Workshop four: crime fiction clichés and how to avoid them

Workshop four: crime fiction clichés and how to avoid them


  • Raise awareness of clichés in crime fiction
  • Think about how you can avoid clichés in your own writing

As an aspiring crime fiction author, you are probably familiar with many of the genre’s common clichés. Broadly, these can be split into two categories – character clichés and plot clichés.

Character clichés

The alcoholic detective: If you’re thinking about a main character with a drink problem, stop right there. The alcoholic detective has been there, solved the crime and is in dire need of retirement. There are, of course, many great examples such as Morse, Rebus, Harry Hole and Jack Taylor, to name but a few. The thing is, with these characters – and many more – already out there, the genre is heaving with alcoholics. We really don’t need any more.

The maverick loner: The cop who doesn’t get along with his/her colleagues; the detective who knows far more and is effortlessly more effective than their bullying buffoon of a boss. Done, done and done again. As with the alcoholic, crime fiction is overloaded with outsiders who don’t play by the rules but still get the required results. No one – apart from the reader – understands them. Yawn.

The tortured soul incapable of forming a long-term relationship: Characters in crime fiction are particularly awful when it comes to relationships. There cannot be a genre more scattered with failed marriages and broken dreams. If I could talk to a fictional character considering a relationship with a crime fiction ‘hero’, I’d have two words to say: ‘don’t bother’. It’s almost a given that the central character in a crime novel will not ride off into the sunset with his/her life’s love. Chances are, they’ll end the novel propping up a bar stool, alone, (see clichés 1 and 2 above) mourning their lost love.

The music-loving detective: Ah yes. You know who I’m talking about, right? If not, here’s a small sample to jog your memory: classical musical-loving Morse, jazz aficionado Harry Bosch, country music fan Tom Thorne, Broadway musical man Myron Bolitar and rock enthusiast Rebus. Again, the list goes on. And on. Interestingly, despite the growing popularity of female protagonists in crime fiction, music remains predominantly a male obsession.

Plot clichés

People trafficking: Human trafficking is, obviously, a terrible crime. The sheer horror and scale of it is, no doubt, one reason so many crime writers have explored it in their fiction. The thing is, there are a lot of really good crime novels already written about this subject. If you choose to build your plot around this topic, proceed with caution. There is a real danger that you will seem to be jumping on a band wagon rather than offering any new insights into this large-scale human tragedy. So, if you’re thinking of doing this, ask yourself why. Is it because human trafficking offers ‘good plot lines’? If that’s your only reason, then please think again.

The psychotic serial killer: The Silence of the Lambs, The Bone Collector, The Mermaids Singing, the Dexter series, Tania Carver’s novels, etc etc etc. It’s easy to see why serial killers capture our imaginations. The idea of a psychopath choosing victims at random and killing without feeling is truly dreadful. It’s why serial killers make for great fiction. With a psychotic killer on the loose, it’s easy to build tension and keep the reader turning those pages. The problem is, it’s all been done before. Publishers and agents are always looking for something fresh. If you offer them a serial killer plot, you’re instantly increasing your chances of going straight from slush pile to bin.

Rookie detective hooks up with cynical, older partner: If I need to explain why this is a cliché, then you really shouldn’t be trying your hand at crime fiction.


I’m sure crime fiction abounds with other clichés too and please feel free to add to my list as you see fit. If you feel like sharing, add them to the comment box at the end of this workshop. Let’s see how many we can come up with.

You might be wondering why any of this matters. As I’ve already pointed out, many authors have forged successful careers using characters and plots that rely on some or all of the clichés outlined above. Well, yes. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be so lucky. First off, it’s tough for aspiring writers at the moment. Possibly tougher than it’s ever been before. This means agents and publishers are increasingly wary of taking a risk with a new author. They are looking for something new; something they haven’t seen before. Building a character who fits into an already well-established mould, or creating a plot that’s been done over and over is the quickest way of guaranteeing agents and publishers will not read what you’ve written.

Here are some exercises to help you avoid clichés in your own writing:

  • Make your own list of crime fiction clichés. Do this by building on the list above or starting your own list from scratch.
  • Keep your list in mind when you read new crime novels. Do they cover old ground with familiar characters or do they offer something new? If it’s something new, can you define what that is?
  • Think about the novel you’re writing (or want to write). Think about your central character. Does he/she stand out from other characters in crime fiction? Have you managed to avoid the obvious clichés (problems with booze/drugs; failed relationships; an outsider)? If you have strayed into cliché-land, get out as quickly as you can (unless you truly believe you’ve managed to introduce something fresh and original – and if you think that’s the case, ask someone else’s opinion. Please).
  • Again, thinking about your own novel, how does the plot compare to other novels you’ve read? Is it truly original or does it cover the same tired old ground that’s been done to death?
  • Finally, and most importantly, think carefully about your reasons for wanting to write crime fiction. If you are doing this because you love the genre and you believe you have something original to say, then chances are you’re already on the right track. If you have other reasons for writing crime fiction (for example, maybe you think it’s a faster route to getting published or you don’t think you’re ‘talented’ enough to try something else), then proceed with caution. You will only ever be a good crime writer if you love the genre and want to write crime fiction because you can’t imagine wanting to do anything else.

Remember, too, that all rules are made to be broken. You may already have a cracking novel that features some or all of: an alcoholic outsider, an intricate plot in which victims of human trafficking are being killed off by a psychotic serial killer and the only person who can solve the crime is the rookie partner of a cynical old detective with a passion for poetry and Wagner. And if you’ve got all of that and it works, good luck to you. You’ll need it.

In the next workshop (11 April 2013) I’ll be looking at writing the first draft. See you then.

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