Today, we are going to talk about cliches in fiction, or at least one special subset of them: those that annoy us. These are cliches that cross genres and mediums, ambushing hapless audiences in romance novels and fantasy TV shows alike. Some might have been all right once – not all, mind you, only some – but they’ve been played too many times, become a little too ubiquitous, and now they trigger impatience at every new appearance.
I am going to provide some of these best-worst cliches in a list format, because this requires essentially no organization and is frankly the easiest format to write.
“I thought you were my friend.” This was all right once, probably before the turn of the nineteenth century, but after hearing far, far too many melodramatic exclamations of “I thought you were my friend!” – I’m done. Even if justified by the story, this sentence will always make me sigh … with the sole exception of when it’s played for humor.
“Follow your heart.” All this really means, if you bother to think about it, is, “Do what you want to do.” There are times when this is highly sensible advice, but these days it’s thrown around like some sort of profound insight, like it cuts the Gordian knot and leaves everything clear.
And truly? It doesn’t. The heart is often confused and confusing, and it does not, like a compass, point true north. I am tired of seeing dilemmas resolved by emotional exhortations to “follow your heart.”
Everybody’s got a sob story. Everybody. Villains, heroes, anti-heroes. Now, everyone has his reasons, but must they always be tragic ones? I want to see the happy heroes, and the villains who do what they do because they enjoy it – or enjoy what they get from it.
“I feel sorry for you.” As a comeback to the villain who has just sentenced you to death, this just doesn’t cut it. For one thing, who actually thinks like this? Of all the things even a hero would think or feel at the moment of imminent death, pity for one’s own murderer seems rather unlikely. For another … look, why should the villain care? Pity can sting, but usually only when you feel yourself, in some way, pitiable. And a villain who is, or thinks he is, about to achieve total victory over an enemy will not believe he is the one who needs pity.
“I have my own code.” Let it be noted, first of all, that this line is usually uttered by pirates, thieves, or other miscreants; it is the last refuge of scoundrels. “My own code” is for those who find the Ten Commandments too rigorous.
I include this cliche not so much for itself as for the treatment given to it. I have seen this statement taken to be reassuring, which is … oh, why not just say it? It’s dumb. Even if, say, a pirate’s code does forbid robbing you, because you are poor or an orphan or some other affecting thing, you have no reason to feel secure. After all, the pirate wrote his own code, and he can always add a new bylaw for you.
I deny even more strongly any suggestion that there is nobility in following your own code. You wrote it yourself. Of course you can follow it. It suits you.
“He lives in your heart.” Somewhere along the way, our culture adopted this as a means of comforting people regarding death without mentioning God or heaven. And every time I hear it, the more insufficient it seems. Is this what anyone truly wants?
Those are my top cliches. And now, it’s your turn. What cliches bother you?