This morning I managed not to put my contact lenses in backwards again, so today is going better than yesterday. I also got to do a bit of editing and proofreading last night, which for some reason I find pleasant and relaxing. (Yes, I’m a sick individual; I like to correct other writers’ punctuation and sentence structure and whatnot. Luckily, I’m very good at it.) Now I’m ready to go on a rant that isn’t about my own writing specifically.
I wish more people knew the difference between a cliché and a trope, between a stereotype and an archetype. I see unutterably stupid comments sometimes such as, “A female main character — how cliché!” or “Spaceships in syfy have been done before — think of something original.” (And yes, some of these people really do spell the shortened term for science fiction that way, because they don’t know any better. Almost makes me long for the zombie apocalypse…)
Looking through The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam again (I really wish they’d make one for science fiction, too), I still agree with most of the items on the checklist being things to avoid, but since when is it automatically bad writing to have elves in a fantasy novel? Yes, it would be bad writing to have such people be badly done imitations of Tolkien’s Elves — or worse yet, of Dungeons & Dragons elves — but they don’t have to be done badly.
As far as I can tell, the comment about female protagonists being cliché probably comes from an assumption that the author chose to do that out of some desire to be trendy — “All the popular books have female main characters, so I’ll do that, too!” — rather than a simple decision to go with whatever works best for the story.
As for space travel in science fiction being a cliché… This is a clear case of someone with a little knowledge out to prove to the Ignorant Masses that, since she heard the term cliché in high school English class once, she is qualified to point out each and every example of Bad Writing(tm) committed by a science fiction author… which, in her opinion, includes each and every science fiction story ever written. “It’s ALL clichés! Syfy is either set in the future or in space or in some alternate reality, and it’s all been done before. Clichés! Bad Writing! When will these syfy people learn to think and write something set in the real world right now with no freaky technology or aliens or stuff?”
The answer is simple: That wouldn’t be science fiction. (You’ll notice that no one asks, “Why can’t those romance writers do something original like write a story where no one falls in love?”) While science fiction is notoriously difficult to define — Damon Knight’s ‘It’s what I point to when I say science fiction‘ is probably the most accurate definition out there — there are certain elements that contribute to a work of fiction fitting the genre, and a complete lack of any of those elements isn’t new and original sci-fi; it’s something outside the genre.
Sorry; I often go nonverbal when I’m upset or confused, and I’m having a bit of trouble articulating what I want to say here. I cannot wrap my brain around a way of thinking that says ‘Anything ever done by anyone at any time is a cliché and a rip-off and just bad writing.’ Hey, how about this: Story written in a language that readers know? Cliché! Story written using real words instead of made-up jumbles of letters? Cliché! It’s all been done before…
There’s a great website called Speculative Fiction Tropes (they avoid the “Is it sci-fi or fantasy?” issue entirely by using an umbrella term), and although it’s a subset of a site discussing television tropes specifically, this part deals a lot with written works as well. (Be warned: Go here, and you’ll lose several hours of your life to reading, and following links to even more interesting stuff.) The part of the site that’s relevant to today’s rant is the definition of trope vs. cliché:
“Cliches are a priori bad; trite and overused. What is described below is merely a list of Tropes, which are neither good nor bad.”
“Tropes are just tools. Writers understand tropes and use them to control audience expectations either by using them straight or subverting them, to convey things to the audience quickly without saying them.”
Even in a massive tome of a novel, there’s not enough room to describe everything, nor should the author attempt to do so. A kind of shorthand must be used at times, to imply rather than spell out.
Maybe next time I’ll explain the irony of saying “Never use adverbs!” 🙂