Why I Don’t Like the Terms “Stereotypical” and “Cliche”

That’s so cliche. That’s such a stereotypical mystery. That’s so predictable. 

These kinds of comments drive me absolutely nuts, no matter whose work it’s directed at. Sometimes these comments are true and valid. Sometimes authors make absolutely no attempt to make a story of a certain genre interesting, or give too much away, or use horrible cliches. 

However, what bugs me is when people use these terms without understanding what they mean. Or, perhaps, they use them as sweeping generalizations and unfairly criticize a piece of work. 

Let me explain. 

Murder mysteries can serve as an example. When people read murder mysteries, they want a unique story, sure. But they also expect some aspects of a murder mystery to be there. Cops, investigators, crime scene tape, frustrated washed up detectives that get a second wind, suspected boyfriends, whatever it is. These are not cliche nor are they stereotypical or predictable. They’re part of that genre. They’re necessary. It’s like walking back into your childhood home and finding the same furnishings are there. It helps people feel at home and settle into the story. 

You can use a lot of different scenarios, have unpredictable perpetrators, and twists and turns. But just because the basic framework of the genre is there doesn’t mean the writer is bad. I write mysteries, and while I haven’t published any as of yet (the ones I’ve written were more literary exercises than anything else), I’ve seen a good many mystery novels that were really great be criticized unfairly as being “cliche” or “predictable” or “typical” just because the person critiquing the book either didn’t understand the genre, or doesn’t understand that genre fiction always comes along with a standard framework. 

Take romance novels. I don’t read romance, really, but when I pick up a romance I do expect that certain aspects of the story will be there. Probably tension, another lover somewhere in the background that comes back, lots of horrid descriptions I never wanted to know – this is mainly why I don’t read romance – and so on. Again, not stereotypical, just expected parts of the framework of that genre. The stuff that helps you settle in. 

What would people rather have happen? Open a mystery to find that it’s aliens investigating the crime scene instead of detectives? Or that the detectives wave a wand to solve the case? There’s only so much you can do with a mystery as far as the players involved – otherwise you delve into the realm of fantasy. 

My point is, I would urge you, before you criticize someone’s work, to understand genre fiction, understand the specific genre, and understand the readership. Framework doesn’t equal a cliche. The expected components of a genre does not mean the writer is being stereotypical. It means the writer knows how to make the reader feel at home and understands his or her genre. 

Now, the actual story should be interesting and offer some twists. Because, of course, a writer who understands the genre and readership of it will also know how to throw them for a loop. When the story itself is dull or predictable (gee it was the butler in the attic with the knife, because you just told me the butler had a special knife and didn’t like the victim, and didn’t bother to give me any twists…) then criticize away. Professionally and kindly, I’d hope, for the author’s sake. 

But don’t confuse story for setting and setup. Setting and setup are the boards of the house. The framework. You expect a house to have a door, a roof, walls, and a staircase – if it’s a two-story or more – and you’d probably like there to be a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and living room. You can throw in a game room for fun in the framework, but if it’s at the expense of a bathroom people won’t be all that impressed. 

Walking into a house built in this manner is not walking into a stereotypical house. It’s walking into a house that stands up and keeps you comfortable. The story, however, is the decoration and, to some extent, the architecture. 

Curvy hallways? I dig it. Awesome mural on the living room wall? Cool, sister. Gothic chandelier? Poe would be so proud. The decor is where you make people gasp, ooh, and ah. 

So! Mystery with cops, sci-fi with aliens, paranormal with ghosts – dig it. That’s walking into a finished house with all the necessary rooms, none of which are bound to collapse on you. But if the husband killed the wife over an affair and there’s nothing else offered to keep you interested, the aliens seem friendly but then try to take over (nobody’s done that before), or the haunted house almost kills everyone until they escape at the last moment – in no extraordinary fashion or with crazy details – you’re walking through a cookie cutter home with white walls and no furnishings or accents. 

Expected, comfy, necessary components of a story = not cliche or stereotypical. Expected story line = cliche and stereotypical. 

I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here but I just wanted to lay that out in defense of all the genre fiction writers who end up on the battered end of unfair critiques. I’m sure one day I’ll be among them – and I’m sure, as with all writers, I’ll get some fair and warranted criticism, too! – but I figured I’d throw this out there for consideration. 

What do you think? 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. David Hinerman says:

    People are huge critics whether it is a movie,book, story, video game etc. I agree, there are some elements that usually must be in a story (or dialogue) because they are integral — not stereotypical or cliche.

    Or sometimes a better word for critic is “hater.” I see tons of hateful (not constructive criticism) on the internet everyday….

    My philosophy is “look at the overall picture, not the scratches or smudges on it.”

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