We need more clichés

Anyone who’s ever spent much time looking at writing forums will find any number of people afraid they may have committed the mortal sin of -GASP- cliché!  Oh noes!  Not that!  ANYTHING BUT THAT!!!

Why?!  Who gives a flying fuck?  Okay, lit majors, but they don’t count; their brains have been overridden by all the mould on those dusty tomes they get off to.  Besides that, though?  Clearly the people making those posts care, but WHY?!  Because someone convinced them they ought to.

Thing about cliché is that it’s useful.  It’s a trope that’s been used, and use, and used again.  It’s a trope that some would argue is overused, but is it, really?

It was a dark and stormy night

Catchy isn’t it?  It evokes so much!  Lightning, rain, wind whipping through trees, moonless, starless — street lamps either non-existent or ineffective.  A perfect night for crime, thrills, horror.  A perfect night to try to get in out of the rain at the ominous castle on the hill, or for a shot to ring out and a shrill cry to pierce the air.

It communicates.  It’s recognisable.  Take it like this.

It was a clear, and starry night — beautiful, peaceful — which only serves to prove the universe just has no sense of poetry.

Now we know that, not only is it not a dark and stormy night, but that the story which is about to unfold ought to have started that way.

Cliché is about symbolism which does make it strange to me that lit majors hate them so. I mean, it pares down a lot of clunky explanation to a nice simple, “he wore a black hat“.  There’re expectations that derive in the reader’s mind now.  You’ve got them right where you want them and can lead them on exactly the path they expect you to, or twist things and play with those expectations — surprise them.  Oh my god, the butler didn’t  do it?!  Wait … the villain is actually the white hat wearing old rancher with the sweet doe-eyed daughter and this stranger with the black hat is the Hero?!

Of course another big problem is that, more often than not, people mistake tropes for clichés.  A trope is an element that makes a story the genre it is.  The trope grounds the writer and the reader in a certain set of rules — a contract, so to speak — so that each knows what the other is expecting.  A space opera without ray guns is okay, but there’d be something else there to make it one, or you’ve lied and it isn’t a space opera.

By confusing tropes with cliché, then compounding the matter by vilifying the poor, innocent, defenceless cliché we wind up with a pile of lies and nonsense.  If you’ve taken out magic, elves, dwarves, faeries, etc.  Why are you calling it a fantasy?  Because they’re using swords?  Hmm … other things you can call it, especially if you’re relying heavily on your extensive research of 10th century France for the setting.  At this point you’ve written historical fiction or something like that.

I suppose it all comes back to:  why do you care if you’re taken seriously by a tiny minority of people who have degrees in picking apart stories and analysing the living Hell out of them?  Did you really enjoy lit class as a child or are you just pretending, now you’re a writer, that you did?

Believe me — most people either don’t remember what they learnt in lit, in fact most of them probably never learnt it in the first place — certainly very few seem to actually understand any of it (sadly, a few moments with a lit textbook and a dictionary and one discovers a number of literary critics don’t understand either) … so, unless your goal in writing writing is to one day wind up in a literature textbook, why not write popular?  And cliché is a way to speak the language of the popular, to get your point across to the masses.  It also might be worth remembering:  Shakespeare is in lit books, and once criticised as being trite, cheap, popular entertainment and not serious playwriting.  Notice, though, that his work is still enjoyed today — many of those who were supposedly so great and brilliant, on the other hand, have been lost, forgotten, relegated to, at best, a footnote in a history text.

The most lasting and endearing tales are the ones that establish new tropes, and with them new clichés.  Or they’re ones that just use those tools to tell stories that resonate with reader after reader.  The Hobbit, The Three MusketeersTreasure IslandKing Arthur and other legends, Nancy DrewThe Hardy Boys, ol’ Bill’s plays, and so many more.  Think of the most beloved movies of all time:  ETStar WarsGone with the Wind

Play around with tropes, of course.  Have fun with cliché … they’re tools, not straitjackets. Just like you can hammer a nail with a wrench, or pry a nail with a screwdriver, you can tell a Fantasy story with the clichés of a Mystery.  A Horror-Thriller with the tools, and tropes of a Romantic-Comedy.  But, just like you still need those nails, and boards you still need the tropes and clichés that define and structure the Fantasy or the Horror-Thriller or you’ve actually written a Mystery or Romantic-Comedy and have deluded yourself.

