Lately I've been noticing a trend that has been bothering me a little. There's been a lot of talk about cliches, but very little actual talk about cliches. What I mean by this is I've seen a lot of "don't use cliches in your comic", "this is cliche and you shouldn't do it", and "this is cliche, so it's bad". The problem is, we're not really addressing what a cliche is, what makes them problematic to writers, why we should avoid them, and if it's okay to use them in certain situations.
First, let's define a cliche. Cliche can refer to an overused expression or saying. For example, 'every cloud has a silver lining' is considered a cliche expression, as is saying 'all in due time'. Verbal cliches are things you should avoid in writing, but they're still sayings that we use. The problem with using these in writing is they're not original, because we're used to hearing them. But verbal cliches are not the ones people tend to demonize.
Cliche can also refer to an overused plot, or even a stereotypical character. For example, 'the liar revealed' is a cliche plot that involves someone lying or misleading others, and then eventually everyone finding out about it. Another plot cliche is the 'underdog story', where a meeker character is picked on by everyone else, but eventually ends up saving the day.
A character cliche may be the obvious bad guy with red eyes, dark colors, a mean face, and 'bad scars'. But, a cliche character can also be a nagging mother, or a character who is very large (possibly fat) and very dumb. There are certain cliches we seem to be much more willing to accept than others. These are things we see in popular, successful movies, books, shows, and games. So what's the problem with them?
Cliche plots can often be predictable, and therefore boring. If we, the audience, know what is going to happen next we won't be as invested in the story. It takes out the immersion, and can also leave us feeling insulted. We don't want to be treated to simple plots, like good vs evil where everything is black and white. Cliche plots often lack depth, and require little thinking from the reader. Good guys and bad guys are easily identified, the former never making mistakes and the latter going out of their way to be as evil as possible. This is just one example, however.
Character cliches are considered 'short cuts'. A writer will assign obvious stereotypical traits to a character so we immediately know what to expect from them, based on other characters from other works. You've seen the big dumb guy in many movies, books, and shows. They're usually strong or overweight. They can either be a bully, or they can be naive child-like gentle giant. But these cliches, like the plots, lack depth. They are cheap tricks the writer uses in lieu of actual character development.
So does that mean we should never use them? There's no simple answer to that. For children's books and movies, we often use cliche plots and characters because it is easier for them to grasp. Additionally, many of the classical characters from legends and folklore rely on stock character types. It's also not uncommon to rely on simplified, static characters for smaller side characters to save focus on our more dynamic, developed protagonist.
We also haven't discussed subversions, inversions, and deconstructions. A subversion is when it looks like an author is using a cliche, but then ultimately we see they're not. Calling back to the previous example, we may see a large, strong character and expect them to be simple minded and stupid. However, it is subverted when the author reveals they are actually intelligent and very well spoken.
An inversion is when the opposite of the cliche happens. So we have a beautiful, blue eyed damsel who is poetic, has a charming voice, but she's the 'bad guy'. Or, we may have a female protagonist who had to rescue a prince who has been locked up in a tall tower. These are the opposite of what we expect to happen based on our understanding of cliches.
A deconstruction is when a cliche is taken, and then played to its logical extremes and analyzed. So there's a 'great war of good vs evil' and only the 'chosen one' can save the world. At first the chosen one is happy to lead the charge. But as the story progresses, we see how much pressure our protagonist is under having to live up to the expectations. He sees his friends die in battle, and instead of stoically continuing his march, he is broken and left with tremendous guilt. He doubts himself, or maybe he abuses his new found power over others due to his title. In the end maybe he does save the day, but he is left a broken, shattered mess that no one can ever fix. Or maybe he is so overcome with guilt, self-loathing, regret, and pressure, that he lets the world fall apart. Deconstructions examine what would happen if a cliche were to really exist.
Again, what does this mean for cliches? The problem is that they are often overused as cheap short cuts and never properly examined. Cliches have their time and place, but new and unskilled writers do not know where or when that is. Instead many writers will rely solely on these cliches, as they have seen them in more popular media. Cliches become damaging when writers use them instead of thinking up ideas for themselves. However, I think it's important that new writers understand the how and why of cliches, instead of telling them blankly that 'cliches are bad and shouldn't be used'. It is always better to understand why something is a problem, than simply being told not to do it.