Where That Nebulous Line, Cliche?

My last post on the viability of fantasy has got me thinking about the charge of derivative work and cliche. What is a cliche, and why is it a problem? Already we have struck a problem, because most plot elements which people dismiss as cliches aren’t cliches at all. They’re actually what are known as writing tropes (pronounced tro-PEY).

A trope is a literary or plot convention that allows a story to work or continue. For instance, think how many times you’ve seen this plot device: the Amulet of Concentrated Awesome. This is just what it sounds like; an amulet or object that takes a pathetic (child) hero into a whole new level of power, allowing them to defeat the Big Bad, where in normal circumstances they would be flattened in seconds. Got it? How many times have you seen its sub-trope, the Magic Feather? This trope is where the wise master gives the hero a magical Amulet of Concentrated Awesome, the hero beats the Big Bad, and returns only to learn that the Magic Feather was a placebo and the magic was “in them all along.” That’s not a cliche, just a convenient story form.

I think that fantasy authors, editors and publisher are suffering a failure of nerve. Honestly. They are fleeing the traditional quest fantasy for stranger and stranger work and genre-bender genres like Urban Fantasy and Magical Realism. They complain that they’ve seen it all before. Elves? Dwarves? A quest? Dark Lords? Psh! How unoriginal.

You’ll notice that editors don’t complain that action/adventure books have car chases. Mystery writers aren’t protesting the presence of a mystery in their books. Horror publishers aren’t afraid of a killer/demon dog/monster being present. Erotica publishers aren’t yawning over the presence of sex in their stories. They’re not shaking their heads, saying, “Lord, another erotica book with sex in it! Don’t they know that’s in all of them? What about something original?”

Protesting over the presence of a quest or a Dark Lord in a traditional high fantasy series is absurdity of the same heights. Elves, lost kings, magic objects, and wizards are part of the landscape. They’re like the car chases. They’re what the readers expect, and want. The readers don’t read Tom Clancy expecting something off the wall. They will be confused over the absence of a doomsday bomb or a terrorist plot to kidnap/kill/ransom this or that person. The presence of these sorts of tropes are expected. The reader picks up another action/adventure novel because they want to know, “How is this hero going to find this bomb in time?” They’re looking for new obstacles to an old trope. They don’t pick up yet another mystery wondering if their will be a mystery (let alone complaining about it). They want to know how this new mystery is going to be solved. And the mystery stands or fails on how it executes its mystery, not on the fact that it has one.

It is the same with fantasy. It’s not that there is a Dark Lord, or a wizard or a quest that is the problem. Rather, these are our car chases. Now, what makes this chase different than the last one? That’s the real question.

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