.

Nearly every Redwall book ends this way, and it’s tiresome. Like clockwork, the hero mouse* will best the villain, who seemed threatening until they cravenly pled for their lives, only to double cross the hero seconds later. The overt morality of it now feels preachy. Readers no longer see the hero as a bastion of morality, but as someone who lets narrative convenience do the hard work for them.

Keeping It Fresh

Have your main character take the villain prisoner, then put them on trial, then send them to prison. Make imprisonment a permanent solution, rather than the revolving door like in superhero comics. This might sound like a pat ending, but it’s actually quite rare, as Western popular fiction is increasingly dominated by anti-heroes who won’t hesitate to shoot the villain dead.

If your story’s premise makes putting the villain on trial difficult, then all the better. You’ve just added more conflict to your story. Not only must the protagonist pursue Dr. Evilpants across the post-apocalyptic hellscape of America, but they must also drag the good doctor all the way to Havana, the closest city with a functioning justice system. This way, your character doesn’t become a killer, but they also don’t shirk the hard work of keeping the villain from hurting anyone again.

Perhaps even more out there, have the villain stop and consider things when the hero spares them. If your villain is a sympathetic one, that act of mercy might show them that they were on the wrong side. Some bad guys are too far gone to be redeemed in this manner, but others deserve a chance!

3. The Ex-Spouse Fatale

In a twist on the cliche, Indiana is the one who seeks out Marion.
In a twist on the cliche, Indiana is the one who seeks out Marion.

The protagonist has an old flame who’s coming back to stir things up. Married or not, they were a passionate couple until something happened. Now the sparks are flying as our hero tries to guess if the Ex is really on their side, all the while wrestling with their unresolved feelings.

Why Writers Use It

The Ex-Spouse Fatale is a recipe for instant drama. It combines uncertainty and sexual tension to keep readers turning the page. It creates all kinds of internal conflict within the protagonist, depending on the exact nature of the relationship. If the Ex disappeared mysteriously, then the protagonist will be haunted by questions of why they left. If they separated after a big argument, then memories of that fight will affect every interaction.

Then there’s the question of whether or not the protagonist and their Ex will get back together. Is the Ex showing up to save the hero from a bad relationship, or to ruin a good one? Things get even more complicated if there’s a kid in the picture. Can the protagonist overcome their animosity with the Ex for the good of their child?

Why It’s a Cliché

In Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass, a woman comes aboard Captain Francis Grimm’s ship, and it’s immediately obvious that she’s an Ex-Spouse Fatale. Her entire manner invokes sexual tension with Grimm; though to Butcher’s credit, he does this without sounding creepy. The dialogue loudly hints that they still care for each other, despite events in the past that make them enemies. After this rather blatant set up, the chapter ends with one of the crew asking Grimm “Why did you marry her?” as if it were a big reveal.

Readers can see this cliché coming from a mile away. Writers use a special kind of love-hate chemistry every time, spoiling any chance for surprise. From there, the Ex is sadly predictable. They’ll put the hero in some kind of difficult situation, where their special connection makes everything more complicated. The only real question becomes whether the hero will win the Ex back or not.

In addition, the Ex-Spouse Fatale is almost always female to a male hero, even though that shouldn’t be a requirement. Because writers have seen it so many times before, it’s easy to fall into stereotypes. All too often, the Ex has no realistic motivation outside of making life difficult for the hero. In any other character, an author would recognize this as a weak motivation.

Keeping It Fresh

Heroes aren’t required to have sexually charged antagonistic relationships with their ex-partners. They can even maintain friendly or professional relationships. Real people manage it all the time. If two characters act simply as friends, then it will be a real surprise when it’s revealed that they were once married. To further avoid this cliché, make the characters something other than a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman.

Establishing a non-antagonistic relationship between two people doesn’t mean there can’t be drama. Whatever adversity they face in the story could reawaken their old feelings, leading them to question if they want to go down that road again or keep the relationship they have.

What’s most important to remember that the hero’s Ex needs to be a character in their own right. They can be interested in the hero, of course, but that can’t be all. They must have other wants and needs, or they’ll quickly slide into cliché territory.

4. Technology Lost to the Ages

The apocalypse has never looked so awesome.
The apocalypse has never looked so awesome.

