By Gabrielle Massman
“Your story is a bit cliché, don’t you think?”
For a long time, I dreaded I would hear those words. They seemed like the ultimate insult, meaning that anyone could have written my story.
I was obsessed with avoiding clichés. I Googled “fantasy clichés,” and I even posted a list of ten common ones on my blog. I gave the characters in my fantasy world Hebrew-based names—no Norse or Celtic for me. My fantasy nation would not have a monarchy! And heaven help me if I even read a book with a damsel in distress, an evil dragon, and a brave prince.
However, I’ve recently come to a new conclusion about clichés. I think we need them, and uniqueness is grossly overrated. Isn’t the Bible and the entire history of God and humans one big cliché? Kill the dragon; get the girl (Revelation 12:9 and Isaiah 62:4–5).
Tolkien on Clichés
Today, uniqueness and individuality are emphasized heavily. Although sometimes we do need to remember we were specially created and chosen by God, the pressure to be unique is immense and oppressive, especially as authors. Tolkien expresses a similar sentiment in his essay, “On Fairy Stories”:
“It is easy for the student [of writing stories] to feel that with all his labour he is collecting only a few leaves, many of them now torn or decaying, from the countless foliage of the Tree of Tales, with which the Forest of Days is carpeted. It seems vain to add to the litter. Who can design a new leaf? The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colours from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago.”
It is easy to recognize that the stories we’ve written have been told many times before; even if we strive to be original, we still find that our stories are not. Tolkien, however, worried that writers bent on originality would scorn the truth and beauty in old stories and concoct tales that were “clever and heartless.” This is a valid concern nowadays. Anyone can be published on Amazon, and more stories are circulating than ever. Literary agents want high-concept pitches that completely overturn clichés in a single sentence, and as a young writer, finding identity in anomaly is a huge temptation.
Tolkien does not suggest shunning clichés to prevent literary jadedness. Rather, he urges us to refocus on what is real and true:
“We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red… Recovery … is a regaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves.”
How Do Truth and Reality Relate to Clichés?
Clichés are merely stories that have been reduced to a familiar formula that has been passed down for hundreds of years, from man to man and storyteller to storyteller. Clichés linger and last because they are likely to be true, in some form or another.
Why do main characters, particularly in fantasy, tend to be orphans? Perhaps because sinful humans are estranged from God the Father, and we all experience loneliness to some degree. Why are dragons crafty, greedy, and profoundly evil? Perhaps because our enemy is the same. Why are traditional witches beautiful? Why is there always a king? Why a chosen one or lost heir? All of these questions have answers.
Traditional fantasy, the faerie story, reflects a certain essence of the world we live in (if you are like me and detest vague, hippy terms like “essence,” you can substitute “immaterial attributes” instead). The faerie world is where the material reflects the spirit.
A modern fantasy author, Anne Elisabeth Stengl, touches on this idea in her book, Dragonwitch.
“Do you understand, mortal? …We Faerie know it’s the spirit that counts, and all else is malleable. Beauty or ugliness; brawn or frailty; height or lack thereof—these appearances can be exchanged with scarcely a thought! But the truth … now, that’s another issue. The truth of the thing, the person behind what you perceive with any of your paltry five senses… Creature of dust, it’s the truth that counts! And you’ll rarely find more truth than in Faerie tales.”
Dryads are real—not because talking tree people physically exist, but because in a forest we glimpse the dancing of the sunlit leaves, hear the ethereal music in the cool air, and feel the earthly peace.
The concept of immaterial attributes isn’t limited to philosophers and fantasy authors. Examine these verses from the Bible: Psalm 19:1–6, Job 38:7–12, and Job 39:13–18. Then observe a tree and try to deny that there is more to it than science reveals.
Be extremely careful when breaking a fantasy cliché—whether it is making the chosen one not chosen or making your dragons friendly and cute—because you may inadvertently spurn the truth and write a lie. Don’t be afraid to let your writing be a tad cliché. Learn from the stories told to you.
Instead of wondering how you can avoid or break clichés, consider these questions:
- Why does this cliché exist?
- What part of reality is reflected in this cliché?
- Why does this cliché seem trite? What is it missing?
The truths that clichés symbolize have become familiar and lifeless, because we think we have power over clichés and that we fully comprehend them. This is dangerous, because in reality we have little understanding or control over the world around us.
Fantasy is an opportunity to present the truth behind clichés in a new light. As Tolkien says, truly creative fantasy may “open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like caged birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained [by your knowledge and categories], free and wild; no more yours than they were you.”
Don’t worry about being unique or twisting clichés. Instead, seek the truth and portray it in fresh ways.
What is your favorite fantasy cliché? Why are you fond of it? And how would you like to see it treated differently?
Gabrielle Massman is an INTJ teen who loves exploring truth with dragons (AKA a fantasy writer.) She was homeschooled through high school, and now she is studying English Literature at a small Christian college. When she is not working on school, Gabrielle blogs at Write for the King and works toward publishing her fantasy novels. In her spare time, she enjoys studying ancient Hebrew, hunting, competitive swimming, playing with her cat, and role playing.