Just a point of clarity for starters, I am not an English Lit Major. The study of Literature didn’t figure in my education beyond secondary school, I’ve read a lot (within my preferred genres) and I watch a lot of TV shows, movies and the like so, what follows isn’t what you’d call an ‘educated opinion’ just my opinion.
The sources I’ve read, articles by editors and the like, brand stereotypes, coincidences and cliches as ‘bad’, evidence of ‘lazy’ writing or poor story planning but why? Let’s look at each one, see why they might appeal and then break down some of the drawbacks of using them.
A stereotype, a “widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”, well straight away there’s the appeal. It’s something ‘everyone’ (the ephemeral everyone) already knows. It’s something familiar but, as the definition describes, it’s also fixed or rigid. The majority of stereotypes are also derogatory, you just have to look at how the sensationalist media have used them in past years, used and reinforced them to sell units or rally public outcry. Stereotypes based on race, culture or sexual/gender identity are almost universally ‘bad’, they demean the lived experiences of the individual by placing them within a template that people, people who often have no parallel experience think they can understand. Yet there are stereotypes that do appeal and do get used again and again, corrupt executives, shady lawyers and the like. These templates don’t rely on gender or race and there are enough examples of them in recent history to justify the use. But, back to the argument, a stereotype is not a character. It might form the basis for a character but that basis has to outgrow the confines of the template, gain dimension, until is no longer what it was before it can be accepted by the audience.
Coincidence, “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances that have no apparent connection with one another.” or (as some editors I’ve read have described it in the literary setting) ‘the divine hand of the writer intervening.’ sometimes you do write yourself into a hole, you can’t see a way out and going back to rewrite the sequence of events seems like an insurmountable job, you don’t want to discard a bulk of work to move forward. Of course a great explanation for ‘coincidence’ is ‘prophecy’ but that will likely already have been established, so it’s expected and accepted, but it doesn’t work well too far outside of the fantasy genre. The thing is coincidences, seemingly unbelievable coincidences, happen all the time but, by engineering circumstances the writers coincidences become ‘unbelievable’. I’m not saying certain coincidences don’t have their place but they should be subtly employed.
Cliches, “an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect”. Again, even cursory reading of the internet will deliver the idea that cliches in literature are ‘bad’, very much like stereotypes. The corrupt exec, or shady lawyer examples come back around, are they stereotypes or cliches? Well they are both, both definitions apply and still they are used (more often as red herrings) and, like stereotypes there is the appeal of using the familiar, the comfortable to achieve a widely recognised image, the kindly mentor is another that endures. The idea extends into common sayings, a character who uses a cliche as a catchphrase isn’t being original. But, in this time when common conventions are being openly challenged, perhaps calling out the use of cliches, ‘hanging a lantern on it’, is an acceptable source of humour. We don’t have to completely disregard old ideas but, as writers we should be striving to put a fresh spin on them.
I’m not saying I’m not guilty of any or all of the above. In writing Camelot 2050 my main goal has been to produce something fun, something that, while it has a message of its own, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and, as my trunk work, I’ve railed against being told ‘how to do it’ (certainly at least one New York Times Bestseller has said ‘don’t be told what to write’). However, when (down the line) I want to be taken seriously by publishers or agents, my next project will certainly involve more planning, more attention to avoiding the stereotypes, coincidences and cliches that the broader writing world find so irritating. For now I’m pushing through writing book three of the trilogy and I am doing it how I want.