Before the gods brought star-fire to the land, the ancestors built shining cities and great machines that flew above the clouds. Ah, to have those wondrous days again.

In settings with this cliché, technology was once much more advanced. Due to some catastrophe, or occasionally a slow decline, that technology is gone. Nuclear war is a typical suspect, but sometimes a distant space colony will regress to medieval tech due to resource shortages, or the modern world might lose all its electricity due to a monster solar flare. Whatever the cause, devices once taken for granted are now seen as unimaginable luxuries, often treated as wondrous magic.

Ironically, this cliché is used with magic too. In fantasy stories, magic was almost always stronger in the past. Some race of ancients used unspeakable powers to forge the world, but now their power is lost.

Why Writers Use It

The novelty factor alone is a great draw. Readers get a certain glee out of watching post-apocalyptic nomads try to figure out a lightbulb, or scratch their heads at the purpose of a microwave. When technology is rare, it gets used in new and interesting ways. See all the spiked armor and tricked out cars of the Mad Max franchise for example. There are far more efficient ways to armor a person or vehicle, but none of them look that cool, and we accept it because the Mad Max characters are doing the best they can with tools they don’t fully understand.

In fantasy, writers are once again taking their cues from Tolkien. He wrote of ancient beings with incredible power, and now everyone else does it too. On a practical level, authors want spectacular works of magic in their stories, but it would be impossible to manage if the characters could reshape mountains on a whim. As such, any magic that could do so has conveniently been lost.

Why It’s a Cliché

Humans do not work that way. It’s very rare for technology, or knowledge of any kind, to be truly lost. While there are isolated examples like Roman Concrete or Damascus Steel, for the most part technology always goes forward. Technology is useful, and humans rarely let something useful be forgotten. Even if something is lost, there’s nothing to stop someone else from discovering it again. In the modern age, we can easily recreate Roman Concrete, even if we don’t know the exact recipe used by the Romans.

The same is true of magic. While wizards are often portrayed as secretive and knowledge hoarding, there are almost always enough of them that someone would be able to rediscover any spells lost to an unexpected dragon attack.

At the same time, it’s very easy to predict how a story about lost technology will go. Someone with access to said technology or magic will use it to threaten the world, and the hero will have to stop them. Most of the time, the lost magic or technology will be destroyed, and the setting will keep chugging along as it always has.

Losing technology to the ages requires a lot of suspended disbelief, and that suspension is hard to maintain when it’s so common. It shows up everywhere, from the Dragonriders of Pern novels to the Fallout video game series. Eventually, audiences start to question why no one has thought of raiding an old library’s technical section.

Keeping It Fresh

If technology is ever lost, people will miss it. Instead of a setting where everyone accepts that computers are a thing of the past, write about a recovering society that’s gobbling up every piece of old tech its engineers can get their hands on. Your protagonist could be a professional reclaimer, braving the fallout-laden cities to bring back all-important microchips. The villains might be a gang of patent trolls, looking to control and restrict the rebirth of technology for their own benefit.

Another option is a society that intentionally rejected their ancient magic because it was too dangerous. Books weren’t forgotten; they were burned. Now the people live without sorcery, struggling against nature and their fellow humans. Your protagonist decides this is stupid, and embarks on a quest to rediscover the old spells. They have the best of intentions, but those spells were destroyed for a reason. What dark things will your hero find?

5. Robots Becoming Human

So majestic.
So majestic.

Sapient machines are always on a quest become more human. They don’t understand our human feelings, but they want them. From Star Trek’s Data to Dark Matter’s Android,* these robots not only admire humanity, they seek to emulate it. Unless a robot is explicitly evil, there’s a high chance they’ll go on this journey sooner or later.

Why Writers Use It

It’s a compelling narrative, especially if your robot is played by Brent Spiner. The robot wants something we humans take for granted. That’s an excellent contrast to things like money, prestige, or power, which people usually want.

It’s also a comforting narrative. Humans are obsessed with creating artificial intelligence, but we’re terrified of it too. No one likes being outmoded by technology, and yet as a species we are on a path to outmode everyone with technology.* As machines get better than us at task after task, we cling to our feelings and emotions as the things we will always be better at.

