A Defense for the Cliché

Article by Orville E. Wright

    The totally generic Looten Plunder

I have always wondered why people dislike clichés. There is nothing wrong with the idea in and of itself. But many critics think that all clichés are bad because they are cliché. However, this is not the case. I intend to prove that something being cliché is not in and of itself bad.

First off, a cliché is an idea or theme that is overused and/or betrays a lack of originality. It is this lack of originality that the critics take fault in.

One of the most important principles in writing is what my mother, a published author and a writing instructor, called Surprise vs. Satisfaction. This principle states that to have a good ending of story requires two things, surprise and satisfaction. By surprise, she means that the story must have an unexpected element or twists, and by satisfaction, she means that the stories ending must make sense. The problem with clichés is that they’ve been done so many times that they no longer surprise. This is what is called unoriginality.

All that said, a cliché is not necessarily unoriginal, despite what the dictionary says; however, they can easily lead to it. For example, in any long running story, the reader generally knows that the hero will win in the end. This is a cliché of all such stories. However, the interest of the reader does not come from whether the hero will win. It is in how he will win that interest is derived. You know that Batman will eventually stop the Joker’s plan to spray laughing gas into the vents of the Gotham Police Building during the policemen’s ball. What you do not know is how he can find all the hidden whoopee cushions containing the laughing gas in time. That is where the drama is.

The reason that cliché is synonymous with unoriginality is because cliché actually refers to two slightly different things. The first definition refers to an idea that is time tested to be dramatic. It is not very interesting if the murderer turns out to be the guy the cops thought was the murderer all along rather than the innocent-looking butler. The second refers to when such ideas are misused. It is also not interesting to have the butler have killed John Dow without there being any other real suspects for the audience to suspect.

This second definition is the reason clichés have a bad name, not the ideas themselves. It is uncreative to have a knight save a princess from a dragon. It is creative to have Luke save Leia from the empire. The difference is in presentation. You care about what happens to Luke and Leia because George Lucas put interesting characters into the rolls of the knight saving the princess. You wouldn’t care about Sir. Bump and Princess Bubbles, the completely generic knight and princess, because there is nothing to them. Both Luke saving Leia and Sir Bump saving Princess Bubbles are both examples of the damsel in destress cliché, but unlike the theoretical Sir Bump and Princess Bubbles, Luke and Leia make their story interesting by being interesting.

The main thing most critics don’t say about clichés is that, like any idea, it can be used to great effect or to no effect. For example, take the evil business man cliché. It is one of the most common villain arc-types in this modern day. However, both Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Potter from A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life respectively are both evil business men. The difference between them and, say, Looten Plunder from Caption Planet is that Looten is generic, evil for evil’s sake, kill all the fluffy animals, nobody-in-a-suit, while Scrooge and Potter are not. You get a chance to see into both of their heads and see how they became the evil old misers they are. In the case of Ebenezer, he actually changes his ways and becomes a good man. While Potter does everything in his power to destroy or take something he has no right to, just because he is an old and jealous man. Looten never gets even a proper motivation for killing the environment. It’s just what he does, because he is a businessman. It is because of men like him that the cliché get such a bat rap.

The point of all this is that, at the end of the day, no cliché is bad in and of itself. It is the execution of the cliché that makes them… cliché. No matter what kind of story you write, you will have some Idea that has been used before. Your job as an author is to take that idea, put a new spin on it, and see what happens.


Orville E. Wright, the son of L. Jagi Lamplighter and John C. Wright, is a small Pokémon plush toy brought to life by mad science.