A cliché (klee-SHAY) is a scenario or expression that is used excessively, to the point that it is considered unoriginal. A cliché can refer to any aspect of a literary narrative—a specific phrase, scenario, genre, or character. The term has a negative connotation, as clichés are often associated with lazy writing. When a narrative contains clichés, the reader is no longer surprised by it, making things feel inauthentic and challenging the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
The term originates from the French and refers to the clicking sound made by metal printing plates used to create the same symbol over and over again.
Examples of Clichés
There are many instances of clichés used in everyday language. Through sheer repetition, these phrases are deeply ingrained in popular media and culture and therefore synonymous with the ideas they convey. Oftentimes, these clichés are also aphorisms, or catchy statements that express a general or widely accepted truth.
- “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” This aphorism is typically used to comfort someone who has just gotten out of a relationship by reminding them of all the romantic options they are now free to explore.
- “Falling head over heels” is a common way to describe being in love. It is a cliched metaphor that builds on the idea that people can fall into love, as if the concept of love is an unexpected, unavoidable accident.
- “Only time will tell.” This is an aphorism meant to convey the impossibility of predicting an action’s consequences. Things can only become clearer once enough time has passed and the metaphorical dust has settled.
- “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Another aphorism, this is a reminder to look beyond appearance to assess something’s or someone’s true value.
In addition to phrases, clichés can also apply to commonly used character types. These are known as stock characters: flat, one-dimensional portrayals that lack complexity. When one of these characters shows up in a narrative, readers know what to expect. For example:
- A damsel in distress is a young, attractive woman who finds herself in a compromising situation from which she needs to be saved. In the Spiderman comics and films, Mary Jane Watson exemplifies the damsel in distress whenever she is at the mercy of a villain. Spiderman’s intervention is often her only hope for survival.
- On a related note, a knight in shining armor is a handsome man who shows up in the nick of time to rescue the damsel, thus demonstrating his own bravery and valor. As such, Spiderman is Mary Jane’s knight.
- The bad boy is a male character shrouded in mystery, often rejected and misunderstood by society. In the television series Lost, James “Sawyer” Ford, with his mysterious past and brooding manner, displays all the traits of the bad boy cliché.
- The girl next door is the exact opposite of the bad boy. This girl or woman is known for her innocence and naïveté; she is often romantically drawn to the bad boy because he represents everything she has been sheltered from, and vice versa. In the movie Mean Girls, the previously homeschooled Cady Herron is sweet and naïve. Unfamiliar with certain dynamics between adults and teenagers—and between different groups of teenagers—when she enters a public school for the first time, her early interactions with her peers and teachers are often awkward.
Where Clichés Are Found
Clichés can be found in all aspects of storytelling because they are a quick way of expressing a certain concept without having to elaborate. The fact that they are so commonplace means they are universally understood.
Clichés are particularly useful in dialogue, as they can offer a significant amount of information about the character who is speaking. Since some phrases are tied to certain regions and/or time periods, a character’s use of clichés can be indicative of their geographical, cultural, and historical background. They can also tell a lot about a character’s personality. For example, if a character uses the expression “nervous as a long-tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs,” readers may infer that they are from the American South without the author specifying this.
Clichés in Classic Literature
Many clichés originated in classic works such as Shakespeare, or certain fables, and were repeated to convey that same classic concept that the original author so expertly captured.
When Shakespeare first wrote, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” in his play Romeo and Juliet, the phrase was considered novel. Nowadays, comparing a woman to a flower would be considered nothing more than a common cliché.
Cliché in Genre Fiction
Genre fiction is subject to its own clichés, most often in plot lines and character types.
For example, fantasy stories often revolve around a hero and their rise to greatness. Alongside the hero, readers may find several stock characters, like the wise elder or helpful sidekicks. Many of these works also feature a singular object that possesses magical powers, such as the sword in The Sword and the Stone or the Elder Wand in the Harry Potter series.
Another plot element that frequently arises in genre fiction, especially romance or fantasy, is an impossible love because two characters who desperately want to be together but circumstances keep them apart.
Cliché vs. Trope
A literary trope is a type of figure of speech, but colloquially, people use the term trope to mean recognizable elements of storytelling that audiences associate with specific genres. Like clichés, tropes act as storytelling shorthand and can apply to both plot lines and character types.
