There are certain tropes and cliches that are often seen in books, movies and plays. Tropes exist in pretty much everything ever written and usually they aren’t too bad unless they’re a negatively geared one like the Men are strong, Women are pretty trope. Cliches are usually annoying because they’re something that’s been done to death and often used for no other reason than the fiendish lack of imagination the evil writers need in order to use them.
Well, I’m here today to tell you to use them. If you can.
Did the above just sound like a challenge? Why, yes it is.
Cliches are stupid and boring if you can’t use them the right way. Your character is an orphan because their parents died in a tragic accident, you say? Wow. Haven’t seen that one before.
There’s absolutely no reason why I’m putting these pictures up here. They clearly have nothing in common.
Making your MC an orphan is usually a cheap, easy and semi effective trick for immediately gaining sympathy for your MC from the audience and making a simple pretense at giving a back story plus, ANGST! What author doesn’t love angst?
But you know when you should throw the whole cliche rulebook out the window? When it really makes sense to.
A lot of reviews rightly call out YA authors for neglecting the family in the young MC’s life. I’ve seen it referred to as Disappearing Parent Syndrome because apparently anyone without rippling pectorals is of no interest to female audiences.
Readers are right to call writers out on this. For a normal, average young adult living at home, there’s really no reason why the parents should disappear off the face of the earth. It gives the character an amazing lack of balance and it shows poor authorship.
But then there are times when it’s totally, totally appropriate. Because if your story is about a young adult going off the rails into a drug dependency then absent parents or abusive parents are simply what makes sense. Everneath is a big one that people complain about since the father in that novel displays an alarming lack of interest in Beckett. I understand the complaints. That he doesn’t ask enough questions, that he’s never around, that he has no real participation in Beck’s life.
Wow. Sounds like every parent of every drug addict I’ve ever known. Which is exactly what the active metaphor behind Everneath is. Her trip down into the Everneath is a representation of someone who is completely addicted to drugs. Everneath painstakingly catalogues Beck’s slippery slope from grieving young school girl into addict and it involves every single person in her life somehow betraying or neglecting her. A politician father who dismisses her and focuses on his campaign? I’ve seen it. So many times. Except I’ve seen it in diplomats and high ranking business men and government employees and school principals and Church leaders. What’s that saying about Pastor’s children? Other than: “run!”? No, I can’t remember either.
The same is true for Harry Potter. Yes, he is an orphan and his abuse does garner a great amount of sympathy but he is also a character designed not to put a lot of trust in adults and to try and solve problems by himself without going to them for help. This is a powerful aspect of his character and his story telling which is dealt with so much more masterfully than: “My parents died. I has a sad.”
A cliche, used by a powerful, thoughtful, purposeful author can be an amazing story. If you want further proof of that then look no further than Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. A Romeo and Juliet, star crossed lovers retelling? Get out of town. And yet, it’s done so well, so masterfully that it’s easy to forget that Taylor is dragging out the same old tired, cliches. In her hands, they’re not tired and they’re not cliched. They’re just good storytelling.
At the end of the day, it’s not important what you write but how you write it. That makes the difference between a cliched piece of trash, and a story worth reading.