Sunday, March 25, 2012
Dealing with Cliches in Fantasy Fiction - Ross Kitson
The Writers' Blog welcomes its second UK author in a row. I personally enjoy the different spellings of such words as favorite. Ross brings us a thoughtful blog about cliches. He writes fantasy fiction and his novel, Darkness Rising, is recently published. I hope you will comment on your own thoughts about use of cliches below.
The Cliche Cracks.
First of all thanks to Gary for the opportunity to ramble on his excellent blog and hopefully share some useful aspects of my own experience in writing.
I’ve created for most of my life but only taken to formal writing in the last three or four years. As a teen I was an unashamed nerd, wallowing in role-playing games of every genre and it was this that drove me to read everything in fantasy and sci-fi and horror that I could get my spotty mitts on. As writers we are first and foremost readers.
After years of drawing maps on graph paper, poring through monster manuals and creating traps that would make the dude out of Saw pack his bags and retire to Alaska, one of my mates challenged me to write a book. I’d toyed with the idea for years but career had sort of got in the way (I work as a doctor specialising in critical care).
So I set about creating my book. I approached it with the analogy of building a house in mind—well perhaps a scuzzy trailer badly positioned next to an algae choked lake. So the foundations were the thoughts, the ideas, the notes jotted on any blank surface (my palm-top = my hand). I planned epic vistas in my head on the commute to work each day. The foundations were laid with maps, history, cultures, characters and, of course, plot. Then the frame went up- a bare metal skeleton of where the story would go, from start to end. Then the writing, the filling in the gaps—the detail, the dialogue, verbose prose and drama. And when it was built? The decoration came with the self-editing—making it personal, readable, attractive to others.
What a great analogy, I thought. And I looked at my new build and thought—right, time to get in on the market. But then a creeping sense of dread—like Chthulu itself was tickling my bits with his squid chin. Was that a crack I saw, running down the newly plastered wall? I followed it down, deeper and deeper. Crom’s halitosis, I cursed, it runs into the foundations.
It was the crack of cliché.
It permeates every genre—the cliché—but perhaps the fantasy genre is one of the most affected. It began with a casual comment from a friend who read the MS along the lines of ‘disadvantaged hero gains great ability and embarks on epic quest.’ It struck me like a soggy halibut. Everything about my book was cliché. I had a main character as a slave, who then gains powers and escapes. Does she escape to lead a fruitful life gambolling in the fields? Hell, no. She embarks upon an epic quest (groan), with a group of companions (agreeably not a wizard in a pointy grey hat, a dwarf, elf and four hobbits), to find an ancient artifact (noooo.....), from an undead sorcerer (groan...). My heart sank as I saw my 170k MS dissolving before me... why hadn’t it occurred to me that this was cliché city? And it was the first book in a trilogy...OMG, a trilogy...fantasy cliché.
So I found myself self-flagellating in an Opus Dei –like fashion. I trawled the internet looking for lists of fantasy clichés and ticking down them. ‘Oh, God, I’ve got dreams...’, ‘A tavern...’, ‘A common tongue...’
Then someone said to me—who gives a monkeys... is it a good book? Well, I think so, I said. I’m proud of what I’ve written, although the clichés...
Enough about the clichés, they said. Has it got good characters, good dialogue, drama, tension? Well, I replied modestly, it’s not bad, but the clichés...
Are they there for a reason? You see writing anything within a genre will involve some cliché. They are there by virtue of previous popular work. They are there because that was what people want to read. And agreeably some have been done again and again, but if we take those and try twist them a bit, make them (and I’m aware this is oxymoronic) re-freshed cliché, then we can still have work that feels vital and original.
So my hero is actually a heroine. She’s not a slave—she’s ‘trapped’ in servitude. Her abilities aren’t so wonderful. The magic she uses makes her mentally ill. Her mentors are an obsessive-compulsive mage from a nation that throws sorcerers on the fire to brown their toast with, and a thief who learned to fight from a wandering ronin. The undead sorcerer is actually quite charmingly evil and we almost empathise with his grand scheme, which will ultimately make all folk in the world equal. There are ancient artifacts, but they are not quite what we expect. There are vampyrs—but they ain’t twinkly. The common tongue has a very good reason for being there.
As writers we can’t avoid some clichés. Work saturated with them will be dull, re-cycled, derivative—but even in cliché ridden genres we can put our own spin on them, use them to our advantage. They will draw in fans of the genre and even make the genre more appealing to ‘outsiders.’ I say embrace them, but mess ‘em up a bit.
I think of my favourite fantasy book of the last ten years—the Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch—and even that’s not immune to them. It’s an incredible book that at its core has a likable thief with a hard-as-nails sidekick. So not far off Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser or Robin Hood and Little John. Yet Lynch takes the well worn premise and injects such style into it that I was left shell-shocked by the book.
That’s what I aspire to as a writer- clichés and all.
Darkness Rising is available as an e-book on Amazon at http://amzn.to/DarknessRising or http://amzn.to/DarknessRisingUK
It is soon to be released as a print edition via Fantasy Island Book Publishing.
My blogs are http://rossmkitson.blogspot.co.uk and http://mouseroar.blogspot.co.uk
Thanks again for this opportunity