It’s Not A Cliché… Yet: a World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel

Panelists: Glen Cook, Carole Nelson Douglas, Eric Flint, Diana Gill, L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (moderator)

What it was supposed to be about, according to the program book: Pirates and Arthur are fantasy clichés, as are dragons. What about Nazis, dinosaurs, ninjas, and talking gorillas? Do elements of such ideas exclude them from frequent use in fantasy, preserving them from becoming clichés? Or is it only a matter of time?

What it was really about:

What does it take for something to become a cliche?

L. E. Modesitt, the moderator, asks the panelists: Does everything that’s overused become a cliche, or does it have to have a sort of uniqueness to become a cliche?

Diana Gill. Nobody makes a cliche about something that’s not interesting to start with. There are no cliches about waking up and brushing your teeth in the morning, because it’s too mundane. [A cliche starts out as something people want to hear about.] Then a cliche becomes something everyone knows about. When students first read Shakespeare, they go, OMG, he’s using all those cliches! Yeah, but they weren’t cliches when he wrote it.

Eric Flint. When my daughter read Lord Of The Rings, she said it seemed awfully derivative!

Glen Cook. [In one panel] a young man stood up in the back and said, Tolkien was good, but very slow, and a complete derivative of Terry Brooks. (Everybody laughs.)

The panelists, unasked, offer advice on how to avoid cliches.

Carole Nelson Douglas thinks an effective way to avoid cliches is to blend genres. “I always find a genre gets narrowed, establishes the cliches, and [to work around them, I bend the genre, such as, for example, in my] fantasy detective series. That’s definitely the kind of thing that makes things fresh.”

What fantasy cliche is the most annoying?

L. E. Modesitt asks panelists: What fantasy cliche annoys you the most?

Eric Flint. That’s easy. Elves. I hate them. I always hated them. I hated them when they were in Tolkien. If they are so damn perfect, why are they dying out? [You can be an elf-person or a dwarf-person, and] I’m a dwarf person.

L. E. Modesitt. I’m somewhat prejudiced against dragons. Also because I’m an economist, and I can’t figure out any culture in which economically and energy-wise dragons would work. They are so damn big! Anything that big takes a huge amount of energy. Besides, to support themselves on their wings they would have to have wings half a mile span, or else to be made of balsa wood.

Eric Flint (left) and L. E. Modesitt.

EF and LEM at the World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel on cliches in fantasy
CIMG4238 Eric Flint (left) and L. E. Modesitt on the It’s Not A Cliché… Yet panel

Diana Gill. I hate spunky heroines. I want something besides “she’s spunky, she’s sassy, she’s tough, she can quip like Buffy”. Just because a girl can throw a punch, it’s not a characteristic. It’s a skill you learn with practice.

Carole Nelson Douglas. It’s interesting, my [science-?]fictional journey has started in other genres. I was always motivated by the wimpy female protagonists. [One of the protagonists in my mystery series] is 5’0″, petite, high heel-wearing, [amateur?] detective, because there were too many 6 foot tall, tough-as-nails woman detectives that were punching out guys, and I didn’t think it was real.

Glen Cook. One thing that irritated me was unicorns. Virgin-loving unicorns. The only time I used unicorns, they were carnivorous pack animals. Kind of like wolverines on steroids. If they ran into a virgin, there would be nothing left of her.

Diana Gill. What works for me the most is, you can take any cliche and make it work. If the story is strong enough, it really can work. An agent sent me a proposal for a manuscript. It was about Latino vampire detective. I thought you’ve got to be kidding. This is insane. And then I read the first two lines, and thought, I’m buying this!

Is it always necessary to try to avoid cliches? Can they be used deliberately?

L. E. Modesitt. Is there really a time to deliberately use a cliche? If so, when and how?

Carole Nelson Douglas. I had an anti-butch female amateur detective. She appeared with a 5’10”, no-nonsense woman, a homicide detective. I played out [a cliche appearing in] every traditional PI novel. The PI knows somebody in the police who’s a sidekick or an ally. I wanted to play it out with women. That’s why I made one woman so tall, and one so short and feminine. It was fascinating to take this kind of old buddy-antagonist-ally thing and do it with women. It was a deliberate use. I took a male cliche and feminized it.

Eric Flint. It’s hard to… you can make a mistake of going so far out of the way to avoid a cliche, that you come up with a character that’s kind of silly. There are reason for cliches.

