I have recently read many comments, tweets, and blog articles where clichés in fantasy and fiction, in general, were discussed. Rarely in a very flattering light (like neon…).
They are criticized for being over-used and called lazy writing.
While I don’t think any of us are naive enough to say that there are no instances of using clichés, I have to disagree with the blunt, general dismissal of them.
I tend to believe that clichés stem from a profound, visceral need in our nature and cultures to explore themes and issues that we are unable to process as simply – or as elegantly – in our everyday lives.
Indeed, what is today considered “cliché” very often has deep roots in traditional folklore and legends. Good vs evil, the Chosen One, orphaned heroes, prophecies, a wise mentor, etc are all elements that occur again and again in age-old myths and legends.
I believe that the reason a lot of people have issues with them is because they mistakenly believe that these elements are a modern creation because they were made popular by modern YA books such as Harry Potter.
And yet these elements are, in my opinion, vital to good fantasy.
Here’s my personal take on clichés:
Good vs. Evil
This is a big one, and for good reason. I mean, what tale is there to tell other than Good versus Evil? Seriously. Isn’t that what our whole lives are about, albeit in a very minuscule way? We all strive to be good, to help others. We all shudder when we read or hear of atrocities committed in the world, whether they are close to home or on the other side of the world (umm… I’m writing this assuming that you’re not a psychopath. But of course, on the off chance you are one, then this doesn’t apply to you. You can skip ahead). When you dig deep down into human nature, that’s all there is to life. Good or bad (yes, there are grey areas… Back they’re on the good or bad scale. Stop nitpicking). And this is why it’s such a vital part of good
The Chosen One
And what about the Chosen One? Why does this take such a huge place in fantasy? I believe it’s because we can all identify with them. It begins with someone normal, just like us, going through everyday life, having their own struggles; just like the rest of us. Then they get thrust into the middle of a fight they knew nothing about, and they need to find the strength within them to vanquish the darkness – usually not so much like the rest of us.
But we love the fact that they start out just like us, face the same challenges and doubts that we would, that they need to conquer their own self before they can challenge the outside threat. We identify with their struggles. If they weren’t the Chosen
The Chosen One scenario is also often criticized for being paired with prophecies. But prophecies are just the written word of Fate. If the world is fatalistic, it doesn’t matter if there’s a prophecy or not, does it? The character is fated to be the One, whether they know it or not.
We can take the example here of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins; there was no prophecy for either, yet by their own nature and elements outside of their power, they were fated to take action against evil. Written or unwritten, it really doesn’t matter.
And I believe it is also worthwhile to note that it is never really “the Chosen One” alone who defeats evil. There are always others with them, without whom they would not stand a chance at success. The Fellowship of the Ring, including Gandalf, surrounds Frodo; Ron and Hermione help Harry, along with Dumbledore. They are never alone.
They’re just the figurehead. But that really doesn’t sound as cool.
First, let me say here that I’m talking about young heroes. Older heroes can do as they very well please. (Unless they still live in their parents’ basement, in which case they still might have to check in with them if they’re going to be missing dinner.)
That said, let’s get into it.
This is also something people seem to have an issue with, yet I think it is more often than not necessary to the plot. In my mind, it serves two purposes:
The first is to give the hero the necessary freedom. A parent’s first and foremost mission in life is to protect their children. A young hero who has parents (and we’re speaking of normal, caring parents here) would never be able to act as the hero would require them to. No parent would let their child put themselves in danger over and over, or head out on a quest on their own. A parent would protect the child, keep them from harm, and generally hinder their actions, keeping them from the path they need to take to become the story’s hero.
(A way around this is to remove the hero from the parents’ direct vicinity, like Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter. We know enough about molly Weasly to know that she would not have been happy to have them mucking around near Fluffy if she had been around at the time.)
The second reason to orphan the hero is to provoke a traumatic and transformational event that molds them in a way nothing else could. A child who loses their parents is catapulted into a life where they suddenly need to be more responsible than other children their age. They are confronted by death, with its permanence and unalterability, whereas a child usually does not and cannot understand the irrevocable nature of it. This shapes the character, changes them in such a deep and permanent way that nothing else could achieve.
I think this is a huge aspect of why very often a hero is orphaned. It gives them an inner strength that will carry them over anything that evil can throw their way.
The wise old mentor
This is another one that seems to really bug people, but it one again seems very obvious to me. As stated above in the Chosen One paragraph, the hero is never truly alone. He is constantly surrounded by friends without whom they would not be able to accomplish what they set out to do.
As the hero is usually young and/or inexperienced (new to the situation, the world etc), they need all the help they can get.
Though fantasy novels can get away with a lot of logic-defying events, even they need to follow some simple rules of logic.
The rule that the older you get, the wiser and more knowledgeable you get is almost as basic as it gets (umm… this is true for most of us. It’s true that I do personally know some people who do actually defy this rule but let’s ignore them for the moment. They make my carefully crafted argument crumble.).
The hero needs the insights and wisdom of the elder, more experienced characters.
But if so, then why isn’t the wise old man the hero, and do it all on his own?
Well, again, this is only my opinion, but I believe that once more, it is simple logic. The wise old man is, well, old. He is tired and weak, and despite his considerable expertise and abilities, he cannot achieve what a younger, stronger and more robust character can.
They complement each other, each needing the other to work towards the greater goal.
There are of course many other clichés that could be addressed, but I didn’t want to cover all of them here. That would make this post unbearably long. Perhaps for another post later!
My final thoughts on the subject are that “clichés” are not only OK to use in stories but that they are necessary. If you avoid every single one in your tale, it might seem like you are working overly hard to be different and that there is no other real meaning to it. There is a profound reason that these elements have always been in stories told, modern and ancient.
These elements work together, complement each other, and when they are wielded with talent, I truly believe that they are essential to a great story.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Are these elements
Let me know in the comments below, I look forwards to reading them!