As writers we’re cautioned again and again to avoid cliches in our work. Something close to the kiss of death, the publishing community warns. So, I try to ignore those tasty little tidbits, and come up with my own more creative twists when a catchy phrase is needed.
However . . .
In a recent Reader’s Digest issue the subject of TIME was raised, and a number of cliches were listed. My critique partner, LA Mitchell, writes fascinating stories about bending of time, slipping through time . . . well, you get the jest. So, I studied the cliches closer, thinking to send them to LA and allow her convoluted mind to ponder them. What would she do with them? Turn the trite diatribes into dialogue? Universal themes?
Then it hit me . . .
Each of these nuggets described a personality trait. As a student of human behavior (something every writer should ascribe to), I wondered how effective a cliche could be in filling out the character sketch.
For each cliche, I could name at least one person I know, say fairly well, who could tattoo these words on their foreheads as a life’s motto. Don’t worry. Names have been eliminated to protect, well, me, from retaliation.
Better late than never. This one definitely struck close to home for anyone who knows my family. Certain members believe, nay, cherish the opportunity to make the mantra of ‘better late than never’ into gospel. These are the individuals who have never been punctual, indeed, can arrive thirty minutes to an hour late and still consider themselves on time.
Now, step beyond the personal and take it to a character level. Would this particular flaw round out a formally flat or static character? Or could this trait be reminiscent for the hero or heroine? One that he/she dealt with their entire life and made certain to emulate the complete opposite behavior? Could this be a source of fun in a romantic comedy between the hero and heroine?
Is it possible to take this cliche and tweak it and actually use it as a theme? Are some things worth waiting for? Even the things that show up late? Really late? Perhaps almost beyond patience?
History repeats itself. This cliche is all to often a hard and cold fact. Ever met someone who’s married more than once? More than twice? More than three times? Talk to them about their exs. Chances are there will be startling similarities. What about the person who constantly changes jobs? Always on the move, seeking greener pastures? Again, personality traits are clear with this type of behavior and this cliche.
Considering that the human body regenerates itself with new cells every seven years, perhaps it’s inevitable that we can’t remember all our mistakes and kill the ‘bad-choice’ repetition. Or perhaps, life really is a circle and we end up where we began. Whatever the fault in the gene pool, this is a wonderful opportunity for writers to exploit, and yes, that’s the correct verb, in order to humanize their characters. Writers are required, should be by a univeral writing law, to use every tool at their disposal, which includes observing and then committing to page the faults and follies of the human race.
How about these cliches?
Let bygones be bygones
Time and tide wait for no man (or woman)
To every thing there is a season
Each cliche is more than a song verse. Even more than just a simple cliche.
By studying underlying meanings of these phrases and applying to human tendencies, characters can be enriched. Depth is what makes each of us fascinating. The same is true — more than true — it’s mandatory for characters. Without layers, backstories, idiosyncrasies, flaws, blemishes, and assets characters are, look-out here’s the ‘B’ word — BORING!
More than any cliche has ever been the kiss of death, a boring character will execute a good story — perhaps even a great story.
Could you use one of these cliches to broaden the horizons for a character? Used another familiar cliche?
Do stop by the porch anytime. I’ll be here, swinging on the porch swing and studying a cliche or two.