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Scotty McGee and the Attack of the Cliches

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Thu Jun 09, 2011 6:46 pm
ScottyMcGee says...

I made this a long time ago in another writing forum. This is a culmination of my own observations as well as some from the book "By Cunning and Craft" by Peter Selgin. I suggest you get that book someday. It's small.

This post is going to be very long over time as I add onto it. I just wanted to get started already.
Eventually, someday, this post will cover every single genre as I study each of their cliches. This isn't an attempt to try to bring some people down in their stories, but simply for them to be aware of the traditional cliches and maybe some ways to make the story unique. This doesn't say that cliches are bad either , albeit some are annoying. Some cliches are unavoidable, others classic, and some even necessary. But this is all about awareness.

Let's start with Fantasy.

Here's how I broke it down.

First, there's Traditional Fantasy

1.Archetypes – You always have your archetypal characters in every genre. The silent assassin, the joking fool, the young hero, the damsel in distress, the evil dictator, etc. Here are a list of those usually found in a fantasy story:

The Mentor: Usually played by some old man with a knowledge of the world before the main character's birth. The mentor used to be part of some secret organization or is a revered senior member of some great band of heroes that is now extinct. He or she has superior knowledge of magic or some otherworldly force that must be taught to the main character. Mentors always have a habit of dying somewhere in the first book too. Or just early on.

The Young Hero: Born and raised in a sheltered lifestyle, dreaming to become a hero. He or she represents innocence, nativity, and the process of growing up. In reality, they're just whiny, bitchy teenagers wanting to swing around a sword. A female protagonist is a nice change, but the sheltered lifestyle is where the cliché is at heart.

The Damsel in Distress: You know it, you've all seen it. Locked away in a tower, either captured for her beauty or for her secret powers. Sometimes a twist is tried when the damsel is tough and independent. Yawn. That won't change a thing.

The Jester: He's the fool of the story. Some sort of bumbling idiot usually not even human and is instead a funny-looking creature. If used incorrectly, he strains the story so much with bad jokes the reader will want to choke him.

The Ruler of the Universe: Here he is, the big bad guy. Leader of a huge empire. Clothed completely and unable to see his face. Everyone bow to his will. He's so powerful. Yeah. Okay. It's getting boring to even type about it.

2. Cliched Elements

So what are the story elements that always appear in fantasy? Here's what I found:

- A secret and ancient race of elves. What is it with elves now? Ever since Tolkien everybody's been copying the idea of elves being rare and mystical. Elves are pretty. Elves are tall. Elves are elegant. A memorable twist on this that I see is from The Legend of Zelda. Most inhabitants of Hyrule are elves from the start.

- An empire grows and takes over the world, with a small rebellion pushing back. For sci-fi, it was Star Wars, for fantasy, it was Tolkien. You have no idea how many times this plot line has resurfaced not only in literature but in movies and video games. The rebel team also has some rag-tag appeal with a name like “The Returners” or “Brotherhood of the Sword.”

-Teenagers saving the world. It all started with C.S. Lewis. Then not so much afterwards, but after Harry Potter a PLETHORA of teenage-fantasy fiction spread. The teenagers usually “discover” some mystical world, try to save it, all while managing relationships.

-A hero with an unknown past. Wakes up in some dungeon or underground cell or maybe even a lab. Tries to figured out who he is. This cliche even spreads to other genres like The Bourne Identity , Wolverine in his comics, and the video game Geist. Sometimes, it can just be some mysterious assassin that never reveals about his background.

-A band of warriors set out together to save the world. No. Just. No. NO. This is like, EVERY fantasy now. A troop of warriors holding hands together to defeat the evil wizard. No. Just no.

-Magic is bad and technology is favored. Or vice versa.

-Cheap dialogue with the villain. I hate it when this happens. There's a final confrontation and the bad guy starts "monologuing" and the good guy retorts with some stupid comeback like "You can't escape your fate!"
The following is a PERFECT example of a very cliche confrontation-dialogue. This is taken from Eragon between Durza and Eragon

Durza: "So, my young Rider, we meet again. You were foolish to escape from me in Gil'ead. It will only make things worse for you in the end."
Eragon: "You'll never capture me alive."
Durza: "Is that so? I don't see your 'friend' Murtagh around to help you. You can't stop me now. No one can!"

