Stephen Watkins over at The Undiscovered Author began unpacking some thoughts on cliche and tropes in fantasy, specifically Post-Tolkien Fantasy. These are powerful players in the realm of fantasy, and he has some interesting thoughts on the matter. As is the wonderful occurrence that happens in the meeting of minds, his thoughts have served as a catalyst to my own.
Before I begin, I want to address a subtle but important difference when regarding the terms. For those less familiar, a trope is a commonly recurring motif or device in literature, it is often associated with being cliche. A quick, general definition for cliche is “anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse” (Dictionary.com) It is often associated with stereotype. These are general definitions and therefore they are relative to specific context. There are tropes that are specific to a genre such as the presence of elves and dwarves in Fantasy, and there are tropes that are more specific to life in general. It is the latter of these that I have in mind today.
Stereotype. Cliche. Trope. I seldom see these words in a positive light. Yet they exist because they contain more than a hint of truth. There is a reason that the same ideas persist in art throughout history. Art reflects life. I believe the great danger of cliche and trope lie not in the truths they possess, but in disregarding the waters that lie beneath. Of necessity, these things are shallow. They exist to make deeper concepts more accessible. They help us to categorize and generalize truths behind very complex issues. So it stands to reason that if we use them without delving into the unique circumstances that make them true in our worlds, we will create work that is as shallow as the generalizations it is based on. It will be true, but it will lack a sense of reason behind its truth.
One simple reason for shallow story is laziness. It takes time and effort to get beyond the cliche to understand why it is true in this story and how it plays out in the complexities of a living, breathing story. However, I believe there is another reason for a shallow story, and it is the reason for this post. I believe that another source for a shallow story is a shallow life. This touches the idea behind [My]Cube. You’ve often heard the phrase, “think outside the box”. That particular box is an aggregate of the average, but as individuals we cannot think outside of our own personal box. Our box is the sum of our life’s knowledge, wisdom and experience. We create from the contents of that box. The question then becomes, what are you filling your box with?
If our lives are shallow, filled with nothing but the cliches, stereotypes and tropes of others, even when skillfully presented, then our creations will also be shallow. As an example, if the extent of my experience with Fantasy is an idolization of Tolkien, then I am not very likely to get beyond emulation to creation. My work will be more like a forged signature. His work was powerful because it was an expression of the depth of his life and his passions. So I close by asking a question I must also ask myself.
Are you actually living a full life? Are you the one making the stories and growing, or are you only feeding off of others?
It’s time we stepped up to the plate and lived! We will get out what we put in, and truth uncovered in life can never truly be cliche… even if its a cliche.