Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On the Proper Care and Feeding of Cliches

Avoid cliches.

This advice is so commonly found in writing self-help manuals and agent blogs as to be rightfully regarded as an advice cliche.

Lists abound which purport to give guidance to the unwary writer of fantasy (or SF) as to which characters or plot lines one should eschew if one wishes to become a writer of good taste and discernment.

Examples of such lists may be found here or here or here .

The aspiring writer of fantasy should be thankful for such thoughtful sage counsel: after all, who wants to be called a Tolkien or Jordan clone?

But I have a question.

Such lists look suspiciously like a compendium of standard fantasy conventions, those kinds of characters and plot lines which define the genre. So...if we entirely avoid those sorts of characters and plot lines, will what we write actually be regarded as fantasy?

Fantasy readers have come to expect that a fantasy novel will provide them with fantasy characters, and unless one is as gifted and original as Tolkien, how does one produce a fantasy novel? (Actually Tolkien's originality consisted of recasting ancient British myth into fantasy: but I digress...).

Just what we Writers needed, another source of angst.

Now I understand that for Pubbers, whose daily immersion in the POS (Pile of Slush, which reputedly contains unwashed pap in such quantity and lack of quality as to produce crossing of the eyes, drooling, and in rare cases, loose bowels), may be very tired of seeing the same sort of thing repeatedly. I have a feeling that some of the advice from agents regarding the overuse of fantasy cliches is a subconconcious plea to aspiring writers to give them something different. Even a daily diet of filet mignon would become tiresome after a while.

And another question: if we shouldn't write in fantasy cliches, how is it that so many Barnes & Noble shelves are filled with cliched fantasy novels, hmmmm?

Yet more angst.

I have come to several Conclusions regarding this troubling paradox. And as usual, I find myself a little at odds with the standard advice. I believe cliches are not only necessary in fantasy, but the writer who discards them does so at his own peril - but of course there are caveats.

Conclusion 1) Old themes satisfy
I have mentioned before that good writing touches something deep within the human psyche, and that good stories succeed, in part I believe, because they pluck certain common strings in all hearts. Even Shakespeare and Homer and Tolkien made use of ancient material.

Conclusion 2) Human experience is cliched
People have similar fears, desires, and problems. Novels reflect this.

Conclusion 3) Cliches can provide problems or solutions
The 'ignorant farm boy' protag is a delightful fund of ignorance, providing natural opportunities for all sorts of self-inflicted drama, while the Hero's Journey is a natural, even expected, story arc.

Conclusion 4) A different 'feel' is needed
While cliches may well be necessary to define the genre, it does not follow that each and every writer should treat them in the same way. Both Harry and Ged attended a wizard's college, but the texture, the warp and woof of each of their universes are widely dissimilar.

Conclusion 5) There are new Readers born every day
Cliches aren't cliches for new Readers: they can be as fresh to them as the day the stories were first written. I recently introduced a friend of mine to Stephen Lawhead, specifically his Hood trilogy. Now what is more cliched than the Robin Hood story? Yet Lawhead's treatment of it is not only fresh, but surprising.

Conclusion 6) Fads are cyclical
Who knew that vampires and werewolves be popular again?

I intend to fill my writing with cliches, but to twist, pervert, and resurrect them.

And while I wouldn't want to be called a Tolkien clone, if someone said that I reminded them of him, I would be as pleased, as well, punch.

Spiked punch.


Anonymous said...

I'm thinking of writing a *real* wizards-in-a-British-public-school novel. Toast, and tea, and beatings, and the older boys looking for something called 'hand-arounds'.

It'll be gritty magic-realism.


gdtownshende said...

You wrote:
(Actually Tolkien's originality consisted of recasting ancient British myth into fantasy: but I digress...).

Actually, he was rewriting Finnish mythology. A lot of what's found in LOTR finds its origin in THE KALEVALA. I think there may be some British mythology in LOTR, but most British mythology is of the Albion type (Scotland), King Lear, Hamlet (believe it or not), Merlin, Taliesin, King Arthur, Beowulf (which hails back to Denmark), Richard the Lion-Heart (a.k.a. Richard Coeur de Lion, which is French), Robin Hood (which is actually just a variant on the Green Man mythology, which is rather ubiquitous throughout Europe), Lady MacBeth, Lady Godiva (which brings Banbury to mind, since I used to live near there), etc.

Also, you can even see influences of Classic Mythology (Roman and Greek) in modern British culture. For example, the old maxim "By Jove!" is a reference to the Roman god Jupiter. The old, pre-decimal system symbol for the British pence (back when there were 240 pence to the pound) was a 'd', which is another remnant of the old Roman influence, as the Roman currency was the denarius (from which we get the Spanish word "dinero", the Portuguese word "dinheiro", and the Italian word "denaro"). In some ways, you could call Britain a melting pot of ancient European cultures.

It is true, however, that part of Tolkien's motivation in writing LOTR was that he was concerned that people were forgetting the old myths, and his recasting them in LOTR was his way of preserving them. I believe he even says as much in his introduction to LOTR, just as he also denies in his intro the presumption of some of the influence of WWII on his story, and as he also notes that his interest in linquistics played a big role in the creation of LOTR.

You also wrote:
Conclusion 4) A different 'feel' is needed

This is precisely right. What science fiction and fantasy buffs want can best be described as "the same, just different". To dispense with science fiction or fantasy conventions because they are supposedly "cliché" is flirting with disaster, if I might court a cliché of my own.

As for books that go on about the clichés of fantasy, there's THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND, by Diana Wynne Jones, which even cites the use of a map at the front of a fantasy novel as cliché. Well, if that's cliché, then it can't be one that's worth worrying about, because novel after novel after novel in fantasy continue to have maps of their worlds included, and if that's the case, then I'm not about to allow the worry of that add another grey hair to my already greying head. :P