Clichés develop for a reason, whether it’s simple storytelling convenience or as an element of realism. But what starts off as a neat idea or a perfectly reasonable reflection of real life gets repeated over and over, slowly evolving into a groaner of a cliché that angers readers when they encounter it for the hundredth time. Then, some brilliant writer comes along and re-imagines, subverts, or re-invents the cliché, and it feels fresh and new—and the cycle begins again.
Sometimes, a writer doesn’t just subvert a cliché—she dives in, slaughters it, and wear it like a hat, basing an entire narrative around reinvention so profound, it transcends. These five books cleverly explore long-running tropes, mining them to create a new reading experience.
Cliché: Mean Girls. Book: Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll
The “mean girl” trope has been a staple for a long time, even after it was punctured in the titular Lindsay Lohan film. It’s become a bit of lazy shorthand: rich, plastic pretty girls are horrible and cruel. Few books explore what makes Mean Girls so mean in the first place, and even fewer bother to wonder what happens to Mean Girls after high school. Luckiest Girl Alive does both, and performs a remarkable trick by presenting a protagonist who is mean and difficult to like at first, then slowly humanizes her as her twisty and surprising story (trust us, you will think you’ve hit the twist—and then there is another twist) unfolds.
Cliché: YA Tragic Romance. Book: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews
Tragic romance is at the center of many young adult novels. What Andrews does in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is to give the reader every reason to assume a tragic romance is coming—and then substitute a tragic friendship instead, which is no less devastating, and no less compelling. Andrews captures the thrilling confusion of the teen years and develops deep characters whose emotions float to the surface of every page.
Cliché: Epic Fantasy Hero. Book: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson
Epic fantasy has been subverting itself for a long time. After decades of dominance by Tolkien and his earnest imitators, writers began questioning the standard ingredients. In the modern day, writers like George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie have turned epics that subvert those old tropes more or less as a genre unto itself. Back in the 1970s, though, Donaldson did something kind of amazing with Thomas Covenant: he offered up a hero who was surly, unlikable, and diseased, one who didn’t even believe the world he’d come to save was real. Covenant remains one of the most fascinating antiheros of epic fantasy, even if his character slowly softened over the course of nine novels.
Cliché: The Glory of War. Book: The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
Many books have explored the true terror and dread of combat, but one of the first and most powerful to subvert the cliché of glorious warfare is Crane’s 1895 masterwork. What makes it so interesting is its exploration of the subject without succumbing to the temptation to become an anti-war screed, presenting the protagonist, Henry, as a young man who dreamed of glory but finds his first experience in combat to be terrifying. After fleeing the battlefield, he returns to his regiment seeking the “Red Badge of Courage”—that is, a wound—and behaves more bravely, only to discover that his whole unit is considered expendable. Crane manages to make Henry’s inner struggle a noble one without undercutting the inhumanity of warfare.
Cliché: Redshirt Characters. Book: Redshirts, by John Scalzi
Redshirts takes its name and main inspiration from Star Trek, but if you’re not a “Trekkie,” don’t let that discourage you—the story Scalzi has crafted is fun and fascinating all on its own. Ensign Andrew Dahl, in service on the flagship Intrepid, notices that every time the crew sends out an away team, one of them dies, but it’s never a member of the senior staff—only the grunts. It’s a riff on the old Trek cliché of anonymous red-shirted crew members dying whenever the show needed to raise the stakes without sacrificing one of the leads). The explanation for the oddities on board is ingenious and impossible to guess, playing with every single pre-conceived notion readers might bring to the table.