The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Literary Cliches Worth Banning

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageSomeone–and for the life of me, I no longer remember who–once said to me, “Good writers create; great writers steal.”  Years later, I’ve concluded that whoever told me that was full of shit.  Part of the fun of opening a new book is discovering something new, something different, something exciting.  For a self-proclaimed book nerd like me, finding a new author or book is akin to going on a great adventure.

And yet, sometimes, the literary world suffers from a lack of creativity.  Oh, I won’t say it’s as bad in literature as it is in cinema, where most of the top-grossing films of the past several years have been sequels or remakes, or in television, which is still in the midst of the never-ending reality TV glut.  But books are a business, just like any other medium, and authors and publishers often resort to using the same clichéd devices over and over again because they’ve already been proven to work.
So here’s my message to the authors and publishers of the world: stop.

Some books sell.  Some don’t.  And dredging up literary clichés won’t ensure that a given book will sell.  Once upon a time, who the hell would have thought that the Harry Potter series would have been such a success, what with starting out as a “tween” series with a male lead?  (Typical middle reader–aimed at 9-12-year-olds–books are much shorter than even the earliest Potter books–maybe 150-200 pages.  And typical young adult books, pre-Potter, focus on older characters–16 or 17, not 11 as Harry and his friends were when the series started–and generally have female heroines, since females are more frequent readers at that age.)  Had Rowling just stuck to what was known to sell, the series would have never been written at all.

Certainly, within a certain genre, there are similarities that readers cling to: a romance novel is expected to have a happily-ever-after ending, a crime novel will often be heavy on police procedural, an urban fantasy will have fantastic elements set in a contemporary world.  But even within those boundaries, there are different and exciting things that an author can do with his or her work just by skipping over some of the more worn-out scenarios and plot points.

So without further ado, here are some clichés that I think should be eliminated from the book world forever–or at least given a very, very long vacation:

Love Triangles

Have you ever been in love with two people at once?  Have you ever been so unsure of your emotions that you haven’t known which one to choose, so you have sex (or, if this is the overly chaste variety of teen fiction, make out with) both of them?  I haven’t–hell, I can barely manage ONE romantic interest at a time–and I honestly don’t know anyone who has (except for a few overly dramatic types who like to create such problems themselves, but I don’t really count those).  Oh, I’m sure it happens sometimes.  But not nearly as often as we see in books.

Don’t get me wrong: I love romantic suspense and tension.  But love triangles haven’t been original since the days of Heathcliff, Cathy, and Edgar Linton (whose name, I am proud to say, I did not have to look up).  There are other ways of creating romantic and sexual tension without dividing your readers’ loyalties (hell, I still like Jacob better) or risking that your hero/heroine will look like a slut.  Maybe try something else on for size.


That I’m listing this as a cliché in need of retirement is probably, in many ways, my own damn fault: I read way too much urban fantasy for my own good, and vampires are, at the moment, the staple of the genre.  And I keep reading, because I love urban fantasy.  So perhaps that makes me a hypocrite.

But seriously?  Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single adult urban fantasy series that does not involve vampires, at least to some extent.  C’mon, people!    Vampires are not the be all/end all of the supernatural world.  Werewolves and shape-shifters are gaining momentum, but will soon be at risk for becoming cliché, as well.  But what about angels?  Demons?  Mages?  Necromancers?  Telepaths?  Gods, even?  And really, why let defining a creature or a gift in terms of things that have been described before limit you?  The whole point of fantasy is that it’s fantastic.  You are limited only by the constraints of your imagination.  Why not write a book with a protagonist covered in blue hair that shoots lightning bolts out of its butt?  It might make romantic entanglements for said protagonist a little awkward, but I can sure as hell tell you I haven’t read that book before.


Anyone who’s ever read a “chick-lit” novel knows about this one: a sweet, but generally impoverished (or at least, too poor to afford designer duds) heroine spends 3/4ths of the book drooling over shoes and handbags with designer names I can’t even pronounce.  Maybe she’ll even spend her rent money/unemployment check/great aunt’s bequeathment on a Prada wallet, and then wonder why her check book always winds up in negative numbers.  I blame Candace Bushnell and the popularity of the Sex and the City television/movie adaptations–which I hate with a passion, because they make what could be intelligent, liberated female characters look like shallow, silly morons.

