What is cliche, what isn’t? It’s a discussion which comes up in almost every critiquing group I’ve belonged to.
I am not going to try to come up with an exhaustive list. I don’t think that’s possible. We all like to poke fun at cliches, but when was the last time we considered what made a cliche a cliche?
I’m going to attack the issue from a slightly different perspective. Rather than declaring that vampires with speech impediments are cliche while twinkly vampires are not, I’m going to suggest that if you don’t have to work very hard at creating a character, plot line or setting you are in danger of being cliched. That’s because cliches are short cuts allowing us to move ahead without much thought.
Let’s look at bars, bars are a good example because they cross genres, fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries, even romances have bars.
So John is going into a bar, the reason isn’t important at this point, but we may come back to that. He walks into the bar and he has to stand in the door while his eyes adjust to the dim light. Recognize that? That’s the feeling that you’ve been in this bar before. There may be a bouncer cracking his knuckles and eyeing John suspiciously. The barkeep may be polishing the glasses or maybe talking to the customers. Maybe there’s music, perhaps live, maybe a jukebox.There will be a shadowy little corner where it may be possible to get in a little noogy or get away with murder. The acoustics will be such that John can hear the conversation in the booth behind him, but nobody will be able to hear what he says or does.
That’s a cliched bar. We’ve all been there in dozens of books. This bar is a useful little plot device. Maybe John will fall in love, maybe get in a fight, maybe die. We know all these things are possible because we’ve seen it happen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if the bar is going to be more than a brief stop on John’s journey of self discovery, we will need to dress it up.
So why is John going into a bar? If he is looking for love in all the wrong places we will want to loud music and louder women, or men. He probably won’t have to pause to let his eyes adjust because it will likely be night. A little commentary on the decor will be useful.
John entered the bar and winced a little at the volume of the music pumping out of the speakers. He could see a distorted version of himself in the chrome bar rail. But he didn’t take the empty spot at the bar. There was a mirror on the wall there and he didn’t want to look himself in the face just now. He selected a wobbly litte table on the edge of the dance floor. Bodies gyrated under the strobes looking like so many mating octopi. The waitress placed the beer in front of him and he downed it with a gulp. If he was going to do what he came here to do, he would need something stronger.
Maybe he’s looking for a whiz-bang magical sword. We need a different kind of crowd and not so sleek an ambiance.
John pushed his way in through the crowd. Most of the crowd were dwarves. It was a dwarfish bar. He was careful to be polite, when a dwarf elbowed a human, it wasn’t ribs that got bruised. He made it to the bar where a troll handed him a drinking horn.
“Two bits,” it said.
John passed over the money and leaned on the rough wood that spanned the empty casks.
“I’m looking for…”
“Over there,” the troll said. “Two bits a pull, double if you break anything.”
He passed over more money and made his way toward a crowd that surrounded a sword that was stuck in an oak log.
“Hey, look where you’re stepping!” A pixie kicked him in the ankle.
John tried not to limp as he made his way to the sword. It was the ugliest sword he’d ever laid eyes on. The blade that wasn’t buried in wood was chipped and pitted. The leather of the grip was rotted. There was a dwarf that was pulling on it. He looked like he was in danger of rupturing something. One of the dwarves looked up at John.
“Yo, Thornpiek, gi’ it a rest. We got a live one!” Rough hands pushed him over to the sword.
“Gi’ you hands a good spit,” a dwarf said, “let’s see if you be t’ one.” The dwarfs all laughed while John stared at the sword. He took a deep breath and gripped the sword.
Perhaps John is meeting an intergalatic snitch.
John paused to let his eyes adjust to the dim light of the bar. He felt a sharp pain in his back and looking down he saw the point of a Thr’xian dagger sticking out of his chest. He crumpled to his knee and a rough kick pushed him to the floor.
“Blasted humans,” the Thr’xian said, “always stopping and blocking the doors.
So while the concept of a bar might be deemed cliche, if you make it your bar it won’t be cliche. It will be a seamless part of the world that you are creating.