If someone writes a good story, they can get away with incredible amount. The prose can be clunky. Andre Norton’s prose was never particularly good. Doesn’t matter: she told a good story. But if the story isn’t good, then trying to salvage it by avoiding cliches isn’t going to do it any good.

Diana Gill. Trying to avoid the cliches is sometimes like trying to avoid “he said, she said”. [It sounds artificial when a writer tries to substitute it with “he exclaimed, she retorted”. It quickly starts to grate against the reader’s ear.] People don’t notice “he said, she said”. Like Eric said, if a story is good, cliches are OK.

Glen Cook. Cliches are very useful shorthand. You can say “faster than light travel” [and everybody will know what you are talking about]. It’s a cliche, but it’s good, because you don’t have to spend 25 pages explaining how it works. It’s an agreement between you and the reader.

Left to right: Diana Gill, Carole Nelson Douglas and Glen Cook

DG, CND and GC at the World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel on cliches in fantasy
CIMG4237 Left to right: Diana Gill, Carole Nelson Douglas and Glen Cook on the It’s Not A Cliché… Yet panel

L. E. Modesitt. That raises an interesting question. Faster than light travel is becoming a cliche. But the question I always ask when I’m reading it, how do you get there? [Some people think it may be possible to travel faster-than-light through Hawking wormholes. But the problem is that] you can’t do it in the solar system. You have to get to where you can use it. And it may turn out that it will take you longer to get to where you can use it, than travel between systems.

(I’m not sure if I understood this correctly. My interpretation is that in order to use a wormhole for space travel, you first need to create a wormhole whose other end would be at the point where you want to travel to, and it would be hard to do that without first travelling to that point. So to enable faster-than-light travel to your destination you would first have to travel there in a slower-than-light manner. Another interpretation might be that a presence of a wormhole would distort the space so much that it would be extremely hazardous to create one in the solar system where you live; the only safe place to create it might be so far away from an inhabited star system, that it would take a very long time to get there. But I really don’t know if any of these interpretations was what L. E. Modesitt meant.)

L. E. Modesitt. The danger of a cliche is that [if it is widely accepted,] you may get so used to it that you don’t consider the ramifications of its use.

Eric Flint comes up with another example of a widespread cliche that defies justification.

Eric Flint. You get to SFnal worlds of the future, and it looks like you got into the middle ages. There are kings and nobles and there is no explanation of how this stuff came back. [Once the society is industrialized, there is very little likelihood that it will go back to the feudal stage.] Some authors came up with a reason, but a lot of times there’s no reason, and it drives me nuts.

Another cliche that drives me nuts is mercenaries. There’s got to be an economic reason why mercenaries exist in a society, because in the today’s society there’s not [a reason for them to exist]. You have to think through the social implications as well.

L. E. Modesitt is also bothered by the lack of consideration in fantasy about social structures and how they work.

L. E. Modesitt. I actually got into fantasy as a writer because of somebody else’s idiotic cliche. I’ve writen SF for most of my life, 20 years, before I got into fantasy. At the time one of the things that bugged was… I got blackmailed into writing fantasy in a way. At my very first convention I went to, I was sitting in a room, I was a professional economist, and they threw me on a panel of economics and politics in fantasy.

The moderator asked, what do you think about a way fantasy authors handle economics and politics. I was caught off guard and said the first thing that came to my mind: most of them don’t know squat about anything.

This was my first convention and nobody knew me. There were more than a few mutters from the back of the audience. And I decided at that point that I could write fantasy with a real economic system, and avoid the cliches that bugged the hell out of me.

You can’t have 10000 armed knights running around fighting another 10000 knights, because the economics would not support it. The author who put those 10000 armed knights there is very well known. I don’t think he’s here.

When is a cliche no longer a cliche

L. E. Modesitt asks: when is a cliche no longer a cliche? Are there motives, themes, or plot elements in the literary heritage that are so fundamental to literature that it is impossible to tell a story without them?

(I’m not sure I heard the question correctly.)

Eric Flint. Yeah, there is. I’m trying to figure out how to explain it. It’s very hard to write anything for the western audience that doesn’t presuppose the Bible. And by the way, I’m an atheist, so it’s not a partial statement. It’s very very hard to do. Some things just become part of the culture. [In a way, familiarity with the Bible is as necessary, or more necessary, for enjoying western SF, as familiarity with the concept of faster-than-light travel.]

