Cliched Characters and Events in Stories

Often, when a person reviews a book or a movie, they state that characters and events are cliched and/or stereotyped and predictable. I have a bit of a problem understanding this complaint. Isn’t every character or event predictable? Assume there’s a romance story where the woman dies, and the man kills himself. People would say that it’s predictable and had been done in Romeo and Juliet. But they both lived happily ever after, critics might say that it’s just a knock off of almost every romance movie in the 1990’s.
Since there’s only a set number of variables for the resolution of any given conflict in a story, it seems that every permutation of plot can be forseen, shortened down to, “The protagonist will win, or he won’t.” This being the case, how can someone write an event, or characters, that aren’t predictable?

I dunno, but see “Being John Malkovich” for the most original idea in years.


For a great example of stereotyping, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, I bet someone will come along any minute and suggest that this thread belongs in Cafe Society.”

You’d be right.

KneadToKnow, I thought about putting this in there. But for the most part, CS looks like it deals with fixed matters of society–particular television shows, movies, music, and books. I wanted your <i>opinion</i> on this matter, so I put it where it made the most sense. If it’s in the wrong place, the mods can take care of it.

The cliches I hate the most are: a character gets amnesia, and a character is left at the altar. Think about how many times you’ve seen this happen in a movie or on TV. Then consider how many times you’ve heard of either of these things happening in real life. Both of these are cliched as hell ways of generating plot in a contrived way. The first reason is why I stopped watching 24, and the second was the last nail in Xander’s coffin of idiocy on Buffy. Tired tired tired. And absurd.

A bowling tournament is always won by a final strike.

A baseball game is always won by a final home run.

A game of darts is always won by a final bullseye.

Any others in this genre?

A basketball game is always won by either:

i) The ball slowly rolling around the ring

ii) The second foul shot (the first one is usually missed)

iii) One of the less talented players on the team pulling off something they couldn’t manage at the start of the movie
Oh yeah, and ice hockey games are always won via penalty shots.

It seems to have become a cliche for the sports team (or whatever) to lose the big match but learn a big moral lesson from it.

The geek in high school will end up being successful and popular, and conversely, the popular guy will end up being a loser.

Nup… doesn’t happen. A lot of the time, people who are losers will always be losers, and the obnoxious jackasses in hish school will grow up to be rich obnoxious jackasses because they’re obnoxious jackasses.

People don’t get their comeuppance.

Yes, there are a limited number of plots in fiction. But it’s the rationalization of the hack to use that as an excuse not to be original.

Alfred Bester said it best: a writer has only one thing to sell, and that’s originality. The issue isn’t using common aspects or plots; it’s using them in a way that’s different from everone else.

Take “Romeo and Juliet.” “West Side Story” was the same story. But WSS was original in that it translated it into a gang setting and added music. Baz Luhrman made an original R+J by doing something very similar though more flamboyantly, and by making changes that improved on the play (e.g., letting Romeo realize Juliet was alive just before he died). Zifferelli made it original by casting teenagers in the roles.

Another example is twisting cliches. I became a fan of Buffy because of this, and one particular episode, where a demon was asking Willow to join him. Willow refused. In every other film where the bad guy wanted the girl to join him and she refused, his reaction was “I’ll make you join him.” In this case, the demon sighed and said, “Here’s my token. If you change your mind, give me a chant.” That twist is what good writing is all about.

Yes, you know the protagonist is going to win. But good writing makes you forget this, and makes you wonder how he’s going to win.

In the critic’s lexicon, “cliched” and “predictable” means the writer didn’t attempt to do anything new with the situation. It doesn’t matter that a situation has been portrayed a thousand times; a film is good when it shows that situation in a way that diverges from other 999.

Hackneyed and irritating: The woman screams when the body is discovered.

Ditto: Character A has something crucial to tell character B, but never gets to say it because he or she doesn’t have sense enough to say, “Stop talking for a minute and listen.”

I enjoy the Columbo series, even in reruns, but I do get a little tired of him not immediately identifying himself as a police officer to potential witnesses.

Cliches in alternate history stories:

Even though the changes in history would have rendered his birth almost nil-probability, there’s still going to be some current celebrity/politician doing something in the book.

Someone’s going to ponder about what would have happened if the events at the point of divergence of the book’s timeline had happened otherwise, and ends at our world. Other scoffs the prediction as improbable.

Someone scoffs at the whole idea of alternative worlds as idiocy.

Victorious Confederacy frees the slaves pretty much right after the war.

I hate ‘the last of his/her/its kind.’ It happens more in science fiction, I guess, and I understand the reason is to create some quick sympathy for the character, but yeesh.

Guinan. Leela. Plumpy (the Plumpa troll in the game Candyland - yes, he was the last of his kind). Pegasus. That one Mohican. and on and on…

Leela? Of Futurama? She was never the “last” of her kind, merely the only one she knew of.

Recently, she found out she wasn’t an alien after all, merely a relatively nondeformed mutant human passed off as an alien, aliens apparently haveing a higher status than human mutants on Futurama’s earth.

But yeah, teh last of his kind bugs me too, mostly because the orphan never seems to be bugged out by it enough. I mean, if I knew that all that remained of human culture, not to mention the human genome, existed only within me and would die with me, I’d be pretty depressed and stressed.

Siskel and Ebert had just such a list on CompuServe. The list was of common plot devices such as “The Fruit Cart” - any fruit cart shown will be hit by a car. A “Snow…(something or other)” movie even featured a fruit cart with its awning reading “Siskel and Ebert Fruit Cart.” The Arnold S. movie about a boy going into a movie also quoted from that list.

I believe the list is still in existence in a book by Roger Ebert. Been meaning to buy it to see if my contribution to the list for “The Dramatic Gun Chambering”- any gun no matter the situation will have to be rechambered as in “Unforgiven” is there.

One of my favorite list is about how to be an evil overlord.

Every grocery bag has celery and/or a stick of french bread in it.

A detective can only solve a case once he has been suspended/fired from duty.

Chick in bed hears a noise. She gets up to check out, but doesn’t turn on any lights, doesn’t get dressed, and doesn’t wake anybody else up when she starts to get scared. Inevitably, the bad guy jumps out from behind a door, a wall, or the hallway and clamps a hand around her mouth.

And the very worst one:
The retired criminal, or the retired cop, comes back from retirement to solve one last case, or pull off one last heist. I HATE THIS ONE. Gone in Sixty Seconds was good, but that one was a cliche.

I hate how there’s always that one old con in prison nobody messes with who sees the new kid and decides to protect him and teach him the ropes because, well, all those murders and rapes notwithstanding, he’s really just your basic nice guy.

And then there’s that whole selling-your-soul-to-the-Devil thing . . .

When a man and a woman meet under adverse circumstances, particularly in an adversarial setting, they will fall in love before the end of the story/book/movie.

They always de-fuse the bomb as the clock counts down to 6 seconds. (I guess the scriptwriter felt that 0:01 would be TOO unbelievable.)

Just once, I’d like to see someone defuse the bomb when there was still 23 minutes left – OR – He snips the red wire, and the bomb blows up!