by Dave Fessenden
As a literary agent specializing in speculative fiction, I get a lot of submissions. And it pains me to see such a large number of manuscripts that are riddled with clichés, copied slavishly from popular fantasy and sci-fi.
Before I go any further, I need to add that I have a grudging affinity for clichés. Every cliché was once an original idea. It may have originated on Noah’s Ark, but it was a brilliant innovation in its time. And the idea was copied specifically because it was so good. I honestly don’t mind a cliché if you try a new twist on it, but most of the time these submissions are totally predictable.
Let me list a few of the clichés I keep seeing in plots and characters:
Cliché #1: Hobbits, dwarves, elves and other mythical creatures
As with most of these clichés, there is nothing wrong with hobbits, dwarves and elves in and of themselves. The problem occurs when details of the plot, characters and action start becoming far too familiar, and it feels like you’re reading Tolkien on one of his bad days. For instance, are there magic rings? Why? Is there a quest to destroy some all-powerful weapon (like a magic ring, for instance)? Why? Why must the story be a mirror image of The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Even Tolkien didn’t do that — look at his stories outside the LotR saga.
Among some speculative fiction fans, the LotR worldview has become something of a canon, with the unspoken rule that the “little people” in any fantasy must look, act and speak like Tolkien’s characters. What nonsense! Admittedly, though, Tolkien’s hobbit “culture” is attractive. It grows out of his deep study of European folklore and mythology, so it is a rich and complex universe he has created. But as a realm-maker, you need to create your own universe, and not simply borrow the universe of another writer — not even from a writer as brilliant as Tolkien.
Tolkien himself would be the first to say that a fantasy writer ought to break out of the mold. And one way to break the mold is to do a bit of mythological research yourself, and see where you might put your own twist on the old tales. One mythology that has not been explored much (that I know of) is fairies — not the sugary-sweet Disney portrayal, but the more sinister stories, where these beings do abominable things like stealing a newborn baby and carrying it away to their lair. (Update: Aaron Gansky tells me that fairy fiction is becoming increasingly popular, though in the general market more than the Christian market. “It’s almost portal fiction with fairies as I understand it,” Aaron says. “They talk about this quite a bit on Writing Excuses.”)
Ho-hum, it’s Star Wars all over again. And needless to say, the rebels are also on a quest to destroy some all-powerful weapon. (George Lucas is not above recycling some clichés himself!) And the idealistic young rebel teams up with a wise-cracking, cynical adventurer to rescue the beautiful princess. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before!)
Interestingly, the Star Wars saga could just as easily be set in Ancient Rome, present-day Wall Street, etc. The science fiction has little connection to the storyline. (Compare this to Star Trek, where the technology is integral to the plot — in fact, sometimes it practically is the plot!) For this reason, the Star Wars clichés transcend the sci-fi genre to find their way into other fiction.
Cliché #3: A young, gifted hero or heroine is exploited in a dystopian future
And of course, the cliché here is drawn from The Hunger Games. Why, I wonder, is the future always presented as dystopian? Rather pessimistic, isn’t it? And why, also, must the society always be so unfailingly repressive, so Nazi-like in its approach? (Not to mention that the prevailing regime usually expends way too much energy repressing freedom, all the while being completely oblivious to the fact that they have so little to show for it.)
I’ve seen an interesting twist on this with novels set in what is described as a dystopian present or past. Certainly there is enough tribulation in the past and present to go around!
One of my clients has a story set in a very regimented future, but where (at least on the surface) the powers-that-be are not really repressive, but more benignly paternalistic. It was enough of a break from the cliché to give the story a real freshness.
So that’s the solution to the problem of clichés, which I suggested at the start of this post: put a new twist on the formula. Turn a tired story element on its head; mix genres and ideas. The author of the Twilight saga just put fangs on Romeo and Juliet. Star Wars merged sci-fi with mysticism.
Such mergers and intermixing of discordant elements can be the basis for comedic farce (for example, Amish Vampires in Space). But it doesn’t always have to be an ironic twist; it doesn’t have to be a parody. It just has to take the concept in a new and different direction.
David E. Fessenden is a literary agent with WordWise Media Services and an independent publishing consultant. He has degrees in journalism and theology, and over 30 years of experience in writing and editing. He has served in editorial management positions for Christian book publishers and was regional editor for the largest Protestant weekly newspaper in the country.
Dave has published seven books, written hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, and edited numerous books. He is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences. Two of his books, Writing the Christian Nonfiction Book: Concept to Contract and A Christian Writer’s Guide to the Book Proposal, are based on his experience in Christian publishing. The Case of the Exploding Speakeasy, Dave’s first novel, reflects his love for history and for the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan-Doyle.