Eric Flint continued to say that the writer and the reader needs to have common reference points. Such as, for example, an assumption that it may be possible to travel faster than light, as Glen Cook mentioned earlier. However, science fiction may make fewer presuppositions about the common background the reader shares with a world depicted in a story. By its nature, science fiction introduces elements into the story that can’t be part of the reader’s experience.

It’s one of the things that makes science fiction and fantasy tricky, says Eric Flint. “As a mystery writer you don’t have to explain to the reader what’s a policeman, what’s a gun. In SF you have to provide a background, and what makes it manageable [are those elements that are cliches].”

Diana Gill takes this thought even further. “There are no more than 5-6 basic plots. So you can’t really avoid a cliche. [SF being a literature of possibilities, the author has to lay some ground in the form of cliches]. Otherwise there’s nothing.” Without a plot, it becomes a “literary” novel in 600 – 700 pages. (Audience laughs.)

Carole Nelson Douglas reminds us that there are archetypes, common elements in storytelling, that all human cultures have. They surface in the legends of various nations and tribes, however far apart they are from one another geographically, chronologically and culturally. “I was struck by how close Ojibwe Indian legends are to European fairy tales, such as, for example, the three brothers in the quest for a bride.” The particulars differ, but the central quest of each story was almost identical.

It got me wondering: if the fundamental elements of human experience qualify as a cliche, then what is not a cliche? I thought a word cliche has a negative meaning, something akin to a stereotype, a mental shortcut that helps you avoid thinking more deeply about a character or a situation; an oversimplification. But it seems the panelists think a cliche is any plot element or literary device that’s commonly used in fantasy. I guess I wasn’t the only one confused, because a woman in the audience asked this question:

“Is there a difference between a trope and a cliche?”

Eric Flint. “A cliche is a trope done badly.” (Everybody laughs.)

That would be my opinion too, but these panelists did not seem to differentiate between a trope and a cliche.

A guy in the audience wants to talk about a particular science fiction / fantasy cliche he finds especially annoying: a universal translator, or universal comprehension between different cultures. Actually, I wasn’t sure if he equated these things, or if he was actually talking about a universal translator gadget that enabled universal comprehension between two cultures that were alien to one another.

L. E. Modesitt comments that a device enabling total comprehension is impossible. “The problem is that cultural differences arise from different cultural and social conditioning. There’s a difference between intellectual comprehension of someone else’s culture, and emotional understanding. You can take an oriental notion of “face”. You can understand it intellectually, but it’s really hard to comprehend it emotionally, [how deeply it affects that particular culture]. How many of us knows a lot of things intellectually, but can’t get around it. It’s like knowing that smoking causes cancer, but a lot of people still smoke.”

L. E. Modesitt Jr. at the “It’s Not A Cliché… Yet” panel

LEM at the World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel on cliches in fantasy
CIMG4242 L. E. Modesitt on the It’s Not A Cliché… Yet panel

Then again, Carole Nelson Douglas thinks a plot device such as the Universal Translator isn’t necessarily bad: however unrealistic it may be, it can provide a useful shortcut. Things like universal translator gets the author through places where he or she doesn’t want to spend a lot of time explaining.

Carole Nelson Douglas notes that food in fantasy is a cliche-prone area. Since most characters in most fantasy books are traveling, the writer needs to come up not only with means of locomotion, but also to think of how and where the characters obtain food, and how to depict it without long cooking scenes.

(This topic actually came up at the World Fantasy Convention brainstorming session. Several people thought that most fantasy characters followed a diet so unbalanced that it was unclear how it didn’t kill them young, or how they did not at least fall ill with scurvy. The main food staples in medieval fantasy books are bread, cheese and meat, and almost never ever a fruit or vegetable. Apparently the cliche’ate nature of fantasy food has long been acknowledged.)

L. E. Modesitt argues, though, that food can play an important role in fantasy.

L. E. Modesitt. I’m one of those people who does deal with food on the road in his fantasies. Some people had asked me if I’m going to publish a cooking guide [of all the dishes I mention in my novels].

But there is a practical way to deal with it. You simply get one scene of how they handle it on the road, and then just mention that they ate, or they stopped, or what have you. You don’t have to necessarily go to that scene again.

I’m not necessarily enamored by food. But one of the things you have to think about, in a low-tech society, when do people make decisions? Not while they are plowing the field. And not in the middle of the damn battle. People tend to talk about things and undertake the actions, get the motivations of what they’re going to do, at meals. So in fantasy, meal scenes can be important. They can give you insight into individuals.

