I would describe a cliché as an abused tradition in writing. Sort of how you go to a wedding, and it really doesn't surprise you if the bride wears a white dress. Everyone is doing it, but it doesn’t mean they should. (If I get married, I personally plan on wearing a tunic, some leggings, and suede boots, I'll have you know). Yes, there are certain times when a cliché may be appropriate (though none presently come to mind), but on the whole, a writer should be coming up with their own original ways to express their own original ideas.
Many times clichés are so much a part of our language, that we don't even realize we use them. Few stop to really consider the meaning of their words, both in daily speech and in writing. But the clichés we use are a little bit funny when taken literally.
“I slept like a baby.” (Did you really sleep in fetal position with a diaper on and wake up every two hours to be breastfed?)
“I've been working like a dog.” (Did you really spend the day “marking your territory” and chasing cats?)
“He's sweeter than honey!” (Did you really lick him to find out?)
“Gas costs an arm and a leg!” (If it did, I'd have been broke after the second time I bought some.)
Clichés are not always phrases either. They can be character names (like a cheerleader named Candy, or a Mexican character named Juan), character appearances (tall, dark, and handsome), or even a storyline (forbidden love, vampires vs werewolves, etc.). They are hard to escape. I personally find it helpful to go into writing with an open mind. Forget things you've learned about the world and seen in the world, and simply create your own story and your own words. Cleanse your mind of everything you have witnessed, and see what happens with your writing. It's not as easy as it sounds, and it's a bit of an odd concept to grasp, but it's certainly one worth trying. I know I can be just as guilty at using cliches as the next fat person, and I know it can be difficult to break the habit while you're busy as a bee trying to get some writing done, but you really have to think outside the box and work on it, even though you may wish it was easy as pie. Annoying, isn't it? :)
Another way I would suggest ridding yourself of character clichés if you truly can not get past the idea of not making the girls look like barbie and the boys like ken would be to “mix and match”. Perhaps rip a paper into small pieces and on each piece, write a characteristic (skinny, fat, blue eyes, brown eyes etc.) Proceed to separate these into categories like eye color, skin color, hair color, etc. Then draw one slip of paper from each category to build your character. You may not like the results 100%, but you will be able to avoid having a cliché looking character.
For plots, I would suggest simply trying to keep things interesting. Make sure the unexpected happens, even if that means it feels unresolved and makes readers uncomfortable with the end. Don't always tell the reader (or yourself) what you'd really like to hear. Don't always make the girl go for the handsome guy, don't always have your character pull through and make the right decision in the end, and dare to let the hero die. Dare to make all of the main characters ugly, or fat, or of some element beyond the “expected and accepted”. Be bold. Be different. Be shocking. Break barriers and molds as though your pen is a sledge hammer. That's what keeps readers going; that “WTF?!”, “OMG!”, or “NO WAY!” moment.
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