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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fantasy Clichés: The Good, the Bad, and the Published (Part One)

Recently over at Dragon Federation (the quite awesome new site for SF/F blog reviewers and their fans can hang out and tip back a few imaginary beers) SparklingBlue brought up an interesting topic that I have discussed before, but haven't really delved into:
I was wondering your opinion on the subject of clichés in fantasy--are they a good thing or a bad thing; and will a book still sell even though it has what is considered cliche in fantasy?
The problem with fantasy fiction is that it is, by default, a clichéd genre. Very little, if any, original fantasy is being written today. What is being written is fantasy that utilizes interesting methods of retelling old ideas, revitalizing classic fantasy creations, etc. I've said similar before, and I often get lambasted for doing so. Why? Because readers of fantasy don't like to have their genre criticized for what is a reality. Fantasy is incapable of escaping its mythic roots, as much as it tries--contemporary fantasy and magical realism are really as close as you get to an escape, and even then it's only a faux escape hidden under flowery language or the intensely strange. It is embedded into the mythology of thousands of years of human history and equally as embedded into the exceedingly long, and truly astonishing history of literature. From the dawn of the written form (whether as words or pictures) we have been telling stories of gods, monsters, magical beings, and heroic journeys. Obviously these are some of the most cliché elements of fantasy, but I'm using them to make a point, because most fantasy uses some or all of these in some capacity or another.

Some call the things I refer to as clichés "tropes," which is pretty much the same thing in terms of literature (which seems to have its own dictionary in much the same way that science does, apparently). Whether they are tropes or clichés, these elements, whatever they may be, are built into the fabric of the fantasy genre. It is incapable of disentangling itself from its history and easily as incapable of disentangling itself from its commonplace parts. This is why the notion of "original fiction" is, by default, nothing more than a noble gesture. Fiction is only original in the sense that a particular author manages to do something different with an old thing. Some might argue here, however, that science fiction is a genre of the original; the problem with this assessment is that it assumes ideas are the same as plots, characters, etc. Science fiction is only original in that it sometimes invents new things that are separate, in some capacity, from the body of literature that precedes it. This has a lot to do with the fact that science fiction is as embedded into the present as fantasy is embedded into the past.

None of this is necessarily bad. To get upset over this reality--that fantasy is a cliché genre by default--is like getting upset over finding out that ice cream and frozen yogurt come from cows at some point down the line.

But clichés make a work crappy, right? Well, no, not always. Clichés are bad news when:
  • There are a lot of them.
  • The author fails to do something different with old concepts.
  • The author tries something sadly obvious to make it seem like he or she is being original (having elves and calling them bingles instead, for example).
The above list isn't set in stone, though. But we'll leave that to the next post, which will address the publishing side of all this. For now, I'll stick with whether clichés are good or bad.

The thing about clichés is that they are perceived to be bad when they are written poorly. It becomes pretty obvious when reading a book that the author didn't care enough to try to mask his or her use of clichéd elements. You'll find elves and wizards doing what they've always done in fantasy and the reader (us) is left wondering: why did I bother with this crap?

Good writers try to write clichés in a way that doesn't draw attention to the fact that you've seen it before. A prime example, I think, is Karen Miller (author of The Innocent Mage and The Awakened Mage). With these two novels, Miller succeeded in avoiding the instinctual drive towards originality by taking several clichéd elements and writing them in a way that doesn't automatically draw the reader's attention to the fact of their commonality. Her work takes clichés like prophecies and magic and spins them on their head. Instead of just another story of the chosen one rising up and winning against the evil bad guy, Miller gave us a story in which the chosen one is not at all what one would expect, and someone without any interest in matters of prophecy, magic, higher culture, etc. Her use of magic, too, avoids the cliché all-too-prevalent in fantasy (the white-haired or old wizard mentor) and instead twists magic around, making it dark, but necessary. There are few, if any, super-powered ninja wizards running around blasting holes in the moon.

And Miller may be one of the few fantasy authors with the ability to write dialects into dialogue. Her main character, Asher, speaks with a clear type of accent, and the she writes his dialogue draws us into that world of peasantry and class conflict.

All this is to illustrate the point that one doesn't have to be original so much as unique. Yes, those terms are different. To be original is to precede all others, to be the first. To be unique is to be radically distinctive. Miller, I believe, is just that.

And I think that will conclude this post. In the second installment I'll talk about how the nature of clichés influences publishing (as I see it).

If you have an opinion on this, feel free to let me know in the comments!

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  1. I once became offended when somebody told me, 'Nothing is original, everything thats been told has already been told.' I took this at an insult to modern literature. But is it that far off? I don't know and I don't really care. I will continue to write and read no matter what.

    As for cliches. Some readers look for them, making the story flow better to them, making it easily imaginable. But alot of people want new and interesting plots and theories. Some want to know how the magic works or what type of engine performs warp-speed while maintaining the scientific laws.

    But many people read to read, and if your story flows then a cliche will never get in the way.

    But of course, why listen to a hum-bum like me?

  2. Oh, well this post was not at all an attempt to say that one shouldn't write (not saying that you're suggesting it is, but in case someone misconstrues). Cliches are never a reason NOT to write. If one is bothered by them so much that they can't write, then writing really isn't for them anyway. The best writing isn't writing that tries to be original; it's writing that tries to be unique, to do something different with ideas that were pioneered by people that preceded the author.

    And I like listening to a hum-bum like you! You leave good comments (err, comment...). So, feel free to spout more of your stuff around these parts :). Cause I agree.