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Love the One You’re With

This being November, I’ve been wasting my internet time on my favorite pre-holiday activity: lurking on the NaNoWriMo forums. In fact, if you post in the fantasy section, I’ve probably read your description of your story in 15 words or less or your critique of the above user’s excerpt.  Reading the NaNoWriMo fantasy forums is an exercise in masochism on my part because they make me so freaking mad. Allow me to give you an example. Nine times out of ten, when you navigate over to the forum to see what’s new, you will find some variation of the following:

  • Top ten most hated fantasy cliches
  • How do you avoid cliches?
  • Help! I’m worried my novel is too cliched! T__T
  • How my novel is going to lift fantasy out of the stinking pile of cliche we all know it is

Ok, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea. There seems to be a pervasive and palatable fear among aspiring fantasists that doing something that has been done before will contaminate your novel beyond all saving. That the entire fantasy genre is nothing but D&D fan-fiction about destined heroes saving the world, though sometimes now the paladins have gears glued to their swords. Every time I read one of these threads (and I read every one – masochist, remember?), two thoughts pop into my mind. First, have any of these people been in the fantasy section of the book store in the last ten years? And second, as forum user Anekochan so eloquently asks, “This is the Fantasy forum, right? Then, why do we all hate Fantasy?

It would seem to me that, if you’re going to take a month of your life and dedicate it to something as all consuming as writing a novel, you would want to at least like the category you’re writing in. Yes, fantasy has cliches. Newsflash: everything has cliches. There’re story shortcuts, common ground we all know so that the writer can skip over the dull details and get to the good stuff. When I say “hardboiled detective” an entire setting pops into your mind. You know exactly what he looks like, what he wears, how messy his office is, and that he is a he. That’s a cliche. But cliches are useful tools, because when you take one and change it just a little, you can create a seed that can germinate into an entire novel. Say this hardboiled detective is actually a woman. Ah ha, now you’re more interested, because the cliche is slightly off.

Our brains are drawn to interruptions in order, like that one bathroom tile that doesn’t line up with the others. Authors can abuse this to create hooks that draw the reader in. Let’s go back to our hardboiled detective. Make him a wizard and you’ve got Harry Dresden and the basic premise of one of the most popular urban fantasy series in the history of the genre. According to the NaNoWriMo fantasy forum users, Jim Butcher shouldn’t have bothered, because hard boiled detectives are cliched.

The idea that the fantasy genre is nothing but cliche is in itself a cliche, and an ignorant, incorrect one at that. Every book contains an idea that’s been done before. If it didn’t, if the book was actually totally new, it would probably be too weird and alien to read. This focus on cliches and the idea that writing fantasy is somehow shameful is ludicrous and unproductive. Fantasy is one of the most vibrant and lively genres our current literary system has created.  I actually believe that fantasy is in a golden age right now. That we will look back on this time years from now with longing for the good old days.

If you’re a budding fantasy author, and you’re ashamed of you genre, do yourself a favor. Go to the bookstore and start reading the backs of books. Heck, scroll up to the top of this page and click on the Orbit links for sample chapters. Hell, go to my site where I’ve got two chapters of The Spirit Thief up for free. If you read, I guarantee that you will find cliches, and I also guarantee you that they will not mater. The presence of cliches is not nearly as important as you seem to think it is. All that matters, all that matters is writing an interesting, entertaining story that makes the reader want to turn pages until they reach the end. If you can do that, you will have the most important thing an author can produce: a book worth reading.

And isn’t that what we’re all in this game for?

about the author

Rachel Aaron

  1. E. M. Edwards

    November 21, 2010
    at 12:16 pm

    As mentioned, clichés are not tropes. Tropes and their execution however, can with time and mishandling, become clichés. Clichés are never a welcome part of a good story; least of all those belonging to the fantasy genre. To say otherwise I fear, is to misunderstand both.

    A good story can combine familiar, even mythic elements with more original fare. A skillful writer will breathe life into the mix, leavening the comfortably familiar with the hopefully novel. Otherwise, what you get is a flat, cliché laden confection that can only please the most undemanding of palates.

    The bulk of commercial literature, in any genre, consists of this – true enough. But what careful author or discerning reader could be fully satisfied, unless limited by their own meagre talents, with dwelling in such a literary ghetto? One of the reasons why I think fantasy gets a bad reputation is that too many writers and readers aren’t comfortable demanding more and breaking down the walls formed by low expectations.

    Disliking clichés has nothing to do with hating fantasy. Good fantasy, great fantasy, does not rely upon clichés anymore than any other genre of literature. Clichés do occur in life, in dialogue, and likely enough in most authors’ early drafts of their novels. Clichés should serve as warning signs: alerting the writer to a turn on the tracks ahead that may dead-end the quality of the story being constructed.

    I do not believe that clichés are ever valid story shortcuts. By their very definition they are worn out ideas and expressions whose power has been leeched by overuse and overexposure. If not used in a knowing, comedic way, few writers will be able to turn these base materials into gold – and even then, should be used most sparingly.

    A cliché altered, a trope deconstructed, is no longer a cliché. Or one being used as a knowing signifier to the reader saying “Ah-ha, you were expecting that – but we have given you this, instead” which is only meaningful and of value of course, if there is some meaning, some greater reason behind the reversal of expectations; a salient point to learn from the upending of the trope or the familiar scene rather than an empty flourish of craft. Playing with clichés can be done, but it is not an unfair comparison to say it can resemble dancing above a pool filled with sharks.

    That’s a cliché, isn’t it? Circling fins and all. But I’m not sure it adds anything to the sentence that I couldn’t have done just as well by saying tread with care, watch your step, or is fraught with danger. It’s a playful flourish – at best. Too many of these can weigh down a novel like rococo butter-frosting on a cake.

    The element of play is present in most great novels, playing with words, playing with expectations, and playing with the vast repository of novels and stories which have gone before the one being created. Most of the time, clichés are lead weights, false notes, missteps, and I would warn all but the most masterful of authors to treat them with the care that they require.

    Else you risk a novel that is doomed to mediocrity before it is even finished – or worse still, an end product that’s all frosting and no cake.

    E. M. Edwards

  2. Gabriele Campbell

    November 22, 2010
    at 1:08 pm

    I’m so with Rachel here. I pretty much stopped reading the Nano Fantasy forum after wondering for the umptieth time if those people ever read say, Steven Erkison, GRR Martin, R. Scott Bakker, Brian Ruckley, Joe Abercrombie or Lois McMaster Bujold (plus a score of others).

    I keep hanging out in the Historical Fiction forum albeit I’m writing Fantasy this year (well, Fantasy with one foot firmly planted in history), and I’ve never seen a topic like ‘Are Kickass Roman Soldiers Cliché?’, or ‘How Can I Avoid Making my Knight Like Every Other Knight?’. ;)

    Fantasy has never been so varied like those last years. It has created havoc with my shelf space and my book buying budget, lol.

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