Thursday, July 30, 2009

Romancing the Cliche

I've done a lot of browsing lately over at TV Tropes, and it's interesting to see how many different ways all sorts of incredibly common tropes get used. Possibly the biggest eye-opener is how much really good fiction uses the exact same worn out old cliches everything else does, proving that it's not the package, it's what you do with it.

In the same vein, Diana Wynne Jones The Tough Guide to Fantasyland takes apart the fantasy cliches everyone has seen - but an awful lot of those self-same cliches can be found in the great books. Terry Pratchett - you can stop rolling your eyes, they gather far too much dust that way - has sold ridiculous numbers of books that use (and usually skewer) any number of the cliches. Interesting Times has a wonderful collection of them, including the barbarian horde, the inscrutable oriental, the innocent abroad ('innocent' in this case should be taken with a grain of salt, since we're taking about Rincewind) and much, much more. What Jingo does to political machinations, the ugly cross-dressing male, and any excuse for a war has to be seen to be believed.

What stories have you enjoyed that used one of the old standards in a fresh and interesting way? And on the flip side, what are some examples of recycling the cliches and beating out whatever life they still have?

p.s. Tolkein does not count. He pretty much pioneered the multi-racial group of mismatched questers battling existential evil.

8 comments:

C Kelsey said...

Lucy's Blade must come to mind for this one. In this case the hero(ine)

-- does anybody else kind of twitch when they write "heroine" by the way? I always think, "no! I'm talking about a person, not a drug!--

Anyhow, the hero's role in the story goes to a a female but the setting is a time where females are not expected(perhaps "allowed" is a better word) to be the hero.

There are two ways of looking at this (IMO). A) The author has turned the "big dude with a sword who goes around killing things and saving the universe" trope on its head by simply substituting the opposite gender in a time where such a thing is unlikely or, B) He's using what is now a classic trope of having a female do the same thing.

Either way, the result was a historical fantasy that was a darned good read. More importantly, Lucy felt natural in the role.

Teddy said...

I am reminded of a line from TV's "Stargate SG-1" in which a civilian who knows *way* too much abou thte program has become a TV producer with a shoow too much like the actual antics of the SG-1 team.

Aside from being a send-up of SG-1's own use of 'tropes, there is a great sequence (paraphrased) about how it is excusable for the writers to abuse a 'trope by "hanging a lantern on it". In essence, by acknowledging the 'trope or cliche, the writers think that the viewers will be able to excuse it.

What made the show so much fun to watch was their attempt to skewer themselves and their own industry by pointing out the absurdity of formulaic TV SF.

I think David Gerrold summed up the cliche's of episodic TV very well in his "making of..." book about Star Trek book. The standard 'trope is "The Hero has a dlimemma, and must solve it without loss of face, morals or life (his own or his companions)within 50 minutes. The Deus Ex Machina - be it transporter, time leap, or stargate - provides a way to get the Hero *into* trouble quickly, but a good story is characterized by the Hero using his wits to get out of trouble *without* resorting to the D.E.M.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good point, Teddy, I like David Gerrold's explanation of episodic TV.

I'll never forget one line I read in a Terry Pratchett book. There were demons trying to get through to our world because, paraphrasing 'our world was the demonic equivalent of close to schools and public transport.'

Ahh, TP -- why do I even bother to write?

Kate said...

Chris,

That's a good point about Lucy's Blade. Most of the good uses of standard tropes do twist on several levels at once.

And yeah, I know what you mean about "heroine". That last 'e' is very important, since while heroines can be addictive, they don't usually cause death by overdose.

Kate said...

Teddy,

Lampshading is overdone in some shows, in my (not at all) humble opinion. Done well, it can be brilliant. Done badly it comes across as self-referentially twee.

Gerrold has it 100% right - if some tech macguffin or Deus Ex ends up fixing it all, the reader or viewer is cheated, but they make a heck of a fun way to get the hero into trouble in the first place.

Kate said...

Rowena,

Absolutely. Pratchett always leaves me caught between "if I could only be half that good" and "why do I even bother?"

There's also his wonderful riff on heroines in The Light Fantastic, which runs more or less like "the hero was a heroine. A red-headed one." then goes on for a bit about how the writer usually starts going on about leather, and curves, and possibly even buxom, and then he has to go take a cold shower and have a nice lie down, admits that said heroine would have been "quite stunning after a long bath and the pick of the racks at Lee Hung Woo's Oriental Exotica" (I think. I may not remember right), and adds that she was currently wearing a tunic, pants, chain mail, and boots. Oh, all right, the boots can be leather if you like. But not black.

Is that not the epitome of cliche-busting and lampshading and breaking the fourth wall all in one neat package?

Dave Freer said...

clenches teeth - no I will not name it. It comes when it hears you calling.

Seriously the cliche IS a cliche because it works, no?

Kate said...

Dave,

Indeed it is. It doesn't take long for something that works to get overused to the point of being cliched to death, either.