At some point in our lives we have probably all experienced it: the movie or book you were looking forward to simply didn’t live up to expectations. It was boring, it was predictable—it was cliché. Every step of the journey we knew exactly what was going to happen.
It’s not all about predictability, however. If it were so simple no one would ever read a book twice or watch a movie more than once. No one would bother rebooting an old franchise or re-writing Pride and Prejudice.
Clichés are a complicated topic, because they aren’t all bad. Just as in the world of print, clichés exist in stories for a reason—namely because they work. And creators often use clichés because reinventing the wheel is difficult and often unnecessary. The trick with clichés, whether they are phrases or plotlines in your fanfic, is to learn when to use them and when to be creative.
Let’s start small by talking about individual words and phrases. When writing fanfic it’s very tempting to lift character catchphrases or particularly poignant lines verbatim from canon and insert them into your fanfic at the most emotional and tense point in your story; however, you wouldn’t be the only writer doing that. Even words that felt like a punch to the gut in canon can leave you unmoved in fanfic if you’ve read them a million times already. Trust that your own words, your own fresh take on the characters’ interactions, can and will have more of an impact than a prominent phrase used in canon.
Not all fanfic specific clichés are bad. Fanfic tropes are essentially clichéd plots and they’re often used to great effect: “fake-lovers become actual lovers” or “it’s freezing and we need to find warmth together” are two popular romance fanfiction plotlines. Those are not bad clichés or tropes, because they can be written in unique and interesting ways. The appeal of a romance story is primarily not in the novelty of the plot, but in the character development. Read other fanfics in your fandom that use the same trope you want to write to ensure your fic will be different. Are any aspects of a character’s personality neglected in the other fanfics using your favored trope? Does your fanfic differ enough in character development to guarantee it will interest a reader already familiar with previously written fanfictions?
Since we’re now on the topic of characterization… one kind of fanfic specific cliché you need to be aware of is “fanon.” This is when fans have decided that certain things that didn’t happen in canon must have happened. An example of this in the Avengers fandom is that Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes lived together after Steve’s mother died. In the movie Bucky does offer for Steve to move in with him rent free, and we see that after initially refusing Steve is actually grateful for the offer, but we don’t know for sure that he accepted. While this fanon springs right from the source material, fans assumptions that Bucky worked day and night to pay for Steve’s medicine and often went without food so Steve could eat are pure speculation. If you want your writing to stand out then avoid basing your fanfiction on common fan assumptions. Even if fandom loves its fanon ideas, readers will eventually grow bored of reading nothing but the fanon they have created. This is mostly because the same character arcs will arise again and again if the writer doesn’t abandon fanon: if both your plot and your character development are derivative, your writing will be stale.
In the Steve/Bucky fandom, a fresh approach to Steve living with Bucky would be for Steve to move out of Bucky’s place as soon as he finds a job and can stand on his own two feet. I don’t remember reading a fic focusing on Steve moving out of Bucky’s place into his own apartment. Such a situation could be used to explore Bucky’s feeling in a new way, though. Maybe Bucky only realizes how much he loves his best friend when he faces the prospect of Steve moving out.
If you don’t want to throw out good ideas in the name of trying something different, you can still keep those ideas in your fanfiction, but don’t devote too much time to them. Just as fanfiction readers don’t need canon events described to them in detail, they also don’t need all the details about a commonly accepted character backstories either. So if you want to keep such a backstory, great! But move past it quickly and focus on something new and unique.
By keeping a close eye on commonly used canon lines and fanon you can make your fanfiction fresh and unique!