So, have you ever really considered this question? If I asked you to give me an example and explain why it’s a cliche, could you?
Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of the word:
A cliché or cliche is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.
Archetype is another word you often see cropping up in fantasy-related discussions:
An archetype is a universally understood symbol, term, or pattern of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated. Archetypes are often used in myths and storytelling across different cultures. Archetype refers to a generic version of a personality. In this sense, “mother figure” may be considered an archetype, and may be identified in various characters with otherwise distinct (non-generic) personalities.
Here’s a list of classic fantasy cliches and archetypes:
- The quest story
- Stupid barbarians/old wizards
- An object that holds the power to destroy great evil
- Evil without a reason
- Orcs, elves, dwarves, dragons, etc.
- The chosen one/orphan
- Lack of strong females
- Drawn out fights
- Characters who never get injured in battle
- Unpronounceable names
- Invented language systems
So, if we think logically, if we invert those cliches, we should get some pretty original stuff, right?
- Smart barbarians/young wizards
- Evil with a reason
- No fantasy species, only humans
- Lots of strong females
- Short, bloody fights
- Protagonist frequently injured
- Realistic names
Yeah… the problem is, a lot of those have been done to death too. Sometimes badly, sometimes well.
How do we be original?
The trick is, taking a cliche or archetype and tweaking it very slightly. It’s a really nice psychological ruse. Just have a think about all your favourite stories/games/movies – do you know how they tweaked a stereotype or overused idea? Here’s a few ways in which a small change can have a big effect:
- A young boy is destined to defeat a great evil, but he doesn’t discover this until he has grown older. Now a middle-aged wizard, he must fulfill is true purpose.
- A stupid barbarian and a clever thief – a classic team, right? Not this time. The barbarian is a master thief in disguise and uses his deception to confidence trick others.
- Elves, orcs and dwarves dominate the surface world. Humanity dwindles. But now it has a chance. Empowered by a powerful wizard, humans acquire potent new abilities and take the fight to their sadistic oppressors.
Even just taking a story like Star Wars and swapping out Luke Skywalker for an advanced servant droid who is destined to defeat the Empire, the whole dynamic of the story changes. How will he interact with C-3PO and R2-D2? Will he fight for more rights for droids in the galaxy? Will he see humans as his slavers? We could even have followed Darth Vader as an antihero and it would have made the story entirely different.
What’s the lesson?
You don’t always have to come up with a completely original idea – in fact, I believe there are no truly original ideas and there never were. Nature already beat humanity to all the greatest stories, long before we existed. The key is how to make something feel original by putting your own twist on it and creating intriguing characters.