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The Best-Worst Cliches

Today, we are going to talk about cliches in fiction, or at least one special subset of them: those that annoy us.
| Jan 20, 2016 | 5 comments |

Today, we are going to talk about cliches in fiction, or at least one special subset of them: those that clicheannoy 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.

keep-calm-and-drop-the-cliches“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?

Shannon McDermott is the author of the fantasy novel The Valley of Decision, as well as the futuristic The Last Heir and the Sons of Tryas series. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website, ShannonMcDermott.com.

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Audie Thacker

“X Saves Christmas”–I guess it’s a season-specific cliche, but I do get really tired of the all the tired stories of how puppies, pokemon, groups of heroes, or what have you have to make sure Santa gets his sleigh out on time.

Gloria Clover

The “I really love you, but I can’t stay with you because I’m afraid you are going to die (someday.)” And why don’t characters respond with, “Of course I’m going to die. So are you. It’s not that you’re afraid to love a firefighter (bull rider, secret agent, etc.) You’re afraid to love a human. So you really don’t love me. Move on.”

Of course I’m being silly, but that premise bugs me.

Tracey Dyck

These are great, and I agree with almost all of them! (I hesitate to agree 100% with the sob story one, because I feel it’s an effective tool…but I can see how it’s overdone.)

Reading this, I realized that I had a thinly disguised “I thought you were my friend” line in one of my WIP novels . . . so I went back and took it out. The scene stands absolutely fine without it. XD

I dislike the oversimplified “the power is within you” cliché used for many types of heroes. Of course, as believers, God’s power IS within us, and He HAS gifted us for certain things. I just find that a lot of stories stop at that line. No one really explains how to access that inner power. The hero just seems to go, “Oh, okay,” reach deep, and then suddenly explode with new abilities. It seems to go hand in hand with the Disney-fied “follow your heart.” You’ll just magically discover everything you need within yourself, without a jot of mentorship or encouragement from another soul, without acknowledgement of a higher being who put that life and power in you in the first place… Yeah. End of rant.

Audie Thacker

“The One”–Thinking mainly of The Matrix, but the same idea comes up in a lot of other stories. The idea that one person in all the world has some special gift, skill, or talent that makes them special. Usually it’s a teenager.

“Cut the blue wire. No, the red one. No, blue.”

Big explosion in the background and people in the foreground diving toward the screen.

Stories that begin with something like, “You’ve heard the story of X, but this is what really happened.”

Zombie apocalypses–I’m sad to say that, but…please, enough.


“Follow your heart.” …Isn’t that what Hitler did?