10 of the Worst Cliches in Fiction Writing

If you like to read like Mr. Bemis, then you notice these, too.
If you like to read like Mr. Bemis, then you notice these, too.

I’m a reader because all good writers are readers.  Mostly, however, I read because I love to read.  I am in many ways like Henry Bemis in “Time Enough At Last”, adapted from a Lyne Venable short story which chronicles the sad life of a chronic reader.  I’m so glad I have a Kindle Paperwhite, because if I had to buy all the books I read my house would be full of them.

The beef I have with modern fiction is that it tends to wax cliche more often than not.  I hope I never use any of these horrible cliches I’m about to list.  If you use them, dear writer, I pray you revise them right out of your narrative.  I think when you read them you will agree that these cliches need to go.

  1. Seer Statements – This is when one of the characters in the narrative makes one seemingly psychic statement about the protagonist that sums up their character in a single sentence.  This denotes lazy writing.  Real people are much more complex, and there should be much more to our characters than what one character can say about them.  Now that I mention this, you may be thinking of many instances of this, but one clear example is Haymich from “The Hunger Games” who basically tells Katniss who she is and who she will become.
  2. Killing the Moral Center – This cliche is becoming more and more popular especially in film.  For example, we can see on such television shows as The Walking Dead, every time someone has it together or becomes the moral compass of the group, they are killed off royally.  This, of course, causes the group to become more unified and eventually produces another person who is the moral compass who is then summarily killed.  I’m guilty of this one.  I did it in This Broken Earth, introducing a mentor character for my protagonist who I then allowed to be killed by rocket propelled grenade.  Shame on me.  I won’t do that again.
  3. Bombarding Us With Background – I’m running into the problem with my newest WIP.  I’ve written over 15,000 words of backstory and pre-history complete with cultures, religions, flora and fauna, and I have found that the hardest thing to do was write the first line of the first chapter.  Where do I begin?  Sometimes writers overload the landscape with all of the background information rather than let us live in the environment they have created.  This is hard to do if you have made all of this background information.  The important thing is to tell an engaging story, and if we throw a miasma of stuff at the reader, most of it won’t stick but will end up on the floor unused.
  4. The Burn Out – The main character used to be some kind of expert or mercenary or something-or-other and now is just an ordinary joe.  I find it much more interesting if the hero is completely ordinary but has to rise to extraordinary levels to help others or survive.  The list is huge on this one: “First Blood”, “Rainbow Six”, “The Bourne Identity”.  This is a trope that really needs to be re-thought or deconstructed.
  5. Explaining Things – In “The Life of Pi”, we have a lot of explanation as to why people are named what they are named.  You know, I’d like to be the one who figures that out as a reader.  The name “Rooster Cogburn” comes to mind here.  Charles Portis gave Rooster his name because (obviously) the character is kind of like a rooster and is kind of an old codger, which sounds like Cogburn.  I like figuring that out.  Don’t explain your metaphors or your clever bits.  I like to figure that stuff out myself, thank you.
  6. Let’s Write “Twilight” – I could make an argument that “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” are the same story.  I could also make an argument that they are playing on the same tired tropes that made “Twilight” a success.  Once something sells millions everyone tries to copy it, even if what is being copied is so much literary tripe.  “Hunger Games” is actually a plagiarized story, copying at least the premise from “Battle Royale”, a 1999 novel by Japanese novelist Koushun Takami.  What I would like to see (and love to read, by the way) are original stories that do not try to expand on “Twilight” or “Hunger Games”, but delve into the reality of life while taking me to some far away and strangely science fiction setting.  I don’t need teenage melodrama, and I think people are growing tired of it.
  7. Stalker Love – The girl doesn’t love someone in her life who loves her back, and then after he stalks her repeatedly, she finally sees that he loves her and falls head-over-heels for the weirdo.  If this is your love life I am describing here, then you desperately need therapy.  If you write stories like this, then please stop.
  8. Rush to the Airport – Oh my goodness!  If I don’t get to the airport on time, the love of my life will leave me forever and there is no possible way they will ever know how much I love them if I let them get on that plane…even though you could just catch a later flight.
  9. The Romantic Comedy Paradigm – This one is a big seller, and my wife will kill me for dogging this, but…here goes: Guy and girl start out hating each other for some reason, guy and girl begin to fall for one another, they fall in love, then one of them does something to screw it up.  Later, one of them realizes his/her mistake, and they meet at the airport or somewhere romantic (an airport?!) and live happily ever after.
  10. Romance Is Mandatory – What ever happened to a male and female character hanging out and just being friends?  Do they really have to have a love interest?  Is this real life?  I think that if the protagonist has to have a girlfriend/boyfriend, then that shows a bit of a weakness, doesn’t it?  I love strong female characters.  If the female character doesn’t fall in love is that such a loss?  By the way, I love rhetorical questions.  They get you thinking, don’t they?