Why It’s a Cliché

How many people do you know who are actively trying to be more like their parents? We’re at the point where a movie like Ex Machina can be called brilliant for showing a robot becoming more human, but we’ve never stopped to ask if robots would want to be more human. Humans have a lot of flaws. For one thing, we’re lousy at calculating pi.

This cliché limits the direction of A.I. characters. We assume any robot with screen time is going to struggle with mastering human emotions, and that’s limiting. Who knows what kind of robotic characters we could craft without this implicit limitation?

There’s also the Data factor. This Soong-type android is so pervasive in pop culture that any robot you make on a quest to be more human will inevitably be compared to him. That’s not something a new writer wants to deal with. Even if your character is as good or better than Data, people’s nostalgia for Star Trek means your robot will rarely measure up.

Keeping It Fresh

Try a robotic character who is already very human like and wants to be less so. They’re on a quest to rid themselves of what makes them human. “I need to get rid of these emotions. Can you believe I spent three hours arguing on the Internet, even though I was wrong?”

Instead of studying humans, this robot goes on a quest to study the machines of old, before emotional algorithms were perfected. They search junk yards and antique shops, looking for the driest, most logical programming they can find. If you want your story to have an uplifting ending, they can choose not to go through with the transformation at the last moment. Without emotions, how would they appreciate not having any?

You might also try a human who wants to be more like a robot. In the cybernetic future, that’s an achievable goal. The story follows them as they take on one artificial part after another. Do they revel in their new abilities or find themselves missing the bits of flesh they gave up? That’s for you to decide!

6. No One Knows About Magic

This looks normal.
This looks normal.

Is that a human in a suit with a glass of red wine or a well-dressed vampire enjoying their victim in style? Is that woman mumbling to herself in the grocery line talking on a blue tooth phone or quietly casting a spell on the cashier? You don’t know, because magic is all around us, or at least that’s the premise of many modern fantasy stories.

Commonly called the Masquerade, this is the idea that most people go their entire lives without noticing the supernatural, even though it’s relatively common. You see it in novels like The Dresden Files, roleplaying games like Vampire or Mage, and TV shows like Supernatural and Buffy.

Why Writers Use It

The Masquerade lets authors tell stories in a modern setting but also have magic. That’s a powerful draw. If you know a city really well, you can use that knowledge in your story about wizard detectives, as Jim Butcher did with Dresden. You can draw on real-life events to give the story more impact, like when the Supernatural characters fought the ghost of H.H. Holmes.

Stories set in the modern day are easier to identify with and can approach current issues more directly. Adding the supernatural keeps the discussion from getting too depressing. When Buffy talked about the issue of sexual consent, they threw in a killer robot fight to keep the mood light. Clever.

Why It’s a Cliché

As stated above, the Masquerade is literally everywhere. It’s so common that many authors don’t even feel like they need to explain it anymore. Buffy’s Masquerade was full of holes so big you could drive a vampire-killing truck through them, and no one on the writing staff batted an eye.

Because it’s so common, the Masquerade now comes with some bizarre assumptions about humans. Namely, that we’d be so terrified of scary monsters that we’d bury our head in the sand to ignore them. While that might be true of global warming, anything that can be dispatched with swords and bullets would instantly have humanity’s full attention.

Another flavor of Masquerade says that humans don’t see magic because they don’t believe in it. Human doubt causes spells and fairies to melt away. In other words, skeptics literally kill children’s dreams. That’s not a good attitude to push, considering how many problems in the world are caused by people not being skeptical enough.*

Keeping It Fresh

You can always do away with the Masquerade entirely. Magic exists and everyone knows it. Technology still advances, likely it would advance even faster. You can still have a world that looks something like ours, so long as you consider how magic would change things. Maybe weather spells make global warming a non-issue, but unintended hell portals are causing a real problem.

If you aren’t inclined to do that much worldbuilding, tell a story about magic coming back. It was gone from the world for a long time, and it is just now returning. Your protagonist is among the first to notice, but soon others will too. No doubt there will be villains aplenty looking to use magic to get one over on their fellow humans.

I hope that answered Ethan’s question. Clichés are a temptation, and your favorite authors probably use them. Maybe your favorite authors originated some of them. To spot any I didn’t cover here, read and watch with a critical eye. If you ever find yourself groaning at something because you’ve seen it so often before, you’ve stumbled onto a cliché. Make a note of it, so it doesn’t rear its overused head in your story.

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