Clichés are the darnest things. Try as you may, you can't really completely avoid them. And who says you have to? Many popular stories and genres rely on clichés: Star Wars, Eragon, Harry Potter, The Matrix all have the "farm-boy/orphan who becomes the one" cliché. Genres are choke full of tropes and stereotypes and clichés. In fact, I heard fans of certain genres declaring that clichés are what they're looking for, because they're like comfort food. They like the familiarity and predictability. The "boy meets girl-boy loses girl-boy gets girl" plot arc and Happy Ever After never get old; in fact, they're expected in the romance genre. The rest is just variations and details.
And there's nothing truly original. Everything has been written before. If you think something is new and original, chances are someone else has already done it. "Originality" these days means how well you're able to twist an old theme or plot and combine different plots into something "new." Like cooking. There's nothing new about strawberries or cheese, but you can make something "new" by combining them and add new spices. That's pretty much what "originality" is. The popularity of the new and original mix-genre novels such as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a good testament of that trend.
So why do I have so much trouble with clichés? I try to avoid them at all cost, but end up writing something that I fear is clichéd. No matter what I do, someone has already done it. And if I try to do something different, the result seems forced and awkward, quirky and different just for the sake of being quirky and different.
Granted, clichés and stereotypes exist because there's much truth to them. The prostitute with a heart of gold? Been there, done that, but you know, it's still a crowd-pleaser because there's certain universal truth to it. Where would Julia Roberts be if she hadn't play such a character in Pretty Woman? I mean, let's count the clichés and stereotypes in that movie:
- prostitute with a heart of gold... not to mention beautiful
- rich playboy who is lost and has "parent" issue
- playboy's obnoxious and "bad guy" sidekick
- prostitute's sweet but less fortunate BFF
- a Cinderella story (now that itself is a BLINKING cliché that have been done a thousand million times, and will continue to be done)
- boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, and the BIG BRIGHT HEA.
So, are clichés really that bad? Why was Pretty Woman such a success? Why do we keep watching it and enjoying it?
I think it all comes down to execution, how we can write clichés without people a) knowing they are clichés or b) caring they are clichés because it's just a damn good story.
Let's examine Pretty Woman again. First, you have two very attractive, brilliant characters. It's all about characters, stupid! If you've got three-dimensional, likable, and relatable characters, you'd have won half the battle already. What makes Pretty Woman work is that the characters, at least the main characters (the minor characters are rather flat), are very well drawn and developed. Aided by the excellent performances by Julia Roberts and Richard Gere and their tremendous chemistry together, it just clicks.
Do we ever doubt how the story is going to end? Do we doubt the arcs these characters have to go through to get what they want? Not for a second. But we demand that. It would not have been a satisfying story had Roberts and Gere not fallen in love under the most unlikely situation. It wouldn't have worked had they not ended up in Happily Ever After.
Some stories are escapes. Fantasies. Pretty Woman is a fantasy. So is Harry Potter. It wouldn't have worked if Harry had come from a happy, content, whole family. It wouldn't have worked if Harry was an obnoxious know-it-all brat. It wouldn't have worked if Harry hadn't been surrounded by all his archetypical friends and foes.
And here lies the difference between archetypes and stereotypes. The characters in Harry Potter are all archetypes (Do we not recognize Ron Weasley the comedian/sidekick? And Dumbledore the quintessential wizard/mentor?), but they're not necessarily stereotypical, in that Rowling made sure she developed these characters and made them three-dimensional and with true emotions and real lives. Plus they're not always predictable. Dumbledore has many dark secrets. Snape is probably one of the most unpredictable, thus interesting characters. In fact, ironically, Harry Potter is probably one of the most clichéd and dull characters in the entire series, simply because Harry Potter is both an archetype and stereotype. But Rowling compensated that flaw with other characters and interesting plots.
So here's the other part of the quagmire. So we've got interesting and three-dimensional characters even though they're archetypes, now what? How could we make the plot appear less clichéd and predictable? Again, not everything has to be totally a surprise. Do we not know Harry Potter and his allies are going to triumph over the Dark Lord? We've seen Star Wars a hundred times to know how it's going to end. And Julia Roberts and Richard Gere are going to end up in Happy Happy Land. Duh!
The trick is not whether the ending, or the context of the story (be it romance, horror, mystery, fantasy, etc.) is predictable. In fact, the readers demand that. Seldom do they really want something that is completely out of the left field. Sure, sometimes that works too -- American Psycho comes to mind (and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho for that matter -- who would have thought what the story was really about!) Literary fiction has more room for "off the beaten path." But not all stories work that well, and "predictability," as far as the ending is concerned, is not necessarily a bad thing. And even real-life dramas have their shares of clichés because, you know, they happen! (Take Precious for example -- you've the abusive mother, the incest, the unwanted child, the kind teacher... the list goes on, but it's a riveting story because it's so real!)
What matters, as far as the plot is concerned, is the journey itself. That's where originality and unpredictability can prosper. Give us twists and turns we never expected. Give us detours that are surprisingly and yet satisfying. Give us subplots that are rich and fulfilling. Have the characters make choices that are unorthodox or unexpected. If they're given three choices, pick the least likely one and see where that leads. Have the characters change their minds. Give them internal conflicts, or have them do something out of characters (but plausible).
The point is, make the journey amazing, even if the riders know exactly where they're going to end up. Don't follow the same route that everyone else have followed. That's when your plot becomes clichéd. George Lucas already wrote Star Wars. Even if you set it undersea, and call the character Ameba instead of Luke, it's still already been done. Now, if the readers expect Star Wars but they end up getting Psycho, maybe you're on to something.