Cliches are often ridiculed, but don’t readers secretly want them?

L. E. Modesitt. I’m gonna ask another question. This is a nasty one. Do readers and even editors really want a book filled with things that stir the boundaries of cliches? We don’t really want something very different. We don’t want something exactly like the old thing, but we want something real close to the cliche, with just a little twist here and there.

Diana Gill. In terms of a story it depends. Some days you are in the mood for popcorn, and other times for Romaine lettuce. There is a large market for stories that do not require complete shifts of mind.

Glen Cook. Readers for the most part want things they’ve read in the last book. The top 4-5 writers in the commercial fantasy field are still rewriting Tolkien. [And the rewrites are getting much longer.]

Glen Cook in the hallway, talking with readers

GC at the World Fantasy Convention 2006
CIMG4243 Glen Cook in the hallway, talking with readers

Carole Nelson Douglas. And now I’m hearing with Harry Potter that kids are moving on a little, but not by much. They now want Harry Potter.

Diana Gill. From the editor’s standpoint we publish what the audience wants. If you want stuff that’s different, buy stuff that’s different. I would be happy to publish all sorts of stuff that’s mindblowing and different, but I would have to find the audience for it. Why there are so many fantasy trilogies? Because that’s what sells. So if you want something that’s different, buy something that’s different.

Eric Flint. It’s a minefield. I have to be honest: 99% of the time when somebody comes up with something different, it’s crappy. Evolution produces lots of mutants, but very few of them survive. If you avoid cliches, you are adding an extra burden. It can be done sometimes, but it’s very hard.

Is it a problem for an author to invent something so popular, that it does become a cliche?

Then L. E. Modesitt asks a question that most of us aspiring authors can only dream to be asked one day. “As an author, what happens if you invent something so popular, that it does become a cliche?” For example, as was mentioned earlier, a lot of people think of Shakespeare and Tolkien as ridden with cliches, whereas they were the ones who gave birth to them. To that list he adds Anne McCaffrey, who “turned dragons into a cliche”.

Glen Cook. I never thought of myself as a particularly great author, I’m just a shopworker, but I’ve been around enough so that people come up to me and say, man, you’re a great influence of my writing, I think, what’s wrong with you ? (Everybody laughs.) I don’t think I’ve done anything that original, but I do see people starting to imitate some of the things I’ve done. And some of them do it a hell of a lot better than I do.

Carole Nelson Douglas. It’s just amazing to see that you’ve had influence, huh?

Eric Flint. If an author has been around for a long time, and gets a lot published, they get out at least one series that’s very popular, and it becomes your meat and potatoes. You need to be careful not to get focused on it too much, because you’ll burn out. You need to keep doing something new.

L. E. Modesitt. There’s a lot of fan pressure on that. I wrote over 50 novels, but the question people ask is, when is the next Recluce book coming out?

When readers expect political correctness from writers

Another interesting aspect of this discussion is readers expect political correctness from writers. So in a sense readers expect cliches. In an interesting way, those cliches are not necessarily centuries-old; they may be fairly recent. Much has been set about an essentially conservative mindset expressed by traditional / “high” fantasy, but recently readers have been demanding certain stereotypes that rise from liberal sensibilities.

A guy in the audience. Do you find difficult to write politically incorrect characters?

L. E. Modesitt. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I tend to write very strong female characters. It’s a reflection of my background. I’ve been married 3 times, I have 6 daughters, and [all are] very strong women. I don’t think I’ve run in my entire life into a weak-willed woman. One reader wrote to me and complained saying there are no women like he’s writing. Modesitt replied: you haven’t met my daughters! The reader wrote back: they aren’t real people. (Everybody laughs.)

Carole Nelson Douglas. I have a Victorian spinster, and she is the very model of what Victoriana wanted of a woman, and my readers can’t stand to read her. They want something politically correct.

Glen Cook. I often need to point out that people in the 14th century did not think like the democrats in San Francisco in the 20th century.

Disclaimer: Most of this text is not a word-for-word transcription of what the panelists said. I tried to stick as close to the recording as possible, but in most places I had to paraphrase it. Thus, all the grammatical, syntax and style errors are mine, and not the panelists’. In some places entire phrases were put in the angle brackets — those are the places that are more like my guess of what was being said, rather than what was actually been said.