If I had to point to one thing that causes the great glut of rubbish entertainment, the junk food of art, it would be the cliché. Without empirical evidence and without citing references, I’m going to tell you flat-out tell you that clichés should be avoided and destroyed at all costs, except in one circumstance. As usual I’m going to run down my hows and whys of clichés.
How familiar does this plot sound? A young boy/girl in a new setting befriends an animal/person usually considered violent or bad. The adults all tell the child nothing good will come of the friendship despite the child being convinced of the innocence of their new friend. Something bad happens which is circumstantially blamed on the bad animal/person and the child is upset because they start to doubt their friend’s innocence. The friend/pet runs away. The child searches for him/her/it and gets lost. The adults then have to search for the child. Due to some twist of fate the child and/or adults get in a sticky situation and the animal/person/pet turns up apparently threatening them. The animal saves the child and/or adults and in doing so the real culprit is exposed thus proving the innocence of the creature/person and everyone accepts them as good.
I nearly gouged my own brain out just thinking of that scenario. Disney does it almost endlessly. My father used to call it the “little Indian boy” story because it was most obvious in a Disney movie about a little American Indian boy who befriended a wolf pup which was then blamed for the death of some sheep. It demonstrates the sickening repetition found in mass media. The biggest problem is that we, as consumers, don’t rebel and burn the culprits at the stake for crimes against humanity. I guarantee you will now be able to identify the above plot in every other movie you watch.
Fantasy novel cliché
Here are some basic clichés that you should avoid on pain of death:
- Grumpy dwarf, or dwarves as a race in general. In fact I would say be very cautious including any non-human races unless you have fully explored the diversity and fullness of their culture. The problem is the tendency toward massive stereotyping and racism. IE: all dwarves have beards, even the women, they are grumpy, love gold and drink ale. Elves of course are highly sophisticated poets, philosophers, drink mead and live in trees or close to nature. That’s as bad as saying all Englishmen eat larded bread, have lumpy faces and go to Spain for their holidays (I mean they do, but we just don’t say it.)
- Wise old mentor, especially if he is a story-teller and more so if he is a wizard posing as a story-teller. In a novel, this is a major cop-out as well as a fat cliché. The hero doesn’t have to figure anything out, the old man tells him. If the old man doesn’t tell him, it isn’t because he doesn’t know it but that he wants the hero to learn from experience or some such. Trust me, this has been done.
- Young, innocent hero / heroine discovers they have massive magical power that rises at just the right time. This is closely related to the next one.
- The hero is of unknown / mysterious parentage. It always turns out his parents are important.
- The hero is the child of a god or is a god themselves. Ugh. Nasty.
- The hero is always good and their overbearing ‘goodness’ always turns out for the best, even when it seems it surely can’t. Seriously? People just aren’t that good. People have strong survival instincts and will often willingly sacrifice others to save themselves. It takes a fair bit of consideration to overcome this base desire so why does the hero just naturally throw their own lives away?
- Children don’t die, only adults. The only adults that die are the heroic self-sacrificing parents of the child or bad men (only very sometimes women and those women are cold-hearted beauties.). You know what? One of the biggest casualties of any conflict is children. They are small, weak, can’t run for very long and aren’t experienced in survival. When things get tough, they are the most likely to perish. When writing a story, be grown up about it and either don’t include children or have them suffer like everyone else, maybe even more.
Always avoid cliché?
I mentioned right at the start that there is a circumstance when you can include cliché. You can include one when it serves the story. Terry Pratchett, one of my writing heroes, makes excellent use of cliché to make us laugh. Another author who wrote an entire series of very serious books out of cliché is Joe Abernathy with his series that starts with The Blade Itself. In each instance the author consciously takes a cliché and bends it to their need. They use it as a weapon against the reader to lure them down a cliché path of thought only to stab them in the back. Feel free to use a cliché to break a cliché. If you are going to have a young man of unknown heritage, go ahead and hint that they have royal parents. Lead the reader along as if they will be crowned king only to twist it so the hero finds their parents were actually the king’s favourite whore and the king’s butler who got sloppy seconds (pardon the vulgar use of language, but I’m trying to prove a point).
Another technique that works well is to do what I call “skirting” cliche. That is where you ues an element of a cliche to introduce familiarity and put the reader at ease. I’ve read a couple of books where the author has tried as hard as possible to be original. The result is a world that feels too foreign, too original and alien. The thing with clichés is that they are so heavily done that they rob meaning from our work. If on the other hand you use just a sprinkle of “near cliché” you can conjur the familiarity without losing your own meaning within the halo of cliché. An example might be a hero who has parents but suspects or wishes they weren’t his parents. You might be able to make the reader suspect the hero is actually an orphan adopted by the peasant farmers and in effect make the reader join with the hero in wishing for something different. You would need to make sure the hero’s parents are actually his parents to avoid the follow one assumption that his real parents are the fairy king and queen. But you will have drawn the reader in. You could make the hero meet a “wise old mentor” who turns out to be a predatory scammer looking to sell the hero as a galley slave or he could just be mad.
So avoid cliches, unless you want to make use of them for your own ends. In any case you need to be able to recognise them so you don’t go about using it by accident.