Most of us think of the term "cliché" as being a bad thing, and if we take a look at the actual definition of the word it's not hard to see why.
Here are three definitions to sum up the word "cliché"
1. "A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought." 2. "A very predictable or unoriginal thing or person."
3. "A stereotype or electrotype."
No. Not good at all is it? Probably wouldn't feel nice to have someone refer to your work as "cliché". In fact you might have rolled your own eyes at the lack of originality in a particular comic book, video game, movie, novel or piece of music; exclaiming loudly and proudly how unoriginal, predictable and cliché you thought it was.
People want new, fresh and unique! Right? Or do they? Where do the lines cross between originality and relatability? And most importantly, what does this mean for the stories and characters within the comic books we create? That's what we're about to explore in this article, and the conclusion may shock, stun and surprise you. Or, maybe you've heard it before and this is all old news to you.
The Cliché's You Love To Hate
Ever noticed how you're turned off by the cliché's you hate, but turned on by the cliché's you love? If you haven't, seriously think about it for a sec...
I generally don't like chick flicks, drama, romance, or musicals. To me, they all follow a similar story structure, deal with the identical themes, have the same kinds of character's and end in the same way. They're all derivative of one another and that's precisely why I'm not compelled at all to experience them in whatever consumable format they're presented in.
On the other hand I generally love sci-fi, horror, and psychological thrillers. These genre's follow a predictable narrative, share the same character archetypes and most of the time I'll be able to guess what the conclusion's going to be. They're all built upon a recycled structure that works, and that's exactly why I seek these types of stories out.
All genre's and themes are essentially clichés, or regurgitated narratives that house the stereotypes we love, hate and relate with for better or for worse. That's why they work over and over again. We understand, resonate with, and ultimately form some level of connection with these stories, along with the character's inside them.
Anything that's created which doesn't succeed in establishing that connection never gets the chance to become a cliché, because it's forgotten.
But that doesn't mean we don't all have particular tastes. Some stories, characters, and ideas will stick with you, and others won't. Usually you'll find that you're most attracted to the ideas that align with who you are, your core beliefs or experiences. There's a certain level of pre-established familiarity with the things we like. Because we understand it. If we don't, it either doesn't enter our peripherals or it simply isn't appealing to us.
That's why something foreign and completely unknown that we've never experienced before makes us feel uncomfortable. If we can't categorize it quickly and tie it to something else we already know about, it takes us no time at all to dismiss it.
This is the reason we like the company of our friends more so than a stranger. But if that stranger is wearing a T-Shirt with your favorite comic book character on it, suddenly you'll feel like the two of you are in the same club. Because even though you've never met, both being fans of the same character allows you to anchor some sense of familiarity to them.
Which means 'sameness' can actually be a good thing in some instances, while 'difference' might be a repellent.
Why Stereotypes Work
Taking this back to the cliché elements that might or might not be present within your own stories, let's take an archetypal creature like a dragon for instance.
If I asked you to close your eyes right now and imagine a dragon, there's a good chance you and I would think of something similar. A winged, fire-breathing, reptilian beast, with sharp claws, horns, teeth and scales. It's color is green, if not red, black, grey or blue.
In fact, the dragon you might imagine likely wouldn't be all that dissimilar to these three.
These dragons are from three separate stories that are completely unrelated except for subject and genre; Game of Thrones, Reign of Fire, and Maleficent. Would you say they're cliché? Heck yes, of course they are. Are they unique? No way! Do we care? Not at all, because this fits within our understanding of what a dragon is supposed to look like.
Lets say though that you wanted to design a dragon which was completely original. Well if it's a truly new and unique dragon that has never been seen before, we might present our dragon concept as a floating ball of fairy floss that shoots candy instead of fire. And rather than flapping it's wings to fly from one destination to the next, it would teleport.
That'd be one very different looking dragon. Would anyone like it? Well, if they were actually able to figure out what they were looking at was an actual dragon instead of an edible candy dispenser, the answer would likely be a hard 'hell no'.
Our fairy floss dragon wouldn't make sense to anyone because it'd simply fall too far outside their understanding of what a dragon is supposed to be.
So different, unique and original doesn't necessarily equate to good. Actually it could mean quite the opposite. The argument could be made that if something has truly never been seen or done before, that it's probably for a good reason!
The Superhero Stereotype
Alright, now let's tie this back to comics. What does this mean for your typical Superhero story?
Well, we can safely say that ninety-nine percent of Superheroes have quite a lot in common as far as their visuals go. Just to name a few, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Black Widow, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four all wear tight fitting, spandex costumes. They all use special abilities to fight the bad guys, they're all physically fit and attractive. And so they should be. They're Superheroes.
It's not just the characters which are uncannily alike however. Their stories also follow a similar formula. And it works well for the genre. That's why people enjoy it and keep coming back for more! You might even say that the fans helped manifest the genre altogether. The cliché. Without them there wouldn't be one.
The same model is played out again and again because it works so darn well.
So if all of that's true, why do cliché's get such a bad wrap? Well as I said earlier, there are some cliché's that you'll love, and some you'll hate just out of personal preference. And it's possible for a cliché to be so over used that it becomes boring. But there's also the case that some ideas are just a little bit too much like the others.