For example, Hollywood action movies often employ a distinct patriotism—often an extremely overt display. Plot lines generally involve the world or country being under threat, and the only person who can set it right is an American. Consider this quote from the 1997 action thriller Air Force One, when General Northwood learns that the President’s aircraft has been hijacked by communist radicals: “Nobody does this to the United States. The President will get his baseball glove back and play catch with this guy’s balls!” His comments appeal to patriotic viewers, who enjoy watching displays of American strength, and are directly in line with the America vs. the world action trope.
Unlike clichés, the cultural perception of tropes is a bit more neutral. There are certainly good and bad tropes, but no matter the quality, they effectively communicate important details about a narrative. In fact, tropes have become such an integral aspect of storytelling, there is even an entire website dedicated to defining and cataloguing examples of tropes that appear in literature and pop culture.
Cliché Done Right
Clichés are typically seen as the antithesis of good writing. However, they can serve a purpose and actually enhance a narrative when used in the right way. When writers employ clichés, they are not just using a certain phrase, plot, or character type; they are referencing the entire cultural and historical context that comes with it. As such, there is a time and place for clichés.
They should be used sparingly and intentionally. It is also more acceptable to have supporting characters, rather than the protagonist, speak in clichés. It is important to maintain a balance between original content and clichés to avoid inundating readers with overly common expressions.
An interesting way to employ this literary device is by setting the reader up in anticipation of a cliché and then subverting the reader’s expectations by delivering an unexpected twist. In this way, the writer can manipulate the cliché to serve their own needs and create tension rather than succumbing to the expectations set up by the cliché.
Take, for example, Eddard “Ned” Stark from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin sets up this exceptionally moral family man as the story’s hero. For the entirety of the series’ first novel, A Game of Thrones, Ned works to unravel a political conspiracy in the name of proper order. Readers root for Ned because his adversaries are obviously corrupt and/or inept, so they expect him to win. However, Martin subverts the fantasy hero cliché by killing off Ned at the end of the novel.
Clichés can also be a useful tool for the author to connect to a certain audience. This can be done with the use of regional dialect or a colloquial expression that relates to a certain age group. For example, a writer may have an older character refer to their youth by saying “Back in my day”—a cliché, to be sure, but one that resonates with an audience in that character’s age demographic.
Examples of Clichés in Literature
1. Stephanie Meyer, Twilight
Protagonist Bella’s innocent disposition corresponds to the typical girl next door character, while her love interest, Edward, is the stereotypical bad boy. In the following passage, she reflects upon her recent encounter with Edward:
About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him—and I didn’t know how potent that part might be—that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.
Although she knows he is troubled, Bella is intrigued by Edward’s mysterious nature. To the detriment of her own safety, Bella dedicates herself to this relationship because, like most girls next door, she believes Edward is ultimately good.
2. Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook
In Sparks’s novel, Allie struggles to make a tough decision regarding her relationship—marry her rich but unexciting fiancé or leave him for Noah, the first love with whom she recently reconnected. The following comes at the end of a scene where Allie’s mother admits to keeping the lovers apart when they were younger:
On her way out the door, Allie thought that she heard her mother whisper, “Follow your heart,” but she couldn’t be sure. [bolded for emphasis]
This advice is typically associated with the romance genre, though it can apply to any scenario where a character has a difficult choice to make—romantic or otherwise. While this can be an effective piece of advice, it falls into the cliché category due to its overuse.
3. J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
The young hobbit Frodo Baggins sets off on a journey, flanked by a rotating cast of characters, to return the Ring to its place of origin and destroy it. Before it begins, Frodo consults with Gandalf, his wise wizard friend:
“Was I chosen?”
“Such questions cannot be answered,” said Gandalf. “You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”
Both the quest and the Ring are common clichés within the realm of fantasy and science fiction writing. Along the way, dangerous events shape the characters and the story, but the protagonist’s driving force is always the quest. This can also be considered a trope that helps ground the reader in the genre.
4. Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
In L’Engle’s classic children’s novel, protagonist Margaret Murry is tasked with saving her father—and the universe—from an evil entity. To set the scene, L’Engle opens her novel with the following:
It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. [bolded for emphasis]
Akin to “Once upon a time,” the novel’s opening line is a dramatic cliché. However, L’Engle intentionally employs the cliché to demonstrate the value of an original narrative and to subvert the tropes typically associated with fantasy and sci-fi novels.
Further Resource on Cliché
“In defense of clichés: Saving tired phrases from the sands of time” by Quentin Collins offers helpful tips about the strategic use of clichés.