I have nothing against fashion, and I know that some women value it very highly.  But for the love of God, could you please stop making every woman in chick-lit worship at the altar of Gucci?  The most expensive shoes I own are my sneakers.  I mostly dress for comfort rather than style, and I have a closet full of ratty t-shirts to prove it.  And I buy my purses at Target.  Does this make me less of a woman than Carrie Bradshaw?  I certainly hope not.

(And on a side note, I’d also appreciate the elimination of the utterly co-dependent female, also a common cliché in chick lit.  You know the type: the one who weeps at the thought of being single at 35, the one who digs into the Ben & Jerry’s when her man leaves her.  Honestly, I’d like this hypothetical heroine a lot better if she embraced her singleness rather than pining for a husband and did something totally self-destructive and stupid post-broken heart, like have revenge sex with a random–but hot–stranger, or cut off the offending boyfriend’s balls.  But maybe that’s expecting too much from chick lit.)


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I hate memoirs.  Unfortunately, given that Eat, Pray, Love has just been adapted into a movie with Julia Roberts, I don’t think this is on the way to changing anytime soon.

It’s not even the genre itself so much as how it’s been turned in to an exercise in suburban self-indulgence.  If you’re a Holocaust survivor or helped smuggle Rwandan refugees across the border, then yes, by all means, write a memoir.  But if you’re a recovering drug addict or a former Miss America or a miserable middle-aged divorcee on a quest for “spiritual enlightenment” *cough*Elizabeth Gilbert*cough*, don’t bother.  I have my own problems.  I don’t want to hear about yours.

If you don’t think it’s a problem, consider this: Justin Bieber–yes, that Justin Bieber–is reportedly writing a memoir.  ‘Nuff said.

Husband Hunters

This is another folly of fiction aimed at women: female characters who think they’re failures if they’re not married by the age of 30.  You know the type: obsessive about every relationship they’re in, neurotically insecure, and surrounded by well-meaning relatives who continually ask why they haven’t “found a man” yet.  For once, why can’t we read a story about intelligent, well-rounded women who don’t care about getting married?  Strangely, this seems to be more of a problem in supposedly hipper, more modern chick-lit than in traditional romance.  (Again, I’d love to vilify Candace Bushnell for this one, but I imagine this sin was committed many times before–and since–Carrie Bradshaw.)

“Pure” Women/Fixer-Upper Men

This one seems to transcend genre boundaries–maybe because it’s such a cultural stereotype.  Why are so many female leads portrayed as virgins, or nearly so (e.g., woman who may have had sex before, but didn’t like it)?  Is this a male fantasy?  If so: guys, get over it.  Out here on planet reality, most women like sex.  And if you’re boinking a female over the age of 20, chances are you’re not the first to go there.  So let’s stop reinforcing the idea that any woman who’s had sex with more than one guy is a slut.

As for the fixer-upper guy, the rationale for this one is a little bit easier for me to understand: many women–and, since I’m being honest, me included–have some latent Florence Nightingale fantasies.  You know how it goes: big strong alpha male with deep emotional damage–maybe his parents didn’t love him, maybe his girlfriend was murdered, whatever–meets the heroine, and it turns out that only her love can heal him.  It appeals to some deep nurturing instinct females have, and our desire to be needed.  Of course, it’s also completely and totally unhealthy.  In reality, that guy needs therapy more than he needs the love of a good woman, and any woman who thinks she can “fix” her man is just kidding herself.

Character Theft

There’s been a whole subgenre of literature of late that involves stealing other people’s characters–or, in more extreme cases, even their plot–to fuel their own work.  If we were talking about fiction that was still copyright-protected, it would be called fan fiction and totally illegal if someone were making money off of it.  But when we’re talking about works of fiction that are too old to be protected by copyright laws, it’s creation.  Ummm, sorry, not so much.  How ’bout instead of stealing from Jane Austen, you create your own stories and your own characters.  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies might have been an interesting idea, but it’s a one-note joke.  Let’s go for creativity over legalized intellectual property theft.