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A Cliché a Day Makes the Editor Gray

January 25, 2010

Last week I was looking for something in my e-mail when I happened across an old exchange of e-mails between me and another writer.  We had read and critiqued the first few chapters of each other’s “books” in progress.  This meant the other writer had the “pleasure” of reading the prior version of my novel-in-progress, the first part of which was written while I was in High School (and no where near mature enough nor skilled enough to write a half-decent novel).  Inevitably, the subject of clichés came up.

In my defense, I wrote: “Having been raised and cut my teeth on classic fantasies, I’m virtually immune to clichés.”  My reasoning couldn’t blunt this blow from the other writer: “Cliches: At this point I count five – young male hero, orphan/abandoned child, parents dead in horrible fire/battle/massacre, boy working at a farm/inn, mysterious dream which doubles as a flashback, and father’s sword with or without magical properties.”  Yikes!  It’s like I’d taken every well-trod fantasy trope I could imagine or remember and wrapped them all together into one story.  And all that just in the first chapter!

On the other  hand, any number of fantasy and science-fiction stories can easily be brought to the reader’s mind that follows this exact set-up.  The original Star Wars (Episode IV) has nearly all of those clichés (if you replace “magic sword” with “lightsaber” and drop the dream).  And yet, you don’t hear people complain much about it.  (In fact, in reviewing material for this blog, I find that a lot of post-Star Wars uses of these elements garner comparisons to Star Wars as if they were original ideas at the time; they were not.)  Everyone’s favorite “boy who lived”, Harry Potter, has many of similar elements.  Frodo Baggins of the “Lord of the Rings” has no parents (but does have doting uncle Bilbo).  In my old childhood favorite, “The Chronicles of Prydain”, Taran is a “foundling” of unknown parentage raised by a wizard.  All of these characters are orphans.  All of them eventually inherit a magic sword.  In none of these stories does the use of these clichés pose a problem.

In fact, the only significant criticism I found of this trope was when I looked for details on the “Eragon” series, which also follows this mold.  Even in that case the criticism is tempered by the book’s success among its target audience (children’s fantasy literature).   This causes me to wonder: how bad are clichés, really?

The consensus reached between that other writer and I: they’re not all that bad, if they’re done right.  The characters have to be fully fleshed out and interesting, not merely cardboard manifestations of deeply-mythological archetypes.  Likewise the plot and the setting.  Each has to be layered, detailed, believable and engaging.  But they needn’t be completely and utterly absent of any expression of cliché.

Nobody takes note nor cares that Harry Potter being an orphan is yet another iteration of the orphan hero cliché.  It doesn’t matter because Harry Potter is a well-written and believable character inhabiting an interesting world.  But there’s something else at work here, as well.  Each of these clichés has deep historical and mythological roots that by their very use tell us something about the meaning of the text.  Foundlings and abandoned or orphaned children, raised in circumstances ignorant of their true birth, include such ancient characters as Oedipus and Moses.  The motif of the foundling or orphan instantly communicates several things about the story: the mysterious origins of the character promise future greatness, and the situation of their birth implies innocence.  The heirloom magic sword typically serves as a “birth token” that represents the true nature of the child’s birth, which serves as a plot device and foreshadowing.

Ultimately, the use of clichés are a two-edged sword.  Used without skill and tact, and an acknowledgement of their historical and mythical implications, makes the writing feel trite and juvenile.  But used adroitly, certain clichés can become critical threads in stories that we remember and enjoy over and over again.  Doing so, however, takes a keen eye.  Not every over-used plot element can be reused with expert skill. 

I recall in High School, when writing stories or essays, that the comparisons were often made to the work of great writers.  Great writers, it was often remarked, often broke the rules we were learning about how to write.  However, the teachers always replied, they could only do so successfully because they had learned the rules first.  So it goes with these old clichés.  Great writing can use them: but only when the writer has learned what they mean, why they are being used, which ones add to the story and which detract, and how to flesh out the story and add depth and weight to counterbalance the cliché.

That old version of my novel was just such a learning exercise.  Coming face-to-face with my own clichés forced me to re-examine my work.  What comes after that re-examination will be made all the better for it, whether I  extract all these clichés or find more skillful ways to incorporate them.

Happy writing.

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