Boring dialogue is boring. This is like reading a Stan Lee comic book from the sixties, you know, when every speech bubble ended with an exclamation mark. I actually realized that not too long ago. If you read an old Marvel comic, EVERYONE IS TALKING EXCITEDLY! EVEN IN MOMENTS WHERE THEY DON'T NEED TO BE!

Anyway. . .digressing.

Sorry for any Paolini fans out there, but I loathe Eragon. The entire story is a perfect example of the Traditional Fantasy Cliche that I have just broken down up above. The outline of the plot is a direct copy of Star Wars (not saying it's intentional, but it's there oddly enough.)

3. Remedies for Fantasy Cliches

So what should we do?
Obviously, be aware of the stereotypes and archetypes. But what if you're just downright stuck?
Here are some things I suggest to kick-start your fantasy story into something unique:

-Create your own monsters/race. We already know the world of elves, orcs, dwarves, and the usual suspects. Or mix it up somehow. Elves don't HAVE to be elegant. Dwarves don't HAVE to live in the mountains. What about female dwarves anyway?

-Lack of mythological creatures. Maybe have no creatures at all, but a focus on humans and magic or sorcery.

-A hero with a big internal conflict. Forget the "Superman" type of hero and especially the "Young Hero." Maybe start out with someone who's evil, but eventually becomes good. Or have him/her be reluctant or an antihero. Start out with someone who already has experience. Maybe that paladin is in a crusade and he's questioning his religion's actions. Or someone is ostracized from his or her race or group. Etc.

-Rearrange archetypes. Maybe there's only a mentor. Maybe the hero has to learn things on his/her own.

-First-person view. I think this is a BIG one. You don't really see any first-person viewed fantasy stories do you? They are incredibly rare, and the only series I can think of is the Pendragon series. It's an interesting idea. Maybe think about what goes on in a knight's head, or how the king really feels indecisive about a certain war. If anyone remembers some traditional fantasy stories that are first person, feel free to mention them.

-Different type of magic or no magic at all. Either one works fine. Just avoid the typical "Harry Potter" magic of potions and books. One GREAT example is a short story I read called "The Osteomancer's Son," by Greg van Eekhout. You can probably find it online. In that story, magic was said to be inside people's bones and spirit. If you go with no magic, then the focus could be on chivalry or parallel worlds, or WHATEVER. It doesn't HAVE to be magical to be considered fantasy.

-Have the journey a singular, personal journey. Instead of the "Final Fantasy Appeal," which is having a bunch of heroes journey together side-by-side. Make it a personal journey of one character. If more, then very little, the most three.

In my next post I plan to list just typical plotlines found in books and other media. Hope you like the list on fantasy cliches.

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Sun Jun 26, 2011 8:52 pm
tigershark17 says...

This was a great idea; really cool! If you're going to list plots, have you read "The Seven Basic Plots" by Christopher Booker? If not, you should, even if it's not before you post the plot bit. Anyway, great job; though I don't write fantasy, I am sure this will be a great help to a lot of people!

Behind every impossible achievement is a dreamer of impossible dreams.
--Robert Greenleaf

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Mon Jun 27, 2011 4:22 am
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ScottyMcGee says...


The fiction novel.

Anything from historical fiction, to teenage dramas, to action thrillers, and adventures.

1. The List of Cliched Plotlines

For regular fiction, it's hard to keep a single list for archetype characters, or rather, archetype of anything. The characters are free-spirited and improvised. But what about just plain cliched stories?

-"The-and-then-he-woke-up" story. In which the conclusion to the plot is in fact a dream sequence, a trippy drug ride, or some other illusion.

I guess I made that too self-explanatory. But you know what I mean. A bunch of "hot" girls and guys go on some trip in the woods, everyone's all happy and drunk, then out of nowhere some monster comes in and terror is on the loose.