Using our previous example of the Superhero, we know that for people to recognize them as being a Superhero we'll need to design them with the key attributes in mind that indicate it - tights, mask, cape, emblem, powers/special abilities or weaponry, and an athletic body type. Combined, these overarching characteristics encompass the superhero archetype.
But, if you begin imitating the specifics of an individual Superhero, lets say Batman for example, giving your character a horned black cowl, webbed cape, grey spandex, and a yellow utility belt, you're not just creating a cliché of Batman, you're manufacturing a carbon copy.
This just won't do.
Creating an Original Cliché
You've got to mix up the specifics within the broader characteristics of the Superhero archetype to come up with something that feels familiar, yet unique and original at the same time. The easiest way to do this is to just take a bunch of pre-existing characters under the Superhero umbrella, throw them in a blender and see what comes out.
For example, what would happen if you sprinkled in a little bit of Spiderman, a pinch of Mystique, a hint of the Hulk, and a few of your own secret herbs and spices into a big mixing bowl, and gave it a good stir? What would you end up with?
I'm going to take a punt here and say something pretty original.
You could do the same with their biography, personality, and story. And if you're feeling really adventurous, you might even try redirecting the established genre by throwing in a little horror here, with a spot of fantasy there. They did this a ton in the 90's Image era. The big names were ripping each other's character's off left right and center. It was a given.
So what do we do with this? How do we give our comic book characters and narratives the right amount of cliche?
The answer to that is simple. Start with something that you know already works really well. Use it as a basis, and add your own twist as you build off of that foundation. It could be any stereotype, archetype, trope or cliché. Pick the one that gets you most excited and run with it.
I personally like to mix and match lots of little things that catch my attention. I'll come up with an overarching skeleton of a story-line which is rooted in five to six pre-existing narratives that have influenced me creatively. Then, as I begin fleshing the characters out, fine-tuning the details and articulating the nuances of the world I'm building, I'll find little gems of inspiration that help refine my ultimate vision.
These are mined simply through the process of research, and by research I mean reading comics, watching movies and playing video games with a note pad in hand, and waiting for something to catch my attention that'll fit well within my preformed idea.
Now of course, I'm not going to out right steal other people's creations and patch them together into a second hand narrative. Not at all. But I'll bend and morph them into the context of my own vision, and use them to refine it. I'm recycling those ideas into something fresh.
This is essentially what every successful creator does. And it makes for an extremely power creative process.
How New Ideas Are Formed
See, by default, our brain has a lot of difficulty coming up with new ideas out of nowhere. Without any outside input the best it can do is conjure up with something extremely generic. Which is kind of backward when you think about it, because you'd assume the reverse is true.
In fact it's not. Because our brain's real contribution when it comes to idea generation is providing a generalized storage device. The only problem is, most of what it stores is low resolution, pixelated and in most cases distorted. It can't store information with perfect clarity.
Which is the reason we're not able to come up with anything all that ground breaking on our own.
Give our mind something to work with however and it becomes an entirely different beast. It's motors start whirring as it associates one idea to the next, dismantling and recombining them to create something novel. It absolutely thrives on this process. We enjoy solving puzzles, but we need the pieces their to put them in place.
You might be worried that you're stealing someone else's idea and using it as your own. That's one perspective sure. Another might be though, that you're simply allowing a new version of that idea to live on in a different form. Every great idea that's out there already, came from somewhere. The very best came from a moment of inspiration sparked by something that connected with the creator on a profound level.
As creators we're compelled to recreate that which inspires us, for it's precisely what stimulates our imagination. Inspiration is the wonder drug that lets our mind dream up something new. But we've got to find it first, because contrary to the artist's ideal, inspiration rarely finds us.
In closing, a cliché idea that's already been done a million times before, has probably been rehashed repeatedly because it works so darn well. Stereotypes, archetypes and tropes are simply buckets of readily relatable categories of understanding an audience can instantly connect with, which is certainly something you want. If an idea so unique that it's completely new, it's probably never been done before for a good reason. Or it has in fact already been done, and simply didn't work.
Overdo a great idea enough times though, and even it can become boring. Something which unfortunately happened to the great Wild West genre, has probably already happened to the Zombie genre, and could be happening to Superhero's. So you also want to add your own spin to the cliché's, stereotypes, archetypes and tropes your character's and their stories are built upon.
That way, your ideas will feel new, relatable and they'll probably be a hit.
I hope you found this article useful and insightful, especially if you're in the middle of developing a killer idea right now! If you think this info might benefit some of your fellow comic artisans, share it with them too. They'll be grateful you passed it onto them and so will I!
If you'd like to delve into this topic deeper, we discuss the use of cliché's at length in our latest Podcast episode. Certainly worth a listen if only to get a fresh perspective on creativity and the development of new ideas.
Click here to listen to the Podcast Episode: https://soundcloud.com/user-53573127/episode-41-too-cliche-or-not-cliche-enough And if you're in the early stages of creating your own comic book right now, and want to design characters that are compelling and memorable, I'd highly recommend checking out our Comic Book Character Creator Courses below. They specialize in character creation specifically for comic books, showing you an in-depth look at the design process, as well as the actual production where you'll learn how to pencil, ink and color multiple characters from start to finish.
Thanks for reading and until next time, keep on drawing!