Embracing the Familiar, Avoiding Cliche

As I revise some of my earliest work on this book, I find that one of the more difficult parts of writing is something that seemed so simple at the beginning: avoiding cliches.

I thought that I had done a good job, but then I went back and re-read my early chapters with a critical eye after letting them rest for several months. While there were no Dark and Stormy Nights, I was disheartened by the number of simple tropes I had used. Some of my undeveloped secondary characters weren’t even salvageable; fortunately, they weren’t difficult to replace. How had I fallen into these traps? What went wrong, and how could I fix it?

As I rewrote, I ran ideas by a group of friends to test what I was doing. A few were immediately shot down. Others generated excitement for the book that was sitting in a thousand pieces on my computer. I began to see a trend.

The line between cliche and relatable was a thin one, but the major difference seemed to be that the relatable was always the result of fully realized characters making decisions that were in keeping with their personalities and situations. An alcoholic wounded veteran? Danger zone. Until I fleshed out the happy life he had lost. He didn’t drink because he was wounded, he drank because he remembered being happy, and he couldn’t get back there. And that informed the characters around him, how they treated him and what their histories were. Instead of a two dimensional caricature, I now had a person, someone that many people could recognize from their own lives.

Some things really were just unsalvageable, usually names. No matter how many real guys you know with names like Stryker, Jager, Flagg, and Irons, they’re always going to sound forced in a military story. It may be possible to get away with one, but you have to decide whether it’s worth the inevitable eye roll from a reader, and whether you want a character to acknowledge that eye roll at some point with a quip about the name. I’ve got my one keeper, I still haven’t decided if he’s going to survive through the draft I send to the editor.

“Arm yourself because no one else here will save you
The odds will betray you
And I will replace you
You can’t deny the prize; it may never fulfill you
It longs to kill you
Are you ready to die?
The coldest blood runs through my veins
You know my name.”

– Chris Cornell, “You Know My Name”

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