-"The-I-Hate-Life" story. Stories like Apathy and Other Small Victories or Office Space (Not a book, I know, but just an example). These stories ARE okay if they avoid the first-person. There are too many cynical stories about the "dull, humdrum life" in the first person. It's also okay only if there's a really good plot line. But if you're just ranting about life for a hundred pages, it's too cliche.

-"The-That-Can't-Possibly-Happen" story. Incredible things just happen...incredibly. Then you're just stepping into fantasy or sci-fi. You have to decide first if it's going to be fantasy or not. But if it's real life, then you have to understand that some things just. . . don't happen that way.

-"The-Suck-On-This-You-Bitch" story. In which the main character takes revenge (usually horrific) on a past spouse, or a brother, or a rival.

-"The-I'm-Sorry-I-Called-You-A-Bitch" story. In which the main character visits a dying evil parent, spouse, family member, rival, etc. And he or she tries to reconcile by remembering to the good times instead of the bad.

-"The-I-Don't-Know-Why-I'm-Telling-You-All-This" story. In which there is much more "show and tell" than actual character development or plot progression. He did this, then did that, for this long and for this reason. After that he went to the bathroom, making sure to close the lid, and then washed his hands thoroughly with a Dove barsoap---JUST SHUT UP AND GET TO THE F@#!@ POINT ALREADY!

- "The-We're-On-The-Road" story. In which a group of average characters with really nothing to do just take a road trip to find meaning in their lives.

-"The-Quest-For-The-Last-Cookie" story. In which the main character(s) go through a huge quest for the last cookie in the cookie jar, or some other trivial object.

-"The-My-Life-Sucks-So-Cry-For-Me" story. In which the main character is a victim to everything around him/her.

-"The-Moral-Of-The-Story" story. In which the main character does something to his or her life that changes it forever, regrets it, but then later on realizes it's for the better.

-"The-Government-Is-Watching-You" story. America or some other notable world power is a fascist regime and someone who is acting different tries to make a change.

-"The-I-Just-Graduated-And-Dunno-What-To-Do-With-My-Life" story. Some teenager just graduates from college, or maybe fails out of it, and thus goes on a personal reflection of life and growing up.

-"The-Not-Another-Teenager-Drama" story. Girls gossiping, jocks trying to balance life and sports, nerds trying to take pictures of girls in the locker room. You get the idea.

Again, self explanatory. Suave secret agents. No. That's been done beyond cliche. BEYOND cliche. First person? Not really any different.

-"The-OMG-This-Treasure-Is-So-Controversial" story. In which the main characters suddenly become treasure hunters seeking to find some scroll that is proof of Jesus Christ banging some chick and having offspring. Either that or there's secret messages in a famous author or artist's work that will change all history as we know it. OH...MY...GAWD! Oh and it's usually an average guy teaming up with some hot "computer programmer-type" chick.

Okay, I think that's well enough cliches for now (told you it was an attack of them).

2. Remedies for Fiction Cliches

So, like fantasy, what do we do if we're stuck on a cliched story?

I believe that for fiction there is one MAJOR remedy that works all the time (at least most). And it can work with fantasy too, now that I think about it.

So here it is.


That's it.



Yes, improvise.

Improvisation is one of-if not THE-best ways to avoid cliches. Why? Because they're random and unique. You just take a character like an action figure and make him or her walk through different environments and watch what happens. As you progress you define it more, make a bit of an expanded world, and voila. The thing is, if you try to think to yourself, "I'm going to write a story like such-and-such author" or "such-and-such bestseller," then chances are it WILL be cliche.

Here are some examples of what I believe are truly unique books:

Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
The Children of Men, by P.D. James

They're just. . .different.

In Fight Club, two men, out of sheer love for self-destruction, create underground fight clubs in bars.

In Life of Pi, a boy is stuck on a boat with a ferocious tiger.

In The Children of Men, all humanity has lost the ability to reproduce.

These situations are unique and strange. I'm not saying that they're all made from improvisation, but improvisation can lead to a weird predicament that is nonetheless very intriguing.

So sometimes you could start something unique by just asking yourself questions. What if this happened? What if that happened instead of that?

Be random.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana