Thursday, 3 April 2008

Scott Lynch on fantasy clichés

Scott Lynch, author of The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, has written an article in which he examines the worst fantasy clichés and why they get used time and time again.

This is the article in its entirety, taken from the Spectra Pulse facebook page:

In an improbably comfy castle with more stained glass than the set of an Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera, a former potato farmer fulfills a divine prophecy, as he takes up the crown that would have been his had he not been spirited away at birth. Strewn in his wake are the corpses of the Dark Lord and the Dark Lord’s Moderately Threatening But Intermittently Competent Minions. Looking on from the wings are the heroic potato farmer’s stalwart companions, the wisecracking thief with a heart of gold and the plucky highland lass who shares a telepathic bond with a cute but lethal woodland creature. You can tell what sort of science fiction and fantasy reader you are by your reaction to all of this; by now, chances are you’re either vomiting your central nervous system into a bucket or preparing to feed me money with a shovel.

Such is the power of cliché! The power to compel . . . and the power to repulse.

Few things in SF/F are more subject to knee-jerk critical scorn than the stock characters and plot elements that form what you might call the genre’s “core clichés,” the utterly unkillable chestnuts that claw their way into story after story, year after year. Disinherited nobles, world-destroying dread lords, magic swords, prophecies, chosen ones, charming scoundrels, bug-eyed monsters. They’ll all be going strong when everyone reading this article has long since turned into fertilizer. Yet only those unfamiliar with my work should be surprised to learn that I really have absolutely nothing against them. In fact, I find some of them downright irresistible.

Clichés can only become clichés if they work, if they strike a chord in a relatively broad audience time and time again. In the grand evolutionary cycle of the SF/F narrative, clichés are like sharks--ideas so robust and effective that they survive indefinitely with their essential nature more or less unchanged.

Authors are often accused of laziness merely for using clichés in their work, but I’ve come to find that accusation rather obtuse. We don’t all pile clichés into our work because we’re lazy. We pile them in because, once having encountered them as readers, they fascinate us. We then burn with the urge (in some cases for years or decades of deep obsession) to apply our particular spin to the objects of those fascinations, and to make them seem new again. This is mirrored in the tastes of those readers that can never get enough of something that tickles their fancy, be it swashbuckling rogues or palace intrigue or the Hero’s Journey. The urge to chase favorite clichés from book to book is no lazier or more shameful than a preference for one kind of wine over another. Clichés are just objects. Considered strictly by themselves, they are morally neutral. They are tools waiting to be put to a use.

Therein lies the real secret of dividing good clichés from bad clichés. In fiction, execution trumps everything. Clichés cannot survive to become (in)famous without continual, skillful, and passionate reinvention. Likewise, they can’t acquire the power to repel unless they’re used time and time again in a thoughtless and turgid fashion. So you see, the worst clichés in SF/F can be anything, anything at all, whenever those clichés are used without flair or novelty, to undermine the importance of character decisions, to short-circuit genuine psychological insight, and to take the place of more difficult literary concerns such as plot, character, and having a damn point.

Consider the recurring cliché of the Chosen One, the Hero of Prophecy. This one goes so far down into the wellspring of human myth and psychology that you could spend a whole career exploring it and never come up dry. But when used without examination and without care, it becomes the most obvious crutch for slipshod narrative in literary history. When you can simply toss confrontations and climaxes onto the page In Accordance With Prophecy (in other words, whenever the author bloody well pleases), you can entirely subvert the need to have a plot at all. Unlike those poor characters in other books that are forced to actually think their way to the last page, and to make decisions that bring them into conflict with the consequences of other decisions, a lazy prophecy abuser can just kill chapter after chapter doing whatever they please until the final epic set-piece falls out of the sky and lands on them. Isn’t it nice how villains are always showing up in the oddest places for climactic duels when there are only ten or fifteen pages left to go? The fact that it’s Destiny! (capitalization and exclamation point always implied) excuses them from any need to have a plausible motivation for being there.

Another frequent medalist in the Misused Cliché Olympics is the Powerful Yet Mysterious Mentor, the character that traditionally provides or assists what Joseph Campbell names “the call to adventure” in his diagram of the universal Hero’s Journey. This character exists to clue the hero in to the whys and wherefores of their situation, to describe the opposition they face, and to help them unlock whatever powers or skills they might need for the coming struggle. But there is a fine line between the useful and the ridiculous, and SF/F is replete with mysterious mentor figures who refuse to unleash their vast cosmic powers or universal knowledge simply because their authors are cheating slouches. How many times must heroes plead to be given necessary information concerning their parentage, their enemies, and their destinies, only to be told that “the time is not yet right” or “they are not ready?” Not yet right, my posterior. Nine times out of ten, if a Mysterious Mentor bites their tongue, it’s because the book would be over in about ten pages if they spilled the beans. And don’t even get me started on Mysterious Mentors who possess the power to blast planets into atoms with a single fart, yet spend all their time wandering in the woods or being uselessly cryptic to the hero when they could just go deal with (Insert Dire Threat to All That is Bright and Wholesome Here) themselves and be back in time for a three-martini lunch. The desire to have it both ways with this sort of character, to withhold vital information or prevent obvious action for the transparent purpose of prolonging a flimsy plot, kills plausibility dead. J.R.R. Tolkien, in The Fellowship of the Ring, took great care in giving Gandalf a variety of solidly defined reasons, all but one of them purely psychological, as to why he let the One Ring languish in the Shire for many quiet decades rather than throwing it into the sea on general principle. It bemuses me that so many authors trying to emulate the Gandalf Mystique keep missing the fact that Gandalf’s author cared enough to provide him with a detailed set of motives for his behavior. Such motives, properly revealed, can allow the character to sit on as much information as the author likes without appearing to sit on it for the crass purpose of extending the page count.

And there you see how fine the balance point between thoughtful interpretation and ghastly regurgitation can be. The truth is that there are no bad clichés--only badly considered and badly applied ones. And yet, even if they can be said to exist in woeful abundance, then at least they help to make each instance of genuine novelty and reinvention in our genre all the more noteworthy and invigorating by contrast.

I like the fact that Lynch manages to discuss these clichés without being snooty about them, admitting that he actually finds many of them interesting.

Furthermore, I think he makes a key point when he suggests that there are no bad clichés - only badly applied ones. This is an argument backed up by the work of Joe Abercrombie, who takes pretty much every cliché and then twists them around to deliver a story that is fresh and engrossing despite making use of such well-trodden tropes.


T.D. Newton said...

It's weird sometimes when I look at my still-being-written novel and notice the cliche's I've included in it completely by accident. There are a lot of adages that can be applied, like when you want to pound a nail you use a hammer rather than finding the most creative route you can to getting the nail into the board while avoiding any reference or thought regarding a hammer. There's also something to be said for the lather-rinse-repeat approach of some fiction in existence, most of which only unintentionally "copies" everything going on around it because we writers only have so many bullets we can fire. It's fun finding the balance in between so I let everything come out as is and know I will try to fix it later, if indeed it needs fixing. Great post.

J.G. Thomas said...

I think many tropes sneak into your work without you even realising. The first fantasy material I ever wrote included the whole dark-lord-rising scenario and also the whole young-villager-finds-out-he's-descended-from-royalty gig. It was woeful.

But I like Lynch's point that we shouldn't aim to avoid these tropes, just try and use them more objectively.