So. Cliché. And its cousin, or nephew, or whatever, Stereotype.
It’s commonly said that a cliché is something that has been overused. A phrase, a plot, a trope, or a character. But I think that definition is off the mark. Worse, I think it’s unhelpful to a writer who wants to avoid cliché in her own writing.
It’s true that clichés are very frequently used. But I don’t think that’s what makes it a cliché. It’s not a matter of familiarity, but of laziness. The cliché is so pervasive that one reaches for it without thought, and worse, uses it without thought. The stereotype remains unquestioned, uninterrogated; the trope placed, generic and unaltered, into its waiting, prefabricated slot.
They’re commonly used as shortcuts, a way of getting around actually thinking through the story elements you’re using. “Oh, elves!” we say to ourselves, and we all know about elves, no need to spend too much time on that. Say “Elves” and the reader will know just what you mean, freeing you from all kinds of expositional problems.
Not to mention worldbuilding problems. Elves conjures up a whole raft of associations. An entire map rolls out before you, one vast Lego board, and all the blocks that fit right on it in any combination you care to use. It’s easy! But when you’re done, well, it all kind of looks like you snapped it together from Lego kits.
How to avoid that? Well, if you’re thinking to yourself, “this is cliché because elves are overdone...but I want elves!” you might try, for instance, adding some sequins and rickrack, or better yet, some grunge. Give your elves motorcycles and tattoos! Everyone else’s cliché elves wear green and ride horses through the woods, so yours will be different, therefore not cliché! It’s the easiest, most obvious “solution” to the problem, and believe me, I’ve seen several examples in Podcastle slush. It almost never actually works, even when it’s done jokingly.
Why not? Well, the “solution” is as unconsidered as the original conception. And the elves themselves, they’re not real characters, are they, they’re either a mass of cardboard cutouts with ELF written on them in glitter glue, or they’re characters you got buy one get one free at J.R.R.’s Dry Goods and Fantasy Supply.
And it’s not just elves. I only use them because they are among the most obvious and egregious of clichés available to the fantasy writer. It’s stock characters like, for instance, one of my very unfavorites, The Vengeful Ex Wife. She has no real motivation for behaving as she does, really, but since Some Divorces Are Just Like That the writer feels relieved of the responsibility of making her an actual person, with the same sort of complicated mix of impulses any real human being has. (And don’t even get me started on Adorable Little Girls.) It’s phrases like “her blood ran cold.” It’s the farmer’s son destined by prophecy to rule the land. It’s anything that comes to your mind, whole, fully formed, on the instant.
Elves are, by the way, a very hard sell with me. If you want me to be impressed with your elf story, it needs to be one humdinger of a piece of fiction. I’m sorely tempted at this point to say, “Don’t write about elves, for Mithras’ sake!” But it’s very much contrary to what I believe about fiction, and art in general, to issue such declarations. There are no rules. Nothing is forbidden. Write what it’s in you to write about. I believe with my whole heart that it is entirely possible for someone to write an elf story that will kick my ass from here to next March and back.
It is also entirely possible to jump out of an airplane without a parachute and live. Fortunately, the consequences of failing at the former are less fatal than the latter, so by all means, give it a shot if you feel so moved.
Anyway. The problem isn’t that anyone who’s read Tolkien, or daydreamed about Orlando Bloom with long blonde hair, has decided that pretty elf boys would be smashingly sparkly and beautiful in a story. It’s that those elves, as I said above, came in a shrink wrapped Family Value Pack (Now 30% MORE ELF!). And the author unwrapped them and snapped them into his Lego world, next to the other Legos. And it may look all shiny to the author, but let me tell you, we get a lot of Lego sets--some of them fairly artfully done, granted, but still.
The problem is, you’re not looking at the Legos. You reached for them because they were there, and they snap together easily, and hey, they work! You don’t ask, “Why Legos, even? What is it that makes these Legos snap together so easily? What if I snapped them backwards? Or melted them in the microwave? Are Legos really the best thing for me to be using?” Ask.
Look carefully at what you’ve snapped together with the Legos. It was the first thing, as I said, that came to hand. Never trust the first thing that comes to hand. Why did you reach for that block, there? Do you really need it? Is there a different one that might serve a similar function but look even cooler? Maybe you’ll have to carve it yourself—now we’re talking.
Reading a lot really helps here. Reading slush is amazingly instructive—you come to see the things that tend to be those first ideas that come to mind. You can watch for them in your own work. But really you don’t need that. You just need to not trust the first thing you reach for. Ever.
And you need to consider character more carefully. I firmly believe that any cliché can be saved by good characterization. Good characterization is the Anti Cliché, its opposite. If you’ve got good characters, and handle them well, the rest can’t help but be less prefab. But of course, good characterization requires abandoning stereotypes.
Abandon the freaking stereotypes! They are not handy shortcuts. They’re traps. They’re not true. “Oh,” you say, “but little girls are adorable! So, see, it’s true!” Yes, little girls are adorable, but every little girl is, in point of fact, her own, unique human being. The fact that she is a little girl is not actually a defining fact about her, it does not say everything we need to know about her. Yes, this particular issue makes me grind my teeth. I hate sentimentalized little girls in stories. And saying so, once, I was told that if I only had a little girl of my own I might understand!
Deep breath. Yes. I have not only been a little girl, at one point in my life, but I have Paidhi Girl. Little Girl. Completely adorable. Completely her own person. That stick figure little girl thing, that’s not her, that doesn’t even come near to her. (Stereotyped teens do the same thing to me—I serve lunch to real teens. Even with that brief contact, it’s clear that they are all of them unique individuals. They might statistically fall into one or another group, but they’re distinguishable from each other. )
What really bothers me about this is the person who admonished me did so on the assumption that if I had real experience of little girls, I would realize that they were…all conforming to a stereotype. The implication is that they actually see their own daughters through this framework, and see “Adorable Little Girl” as a defining characteristic of all the little girls in their lives.
Well, I told you not to get me started on that. Anyway. Ditch the stereotypes. When you meet people, lose that framework. Don’t say “what category does this person fit into?” Instead ask, “What makes this person different from everyone else? Even (especially!) the people who are ‘just like’ him?”
Do the same thing with your characters. They’re real people—or at least, you want the reader to think so. So make a study of real people. And don’t just grab the first thing that comes to mind. Just don’t!
It's hard work, yes. But it's worth it.