Here in our subculture of the frum publishing world, we’ve developed uniquely frum brands of clichéd characters and scenarios
All writers know the advice to “avoid clichés like the plague.” Clichés are stultifying and dull. They weigh down your prose with predictability instead of seeding it with color and interest and panache. And when readers can guess what’s coming next — when an inner voice tells them “I’ve read that story before, I know this character already” — they feel that much less of an urge to keep reading.
We’re all tired of the cold fingers of fear squeezing someone’s heart, the shimmering teardrop forming at the corner of someone’s eye, the hard-nosed businessman closing in on his next deal, and the crinkle-eyed smile of the kindly grandmother. They’re probably accurate, but they also sound like autofill wrote the story.
Then there are phrases like “she had to pinch herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.” This is a whole different level of cliché — not only is it tired; it also doesn’t make sense. Do you know anyone in the world who actually pinched themselves to make sure they were awake? (And why would a pinching sensation prove they weren’t dreaming an especially vivid dream?)
Here in our subculture of the frum publishing world, we’ve developed uniquely frum brands of clichéd characters and scenarios. At the top of the list are the rabbi stroking his beard sagely, the rebbetzin wiping her hands on her apron while welcoming a bevy of guests, Josh the curious, potential BT and Yoni the struggling teen. (And don’t forget the seminary teacher turning her student’s life around while they make Shabbos together in her little kitchen.) It’s true that many scholars stroke their beards, but isn’t there some other gesture that can bring to life that scene in the inevitably seforim-lined study?
It’s easy to mock clichés and it’s sensible for all writing coaches and editors to rail against them. But there’s an inconvenient aspect to clichés that makes them less dispensable. Clichés persist because they capture some sort of lasting truth.
True, no mature reader enjoys a story about “cardboard characters.” Once we get past the black-or-white, good-or-evil perspective of early childhood, we come to acknowledge and appreciate the quirks and inconsistencies, the grays and gradations, that are part of authentic humanity. We want our reading material to reflect that nuance. Heroes that are too perfect — or villains with no redeeming characteristics — don’t deliver.
But on a deeper level, we’re wired to appreciate clichés. We really do resonate with characters who struggle, experience a moment or process of truth, and then overcome. Is that a clichéd plot structure? Yes, but it’s clichéd for a reason. It has withstood the test of time because it’s timelessly human.
Science fiction and fantasy may beckon to some readers, but we’ve found that the vast majority appreciate plots that pit people just like us against their inner demons, that explore tensions between siblings and families and friends, that unravel the challenges in schools and shuls and neighborhood settings. Are those clichéd themes? Yes, but they’re clichéd because they speak to our shared experiences.
We might balk at that perfect hero who walks an impossibly golden path to triumph, but we really do want to root for the protagonist — even a flawed protagonist — as he fights his way to a happy or at least hopeful finale. Is that a clichéd sort of conclusion? Yes, but it’s clichéd because readers have always been seeking some sort of closure when they get lost in a story.
So we try to build characters with unexpected elements. We urge our writers to use images, language, or scenarios beyond the challah-braiding bubby or the beard-stroking scholar. But we know that we can’t throw out clichés entirely, because there are some deeper universal truths that ring true to all ears.
(I think I’m supposed to end with bimeheirah v’yameinu amen… because that’s the true closure we all seek. But we’ll save that for the speeches.)
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 925)
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