Aspiring writers hear editors and publishers say they’re seeking “new, fresh, original fiction”. Meanwhile, in our present age of multimedia inundation more and more stories of all flavors, colors and stripes are available in a staggering variety of forms: movies, books, plays, comic books, websites, TV… it’s all going down. How is your idea not like his idea or her idea or that idea over there?
People take notice… or as the saying goes “streets is watching”. Anything that’s been done more than twice gets called out as being “unoriginal” and “cliche”. Sometimes. There’s a trick to that. I’ll get to that later. Meanwhile, to avoid being called “cliche” you put your story through more twists and turns than a rat in a maze.
Stop working so hard. Ever since man got the bright idea to start recording history we’ve learned a couple of things. One is always wear clean underwear. Two is there’s nothing new under the sun.
Simply put, some of your story elements will be what they call “cliche”. Someone else has already talked about this. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. What I’m also telling you is that it’s ok to use story elements that people commonly bemoan as cliche or done to death.
One fun link that I like and I’ll use for my point is Rinkwork’s Fantasy Novelist’s Exam. They basically preface this list with an outcry that most fantasy works are derivative of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and if you answer “yes” to any one question on the list it “results in failure and means that the prospective novel should be abandoned at once.”
Number 2 on the list is: Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?
and Number 35 is: Does your novel contain characters transported from the real world to a fantasy realm?
I want you to think about it. You have a made up fantasy world. How do you introduce this land of fantastical wonders and magic? You either A) make the protagonist an uncultured, bright-eyed naive person (otherwise known as farmboy) or B) transport the person from our world to their world.
The alternative is to have people who are deeply entrenched and knowledgeable of this fantasy world doing things in it. Them talking about fantastical/magical wonder of their world is the equivalent of me describing the scientific/mechanical wonder of the automobile and microwave… doing this breaks character believeability. Everyone in their world knows what wonders exist just like people in the world here know what cars are.
No wonder the farmboy and real world transplants are “cliche”. They’re just the best vehicles for stories where you want the world to be a major focus, where it’s chock full of differences and you want the reader to experience them for the first time. What better way for that first time feeling to come about than having the characters experience them as well?
The very first book I read in a single sitting was “Through the Ice” by Piers Anthony and Robert Kornwise… absolutely couldn’t put it down. A dude got transported to a fantasy world. Just like the kids from Narnia. Just like Dorothy. Just like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Think about it this way. We already covered two “cliches” on the Fantasy Novelist List, where one infraction may be cause to burn your manuscript. I want to introduce number 4 on the list:
Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
Now I want you to take Number 2 and substitute farmhand with its non-occupational equivalent (young person who doesn’t know much outside of his/her limited world). Now combine overdone cliche numbers 2, 4, and 35 (where the main character is a young, naive person with mysterious parentage who gets transported from the real world to a fantasy realm, comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy) and tell me what you have.
Why, say hello to Harry Potter.
What it really boils down to is that some of your story elements will have been done before. Your job is to take these things and make them yours. Make those characters you see in your head real. Breathe that life that you see in this story on paper. Fail to do this properly, and people will groan and say “not this again”. Do it right, and the vast majority will fail to notice or care… kinda like how the movie “Avatar” had the same plot as “Dances with Wolves”.
I’ll leave you guys with another “cliche” from science fiction, the old “close encounter with aliens” theme provided courtesy of Kij Johnson via Clarkesworld Magazine. Read that and tell there’s no more to gain from the same old story.