Clichés. We’ve all heard about them. Most writers cringe when an editor or critique partner points out a cliché line like “a penny saved is a penny earned.”
Sometimes it’s best to delete a cliché from a manuscript, but sometimes just the right line will allow an author to amp up the cliché and make it fresh and new. What if an author has a cynical character standing in the grocery line? He’s holding out his hand in order to receive a mere penny in change. The cashier looks at him as if to say, “Mister, really? You want the penny?” He takes it from her and with a smirk holds it above the little cup left there for other customers to dig out of when they’re short a few cents. “A penny saved is a penny given to the poor sap who didn’t earn enough.” Plink. He drops the penny into the cup.
Clichés can also encompass more than a line in a manuscript. An entire character may be cliché. For example, if I mentioned the name Snidely Whiplash, what picture comes to mind? A mustache that curls at its ends, a black top hat and a coat to match. A man standing over poor Pauline, the hapless, and also cliché, heroine he’s tied to the railroad tracks.
Unless the story is a parody, a Snidely Whiplash-type villain just isn’t going to work. So what can be done with him and with other cliché characters? Turn those characters inside out. Rather than a handlebar mustaches and an evil laugh, Snidely has a smooth baby face with blue eyes that can charm most women into doing anything he wants. His laugh is soothing and draws people in. The heroine comes to believe he’s the man she wants to take home to meet mother. He’s so perfect, and his name is Brian or Josh or David—nothing to make the reader assume his villainy.
Then little by little, we see his imperfections. We get a look into the evil that dwells just beneath the surface, and we scream for Pauline (who also isn’t a helpless heroine. She’s smart, and crafty, and she’ll be able to get away with or without help from a hero) to run as fast as she can.
When editing, authors should look for familiar and overused lines to either delete, change, or whenever possible amp up with a new twist. Characters should be examined to determine if anything about them is cliché. If so, add a little twist to the character and bring someone new to life.