If you have any more cliches that you’d like to see disappear in fiction, then comment below.  I’d love to learn from you!

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

27 thoughts on “10 of the Worst Cliches in Fiction Writing

  1. “Hunger Games” is actually a plagiarized story, copying at least the premise from “Battle Royale”, a 1999 novel by Japanese novelist Koushun Takami.

    Be careful. Plagiarism is the copying of words, not plots, themes, or character types. Unless you can show that Suzanne Collins lifted exact words from Takami, then what you are talking about is not plagiarism and is a slanderous accusation to make.

    1. Webster’s definition of plagiarism is: “an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.” This includes thoughts. I believe it is called “intellectual property”. The plot of “Battle Royale” is so close to the plot of “The Hunger Games” that it is suspect in my opinion. It is not slander. I did not defame the character of Susanne Collins. I just find it suspicious that the plots are so close. Nothing more.

  2. What can you do about a “final battle” cliche? How do I make the villain defeated, but not loose his reputation as extremely powerful? What about the main character? How do make them defeat the boss, but not make it seem like I’m rubbing their power in the reader’s face?

    1. A couple of ways: 1) You could have the hero defeat the villain almost accidentally. The villain’s arrogance causes their downfall. 2) You could have a villain who extremely underestimates the abilities of the hero, thereby being highly surprised when the hero defeats them. 3) You could, as in chivalry, have the hero defeat the villain but the villain concede. Hope these help.

  3. The Hunger Games isn’t plagiarized, the only thing they have in commom is a game where kids kill each other. If a similar theme is all it takes to be a plagiarist, how many times has Stephen King plagiarized Lovecraft? How many times did Lovecraft plagiarize Poe? Did GRRM plagiarize Tolkein because they both are psuedo-medieval fantasies? Is Jodi Picoult plagiarizing Judy Blume by writing about emotional, controversial topics aimed mainly at teen girls?

    You can’t just throw the accusation of plagiarism around because you don’t like a book. It shows a lack of ability to comprehend or think about the deeper thematic elements of what you’re reading. I mean, I don’t like the Twilight series, but just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean I get to accuse Stephanie Meyer of plagiarizing Anne Rice or Bram Stoker.

  4. haha i love this! i would really like all the brooding badboys and the love triangles to go, as well as the ‘chosen one’ plots

  5. Thanks for the advise and I agree, trying to start the story is very hard I’m still trying to come up with it but u have most of it finished. I’m making a story just for fun,( like I’m experimenting cause I’m still pretty young.) Anyways luckly mines don’t really fall into it except for 6 because I don’t really understand that. But I still feel like I’m going to have a lot of cliches but hopefully it won’t be to boring. Like how I’m going to start my story it’s going to be cliche and a little risky/confusing but I’m planning most of it out and so far so good.(yay for rough drafts XD)

    1. A rough draft is just that: rough. It’s ok to do that kind of thing when you are first writing and just trying to get the ideas down on paper. What to do with subsequent drafts is to take those old tired cliches and flip them around, change them up, make them fresh.

  6. This is a good list. I usually encounter these kinds of cliches in general. And I keep researching for more because I have a WIP that I need to retouch, and I can just avoid or revise the cliches that I did without noticing in my story. Thank you very much for making this!

  7. Whew! Dodged them all in my current WiP!

    #5 on your list brings out the grumble. When beta readers tell me I should spell out the metaphors to be more obvious. Uh, what happened to art?

    My advice for your question in #3, “Where do I begin,” I suggest starting with what would grab your attention as a reader.

  8. Hi,

    I’m not sure if I’m guilty of any of these, I don’t think so, but I don’t agree with no. 1 Seer Statements.
    In the narrative a no-no, but in conversation, why not?
    People do it all the time, describing their neighbours as ‘a bunch of bastards’ or their nurse as an angel.
    Sorry, can’t see that one.


    1. Hey Owen! Thanks for commenting. I think that one character describing another flippantly is ok, but the idea I was getting at was when one character sums up the hero in one statement, defines them, and doesn’t really let them grow on their own.

  9. This is a great list. I don’t usually encounter these cliches because I don’t read modern fiction. I’m a fantasy reader, so we have our own list of cliches–and it is a long list. Thanks for sharing.

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