One of the problems of writing in any genre is that editors, publishers, and long-term readers have seen it all before. Experienced writers worry about keeping their ideas fresh and vaguely unique, while newbies often fall into the dreaded cliché trap.
But is the cliché really such a dire fictional faux pas? Parody writers make a lot of money out of clichés and stereotypes, but we wouldn’t find their work nearly as funny without the existence of clichéd material in the first place.
It was while I was reading the excellently tongue-in-cheek Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones that I really began to think about the positive side of clichés in fiction, and in fantasy in particular.
Orson Scott Card summed up a fundamental tenet of magic use in fantasy: that magic should always have a price or consequence. It’s a cliché, yes, but I don’t think many writers would ditch such a valuable principle if it will prove detrimental to the story. If you’re going to drop an established convention of your genre do it because of your plot, not because you’re trying to guess what an agent/publisher/reader will find old hat.
Moving too far from accepted standards of a genre in your quest for uniqueness could have two consequences: you could invent an entirely new (sub)genre and be famous forever as the pioneer of your brand, or you may face rejection simply because publishers don’t know what to do with you and can’t be bothered to figure it out.
A cliché can still work well if it’s properly thought out and used for a real purpose rather than being added for embellishment because every book the writer reads uses the same concept. If you know what you’re doing, do it with pride.
Have you used a cliché to good effect in your work? Or have you read a book with an old idea that’s been done really well?
Read the rest of Elsa Neal's review of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland at HearWriteNow.com. Visit her website for more articles to improve your writing craft. Read her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog. Elle is based in Melbourne, Australia.