My writing is proudly, and unabashedly full of things like this.  Janoke Greenbriar, he doesn’t have a cat or a moustache, but his lines, those beautifully clichéd villainous lines, call one to mind.  He’s twirling that moustache he doesn’t have, or stroking that cat he doesn’t own — or both at once!  It’s important to me that he was like that.  He’s a classic, ruthless, evil, selfish, greedy, conceited man.  All his hats, metaphorically speaking, are black as midnight, dark as pitch.

More fun with cliché!  Adjectives!  Doesn’t ‘dark as pitch’ have a lovely ring to it?!  Seems so sinister and evil while just saying something is damned black, dark, and matte.  Or ‘black as midnight’, how black is that?  I mean … at midnight there’re all manner of stars and celestial phenomena in the sky, very shiny, yet ‘black as midnight’ tends to make people think of the darkest of night … the furthest one can be from the sun and its precious glow.  ‘black as midnight’ evokes the inky darkness of tombs and caverns.  Again, a little cliché lets you say a lot in very little.  As do tropes (given that they’re really the same creature, it’s not surprising).  If it’s an elf, it’s usually assumed to be willowy, with almond and slanted eyes, and pointed ears — at least it should have pointed ears.  Tall, or short, good or evil, that’s been tried in various permutations, but your elves shouldn’t be squat, hairy things half again as broad at the shoulders as a man, and with a penchant for mining; that’s dwarves.

Asking why an elf should look like an elf, and not like a dwarf is exactly the same as asking ‘why shouldn’t I call apples oranges in my story?!’  Because, sweetheart, that’s language.  An apple is a red or green fruit with a crisp …and an orange is a yellow to orange coloured citrus with …If we go questioning these things, then we don’t communicate.  I can’t walk up to a bar and say “Duck!  Potluck, mongoose sly coffee beaver, fuckoff!”  And expect the bartender to kindly hand me a pint of Guinness and a bowl of peanuts.  If shifts in language, glacial and subtle, one day add up to where one requests peanuts and beer by those words that’s a completely other matter, but here and now they’re nonsense.  SF can use them, because that’s the point of speculative fiction, to question this sort of thing.

“Duck!  Potluck, mongoose sly coffee beaver, fuckoff!” Captain Tagon said to the Hithrokin barman who handed him a nearly rancid bowl of peanuts and a large glass of Guinness so flat and stale that she strongly suspected it had been brewed by Mr Guinness himself.  She looked around the crowded spaceport bar, searching for her contact …

See, in this case, translation was provided in the narrative.  To you and I Cpt Tagon spoke in gibberish, but clearly to her and her barman it made some kind of sense, and so we’ve established that — clearly — this is a strange and fantastic world that the brave captain lives in and one distinctly not our own.

This isn’t, I hasten to point out, to say you can’t have mining midget elves with hormone issues, but you should establish it well — not assume the reader will twig.  If you’re going to break tropes, rather than bending or twisting them, you have to make sure that the reader hears them snapping.

The creature stood just a few inches over four feet — and was probably a few inches more than that at the shoulders.  Her beard was golden blonde with red highlights, and her cold, hard eyes were like pits of coal.  Gods, another stupid elf, Uthar thought to himself as he sighed and passed her the flagon of mead.

Still, even with that, you might consider not going down this path, as many a Fantasy fan will attempt to lynch you with a cry of ‘despoiler’ and other harsher things for a) tainting the good image of the fair elf, or b) tainting the good image of the stout dwarves.  In the end, though, it’s your story and yours to do with as you please.  If you don’t like cliché, avoid it.  But know cliché from trope, and remember you must make concessions to tropes if you’re going to write a genre.  If you write Fantasy, your elves need not be fair, willow, pointed eared, etc. but you’d better damned well tell people this as soon as it’s pertinent or you’ll have a confused and possibly angry reader, one who won’t buy your next book and who will leave scathing, angry critiques which might discourage others.

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