Sunday, January 8, 2012

Avoid Cliches Like the Plague

Avoid Clichés Like the Plague by S. Evan Townsend

I once wrote out ten basic rules of writing. Number 10 was: "Avoid clichés like the plague." That is both clichés of phrase (such as "avoid it like the plague") and clichés of plot, background, and characters. We've all read Tolkien (haven't we?). How much epic fantasy has been written since The Lord of the Rings? A lot, I suspect. So the elves and the dwarfs and orcs and the swords and sorcery have been used and over used. If you want to write Epic Fantasy you need to read a lot of epic fantasy so you know which clichés to avoid.

When I wrote Agent of Artifice I wanted to avoid those clichés as much as possible yet also give a bit of homage to epic fantasy. What is the most clichéd conflict in epic fantasy? It's the orc versus the wizard. Or the warrior versus the wizard. Having orcs in 1963 America seemed a little unlikely so I went with the warrior. And, of course, the warrior wouldn't be wearing chainmail and have a broadsword and a shield. No, he'd be wearing a suit, narrow tie, and carrying a submachine gun. I joked to anyone who would listen that the novel wasn't "Sword and Sorcery" but "Machineguns and Magic."

However, I have a confession. I don't read a lot of fantasy, neither epic nor urban norGod save usparanormal romance (I've also joked that Agent of Artifice is "100% vampire free"). No, I read science fiction and old science fiction at that. I've read a little fantasy (i.e., Tolkien) but it's not a genre I generally enjoy. So how did I end up writing an urban fantasy? It started with an idea.

Sometimes I just sit and write for the fun and exercise of it. For example, once I put a friend and myself in a car chase and shoot-out in downtown Seattle (on a Saturday morning so traffic was light). It's nothing I'd ever be able to sell but it was fun to write. One day I started writing a story set in the near future about a man on the run. He gets into a non-descript motel room with his gun and his bag, checks to make sure no one is hiding in the room to ambush him, locks the doors and windows, and puts a secure spell on the door. I remember typing that and thinking "where did that come from?" But from there grew the background of the "adepts" (I didn't want to call them "wizards") and the universe in which Agent of Artifice is set. I also had to think of a term adepts would use for ordinary folk. I'd heard "mundane" or "'dane" used when I talked to people who read that kind of stuff and I wanted to avoid that cliché. (J. K. Rowling solved that by making up the word "muggle.") I decided, since my adepts were rather arrogant and looked down on those without their powers, I would use "lessers." (My spell check hates that word.)

That was the situation: I don't read a lot of fantasy and I was planning on writing one set in the twentieth century with guns, cars, T.V. and the political situation of the Cold War. While Agent of Artifice does have a classic clash between a well-armed warrior and the hero adept (the wizard), it also puts my hero in a lot of situations I doubt would be found in epic fantasy or even most urban fantasy. He not only invades Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, but he fights a fire-breathing pterodactyl at Seattle's Space Needle.

I think I managed to avoid clichés.

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Twitter: @SEvanTownsend



Agent of Artifice:

Hammer of Thor:

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  1. This post first appeared in my mail mid-morning Monday [9th] so I thought I'd scribble a few words at once in case you were wondering why 24 hours have passed with no comments ...
    Avoiding clichés isn't a problem restricted to 'fantasy' writing, though I have to agree with you, it's probably a BIGGER problem in that particular genre.
    I can understand Clichés becoming a problem (a convenience, a temptation, a "cop-out"??? Click on most appropriate term ...) when writing something with a 'future/futuristic' setting. This is the most likely reason I haven't (yet!) attempted to write anything of this nature!
    Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this!
    Paul McD [WP 'newby']

  2. Interesting post. Cliches do have a way of sneaking into your writing.

  3. Excellent write-up! I will have to keep that in mind as I write. I have not read a lot in the past and I feel that is a good thing when it comes to this topic.