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"The old roads and dusty highways have been traversed too often. Their charm has been worn away by plodding feet, and they have lost that element of novelty or surprise which is so essential for romance."
Gilbert, Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

A cliché is a phrase, motif, trope, or other element within an artistic work that has become common enough to be seen as an expected part of a work.

This is very subjective and dependent on the consumer's culture and knowledge level: for example, an American buying their very first issue of a Japanese manga might find it new and unique, but in its home country of Japan the same manga may be considered typical. A person playing their first Role-Playing Game might not realize the Mysterious Waif is far from original. Even then, though, just through Popcultural Osmosis or a sort of "sixth sense", people not familiar with the cliché might be able to spot it as such.

In spite of the negative stigma, many clichés are fully accepted by the audience, for the same reason as something formulaic works: because of its familiarity. The sheer number of Police Procedurals, Medical Dramas, and Romance Novels with summaries that are practically interchangeable exist because people like them anyway, as they ignore the clichés and instead focus on the great stories and characters. A lot of Executive Meddling aims to make a work more clichéd simply as a way of appealing to broader audiences. As Terry Pratchett said,

Clichés are the hammer and screwdriver in the toolbox of communication.

There are also circumstances under which clichés are expected. To quote Crash Davis from Bull Durham:

You're gonna have to learn your clichés. You're gonna have to study them, you're gonna have to know them. They're your friends. Write this down...

The term cliché is also sometimes used to refer to a verbal meme. This usage is almost exclusively reserved for old folk sayings. Expressions such as "the early bird gets the worm" and "raining cats and dogs" are examples. Of course, just like internet memes, cliches mutate over time and iterations. One person might say "The early bird gets the worm, but who wants worms?", "The early worm feeds the bird", or "It's raining cats and frogs!"

Therefore, it's key to remember that Tropes Are Tools—even the Cliché. Just cause the audience is expecting/predicting the trope, doesn't mean they don't want to see it. In fact, a writer may very well alienate the audience precisely because they went through great lengths to avoid a widely accepted cliché. It is because of this that a cliché has just as much potential to become a Favorite Trope as it does a Pet-Peeve Trope.

The name cliché dates back to older printing presses. When each letter had to be individually set, a common phrase would often be cast as a single block piece called a cliché (after the sound it made; the blocks were also called stereotypes, which itself ended up picking up a new meaning over time). Such ease of use ended up with authors over-utilizing them to save on costs. The term came to mean the readily available phrase itself, before broadening to include any overused element.

Note that "cliché" is not an adjective: if something has become a cliché, it's "clichéd".

See also: